Starting Your Own RIA Firm

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Many talented professionals some day dream of having their own business. In the financial industry this usually means being the trusted advisor and investor on behalf of individuals and small businesses. The CFA Society Chicago and its Professional Development Advisory Group assembled a panel to offer insights for people who are considering exploring this possibility.  This panel of experts was composed of the following RIA professionals:

Jenifer Aronson, CFA – Ms. Aronson, moderator of the panel, is managing partner with Mosaic Fi, LLC. Ms. Aronson is a member of the Steering Committee for the CFA Women’s Advisory Group. She works with family offices and high net-worth individuals. Prior to Mosaic, Ms. Aronson has over 20 years of experience with Northern Trust and Brinson Partners.

Chris Abraham, CFA – Mr. Abraham is founder of CVA Investment Management. Prior to founding CVA, he held positions at Nuveen Investments, Anderson Tax, Mercer Investment Consulting, Intel Corporation, and Ariel Investments. Mr. Abraham left Ariel to found his own investment firm.

Gautam Dhingra, CFA – Mr. Dhingra founded High Pointe Capital Management. Prior to founding High Pointe he spent most of his career at Hewitt Associates. Mr. Dhingra has served as a Lecturer of Finance at Northwestern, Chairman of CFA Society Chicago, and on the Board of Regents for CFA Institute. Mr. Dhingra left Hewitt to found High Pointe.

Robert Finley, CFA, CFP – Mr. Finley is Principal of Virtue Asset Management. Prior to founding Virtue, he held positions in wealth management at LaSalle Bank and at TIAA-CREF’s Trust Department. Mr. Finley founded Virtue after leaving TIAA-CREF.

GJ King – Mr. King is President of RIA in a Box. Prior to RIA in a Box, Mr. King held positions at Goldman Sachs serving as an advisor to high net worth entrepreneurs, families, and foundations. RIA in a Box currently assists nearly 1,500 RIA’s in helping to overcome the compliance challenges of having your own RIA firm.

Ms. Aronson began the discussion by asking a series of questions of the panel members. Below is a list of those questions and the responses of the panel.

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Why did you start and what was your biggest concern about starting?

The panelists were certain that they could provide a better investing experience for their clients. The people they were recommending on behalf of their employers appeared to add little value. Their corporate jobs were becoming more demanding, but their salaries were not reflecting the added responsibilities. They expressed a fascination with the markets and a drive to obtain upper quartile performance for clients who would put their trust in them.

Their biggest concerns revolved around their families and the fact that they would not have a reliable paycheck for some time.

How did you develop your firm?

Panelists talked about a wide range of service providers that can be utilized. Interviewing managers and hiring the right legal help is critical. It is important to determine what fee structure will be needed given your costs. If you need a Bloomberg machine, that is a significant cost.  You can find firms that can provide all the services you need, or you can parcel it out.

What is a day in the life like?

The panelists stressed that there are two separate but critical roles, marketing and investing.  People with investing talent tend to spend too much time in that role. More time is needed in marketing which means finding potential clients amenable to your sales pitch. You must be able to separate cold leads from warm leads. Traveling is also essential to meet clients and evaluate companies you are thinking of investing in.

What questions should people ask themselves before starting an RIA?

Do you want to be an entrepreneur? You must be motivated to sell and be willing to hustle to accumulate assets. Has your family bought in? The few years will be difficult; can you handle the ups and downs? There is a leap of faith to leave an established firm.

What would you do different?

Look for partners, mentors and advisors, don’t be afraid to engage others. A trusted partner to share the burden would be a valuable asset. Don’t be afraid of compliance, but keep it lean. The client is trying to evaluate if he can trust you, you must be able to show responsible reporting and compliance.

What was your biggest surprise?

Institutions can be more short-sighted than individuals. Retail clients will be more loyal. The ups and downs were tougher than the panelists first thought they would be. People will be more helpful than you think. You must be disciplined in spotting bad deals and being able to say no.

How did you build your book?

The panelists stressed that you must be adept at marketing, or find someone who is. Friends, family, ex-colleagues, and people you have had relationships with over the past five years are potential clients. Walk-ins must be able to find you. How do you differentiate yourself from your competitors? If you have an edge in substance and style they will remember you. Can you get to the point where you can withstand a 50% hit in a bear market?

Current Market & Regulatory Environment

GJ King of RIA in a Box pointed to three regulations that directly impact this industry and that may see significant modification in the near future.

  1. DOL Fiduciary Rule. This rule will require that most advisors must be in a fiduciary role for their client. If implemented this should have little effect on RIA’s, but may be more disruptive to broker/dealers. This rule is facing delay and possible modification.
  2. Repeal of Dodd Frank. Modification may include that funds that previously were required to register with the SEC may be relieved of this burden.
  3. A new Form ADV will be required by October 1st. RIA’s will be required to reveal more about their company.

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Mr. King also spoke briefly about the need for a chief compliance officer (CCO) for every RIA firm. Typically the CCO is also the principal of the company. Companies with over $500 million in assets under management are required to have a full time CCO.

There was a brief Q&A session following the panel’s presentations that touched on the following topics:

  • CFAs are exempt from passing the Series 65 exam in Illinois.
  • Liability insurance is relatively cheap and does make sense.
  • Disgruntled clients can be avoided by doing quality control on prospective clients. Agree up front on what is expected of you.
  • Robo Advisors have not been disruptive to this industry. They have affected the brokerage industry.
  • Although the target market may be 60 years of age or above who have the most accumulated assets who are 60 years of age and above, do not leave their children out of the discussion as they are future clients.
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