Hightower’s Bob Oros Goes Beyond Dealmaking to Emphasize Post-Acquisition Value-Add Solutions for Firm’s RIAs
The rapid consolidation of the RIA space via M&A has gone from intense to white hot over the past several years, with very clear winners and losers in the hunt for deal-driven scale.
But in a landscape where scale is crucial, Hightower stands tall. Since 2019, the firm has grown under a unique strategic vision that emphasizes not just dealmaking, but value-added services and solutions for the RIAs the firm acquires.
Hightower’s emphasis on post-acquisition growth solutions addresses one of the single biggest issues when it comes to dealmaking in the RIA segment: With so much capital chasing a finite number of transactions, RIA acquirers can find themselves at the end of a buying binge with an unwieldy collection of businesses, a mountain of integration challenges to surmount and financial advisors that feel frustrated by the lack of a compelling go-forward plan.
Central to the success of Hightower’s approach in balancing deals and post-deal value-add is Bob Oros, who has served as CEO of Hightower since joining the firm in 2019. Oros joined Hightower after holding senior leadership roles across some of the largest and most well-known enterprises in the wealth management space, such as Fidelity, HD Vest (now part of Avantax Wealth Management) as well as LPL Financial.
Since Oros joined the firm, Hightower partnered with its private equity shareholders at Thomas H. Lee Partners to expand the firm’s capital partners to encompass pedigreed institutional investors like Goldman Sachs, Neuberger Berman and Coller Capital.
At the same time, Oros completed a strategic pivot, taking Hightower from being a “lift out” service specialist to becoming a proven, acquisition-based enterprise with a clear value proposition to stand-alone RIAs with between $1 billion to $8 billion in client assets.
From expanding Hightower’s Investment Solutions & Estate Planning solutions, to launching comprehensive next gen advisor coaching programs such as the Hightower Center for Leadership, Oros has been as much an evangelist for organic and long-term RIA growth as he has been a dealmaker.
The Numbers Validate the Strategy
The numbers would appear to validate the success of this approach:
- Hightower’s assets under management increased 38.6% in 2020 compared to 2019
- Over the past 18 months alone, Hightower has completed 18 M&A deals, or an average of one deal each month, the disruptions of the pandemic during this time period notwithstanding.
- Since the economy began to revive from the worst of the pandemic months in the fourth quarter of last year, Hightower generated grew over 8% organically on an annualized basis – In contrast to broader average industry growth rates of just under 4%.
- In fact, Hightower reached $100 billion in assets under management last month, marking a new milestone of growth for an already fast-expanding firm.
We recently connected with Oros to find out what elements of Hightower’s growth plan have worked especially well, and what’s ahead for the firm as it embarks on its next stage of growth.
WSR: Earlier this summer, Hightower reached more than $100 billion in assets under management – A true milestone, given the company’s 13-year history. What did you do differently since joining the firm in 2019 that helped drive more rapid asset growth?
I walked into a company with world-class advisors. They are client focused and deliver sophisticated advice to their clients. We are growth-minded and while that may seem simplistic on the surface, it is a philosophy that drives our strategy, our acquisitions, our team building, and our core business. Healthy companies create consistent same store sales growth.
We want to work with partners who are dedicated to continuing to grow their own businesses; we do not add partner firms to enable our own growth, but to facilitate and expedite THEIR growth – It is a philosophy built on mutual success, and I think that it has borne fruit.
At the same time, we also continue to invest in core services such as technology, finance, real estate, business management, legal, enterprise risk and human resources support – All activities our partner firms trust us with so that they can focus on high-value, client-focused activities.
We offer business acceleration consulting, M&A, leadership training and a full-service marketing agency to support lead generation. We have also invested in value-added services including investment management consulting and tools (model portfolios, SMAs, equity funds and insurance strategies), as well as Estate Planning resources and a national trust company.
Lastly, we’re focused on both the present and the future: Hightower Center for Leadership, our training program designed to teach next-gen advisors the skills in running a wealth management practice, has graduated over 40 participants to date.
WSR: What would you say to skeptics of the role private equity has played in the wealth management space, especially within the context of Hightower’s experiences with Thomas H. Lee Partners? What are the most important ways in which Thomas H. Lee has supported Hightower’s growth and success in the past two plus years?
I can’t speak to others’ experience, but our partnership with Thomas H. Lee has been a tremendous asset in giving us the resources to build out the structure that is helping our firms succeed – Both human capital and infrastructure solutions.
THL is knowledgeable about the industry; they also trust in the team we’ve put in place to make the right decisions to continue to grow our business. Their investment in Hightower has in turn allowed us to make investments in firms we find exciting, innovative and committed to growth.
Last year, THL gave us an additional vote of confidence with a recapitalization event that allowed our stakeholders to further commit to our mutual success.
From my perspective, our partnership with THL has allowed us to make a significant impact in the industry by offering a powerful value proposition based on teams’ continuing to contribute to their own growth strategies and stay active partners.
WSR: Please describe what your typical “sweet spot” acquisition candidate looks like, quantitatively and qualitatively, and why partnering with Hightower makes sense for such a business.
It starts with leadership. We are focused on finding great leadership teams that run their business with purpose, invest in talent and have an orientation for growth.
First and foremost, it is about organic growth, although in cases where there is a strong fit, we will also look at non-organic growth through sub-mergers.
Firms that have a clear business model, with a succession model encompassing both G2 advisors and G2 clients, are also very appealing to us.
What you don’t hear as key drivers are size or geography, which are both secondary considerations. Ultimately, firms that are a great fit for Hightower see the benefit of prioritizing growth and succession planning, and are open to working collaboratively with our teams.
WSR: How does Hightower continue to create value and growth opportunities for the financial advisors of businesses after they have already been acquired? And how is your approach to supporting post-acquisition growth different from the rest of the wealth management space?
First, we give advisors back the one thing that is most valuable: Their time.
By taking a number of responsibilities away from them, the advisors have more time to focus on serving clients and finding new clients.
Also, we have established a number of resources to support advisor growth—all tied to clear success metrics. Our Hightower Center for Leadership (HTCL) helps our advisors gain the management skills and experience they need to drive organic growth.
One particularly notable subset of HTCL is the Advisor Growth Series, a 20-week program for growth-minded advisors. Through a series of weekly meetings, small group lessons and monthly check-ins and exercises, the program takes Hightower advisors through the steps necessary to propel business growth while networking and collaborating with peers.
Developing a strong second generation of an advisory business is key to ensuring growth. While the vast majority of next-generation advisory leaders and future partners have developed advanced skills in client services, many don’t have the knowledge or skill set to implement best practices for leadership, management and growth.
HTCL’s Advisor Growth Series is designed to alleviate common pain points during these transitions, providing intensive training in the skills future practice leaders will need to grow their businesses both organically and inorganically, including financial analysis, marketing, strategic planning, M&A deal structuring and team management.
WSR: What are your key growth goals and strategic initiatives as we go into the final months of 2021 and for next year?
We have a very strong M&A pipeline, and we are excited to be welcoming some very impressive wealth management businesses to the Hightower community.
With that said, we are also in the final stages of completing requirements necessary to launch the Hightower National Trust Company, likely in the fourth quarter of this year, which will be a significant value-add for advisors who serve multiple generations of families.
Looking further into the balance of 2021, we see continued strong momentum for M&A, but remain focused on high-quality RIAs with a strong orientation to growth.
WSR: You’ve worked at some of the largest and most well-known businesses in the wealth management space, including LPL Financial, Fidelity and Avantax, in addition to now being at Hightower. If you could summarize one key professional lesson you’ve learned from each of these other firms, what would they be?
I won’t speak to each firm because I learned a lot in each of those experiences. The general lessons I have taken away start with listening. Advisors and business models are all different and you need to take the time to appreciate the uniqueness of each.
Second, communication and transparency are “gold.” You can never communicate enough and being really candid with folks are great foundations for building trusting relationships.
I have also learned you need to have a “Say/Do ratio” of 100%. If you say it, do it. Financial advisors and their business models each have many nuances, but these lessons hold true universally.
Janeesa Hollingshead, Senior Editor at Wealth Solutions Report, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org