In 2021, Ben Jones didn’t think the burgeoning 22-employee wealth management firm he oversaw, Allegiant Private Advisors, was a prime target for the acquisition.
Founded in 1997, first as the financial services arm of Sarasota’s accounting firm Kerkering Barberio, Allegiant had grown into one of the city’s premier wealth management companies. It had some 500 clients and nearly $ 1 billion in assets under management.
Yet like so much else during the pandemic, things quickly changed. In Allegiant’s case, it was when some of the company’s senior executives met with their counterparts at Mariner Wealth Advisors. The connection was a mutual friend of Jones and Mariner President and CEO Marty Bicknell.
Based in Kansas City, Mariner is a giant of the registered investment advisor industry – No. 5 on the nation’s top 100 list of AIR companies in 2021. It has some 27,500 clients, 428 advisors, 925 associates and more. 61 offices in 30 states. Founded in 2006, it had over $ 56 billion in consulting assets as of October 2021.
“Most of it was culture. There was no way we could do it without the culture. Ben Jones, Mariner Wealth Advisors
After a courtship that lasted for several months – the Allegiant team flew to Kansas for a Mariner Day while the Mariner team flew to Sarasota for an Allegiant Day – an agreement was in place . The companies announced the acquisition on July 8, incorporating the Allegiant name into the Mariner brand. “We are always looking to grow our pool of advisors with the best and the brightest talent, which is why we are delighted to welcome such an established group of people from Allegiant Private Advisors,” Bicknell said in a statement announcing the agreement. (Financial terms of the deal were not disclosed.)
While Jones entered the process somewhat skeptically, he also says he and his partners were keenly aware of two separate, but related facts: he wanted to position Allegiant to grow, which required capital, and the industry. RIA is in heavy consolidation mode. “Mariners could be one of three or four standing at the end,” Jones says.
It opened his mind to a possible acquisition or partnership – if the right entity could be found. “We started to think about where we wanted to go,” Jones said, adding that Allegiant was on a five to ten year trajectory to meet certain growth targets, in terms of assets and physical locations. An acquisition, he realized, would allow the company to get there “much faster.”
Like many in his post, Jones’ skepticism has come to see other deals crumble when the culture, strategy, or approach with clients – or all three – are misaligned or incompatible. Another factor preventing a possible sale early in conversations? Jones didn’t want him and his team to give up their “local leadership or autonomy,” a common concern in mergers.
“But once we started talking we realized how much of a game we were,” Jones says. “We never thought we would find someone in the industry like us. “
“Most of it was culture,” he adds. “We wouldn’t be able to do this without the culture. “
This shared culture includes an analytical and holistic approach to working with clients. On the employee side, it revolves around the constitution of teams of entrepreneurial problem-solvers. Another point in common? Hire staff before the need strikes the company in the face – a lesson Jones has been embracing for the past few years. “Mariner sees acquisitions in terms of acquiring talent,” Jones says, “not in terms of acquiring more assets under management.”
While some wealth advisers use an acquisition as a real way out of the industry, Jones, speaking about five months after the deal was announced, seemed invigorated at the idea of being a part of Mariner. He’s eagerly awaiting potential expansion, in Tampa and St. Petersburg, and possibly Orlando. The company is recruiting now and the power of the Mariner name, according to Jones, has significantly boosted the pool of applicants.
Hiring, training and retention are things Jones and his colleagues devote a lot of time to in the firm. Three months after the start of the pandemic, to name just one example, the company instituted a one-day paid sabbatical that each employee could take each week. This emphasis on a strong work culture will only increase under the Mariner brand, Jones says, as businesses across industries grapple with the new post-pandemic normal. “Any business that isn’t looking to change your environment right now,” he says, “is going to be way behind schedule.”