In our ongoing profiles of innovative, fast-growing wealth management firms combining human expertise, empathy and guidance with technology, data and tools, I recently had the pleasure of interviewing the CEO of Mariner Wealth Advisors, Marty Bicknell.
Marty shares the Mariner Wealth Advisors origin story of how, after a successful career at AG Edwards, and figuring out that going independent and becoming an RIA was the right path, he and seven colleagues established Mariner Wealth Advisors in 2006 with the simple goal of creating something they could be proud of and whose success would be based on putting the client first, their people second and shareholders last.
Approximately $30bb later (including $2bb YTD and 1,400 new clients onboarded) -- and recently receiving another Top RIAs ranking by Barron's -- that philosophy seems to be working and now Mariner is expanding ways to work with outside advisors via Mariner Portfolio Solutions and Marty looks to stay on the cutting edge of advicetech through discovering and funding fintech startups via ScratchWorks.
Press play and learn more about and Mariner's people, process and technology, their approach to delivering comprehensive financial services, solutions and advice and why a relentless focus on growth is so important to Marty (and it's probably not what you think it is).
• The Mariner Wealth Advisors origin story [1:39]
• Supporting a Consistent Client Experience While Growing Rapidly [7:33]
• Organizational Design and Role Specialization at Mariner Wealth Advisors [9:23]
• Leveraging Data to Improve Business Performance and Client Experience [15:29]
• Responding and Adapting to COVID-19 and Virtual Engagement [19:44]
• Technology, Marketing Automation and ScratchWorks, How Marty Uncovers “The Next Big Thing” Through Early Stage Startup Investing [22:55]
• RIA Outsourcing via Mariner Portfolio Solutions [26:29]
• Giving Back to the Community via Mariner Foundation [32:45]
• What Gets Marty Up in the Morning and What Keeps Him Up at Night? (And why Growth is so important to him and it’s not just about $$) [34:42]
Wealth Management v2.0: The AdviceTech Revolution, Episode 8
with Marty Bicknell, CEO of Mariner Wealth Advisors
Gavin Spitzner (President, Wealth Consulting Partners, LLC):
Welcome to "The Wealth Management v2.0: The AdviceTech Revolution" podcast, where we're focused on the business of the business, the business of advice, and specifically, we study and celebrate firms that are leveraging the combination of technology and humanity to deliver better advice to more people and better outcomes for more people through that combination. Fresh off earning a Top Five Top RIAs ranking by Barron's, where they look at areas like growth technology and diversity, I'm joined today by Marty Bicknell, CEO of Mariner Wealth Advisors out of Leawood, Kansas outside of Kansas City, but with clients in all 50 States and advisors in 40 different offices, maybe not so much today, but at least pre-COVID.
And having done something like 10 deals, probably more, and Marty will correct me, in a little over a year. On top of strong organic growth, they've grown from, I think under $20 billion, just 2, 3 years ago to standing on the doorstep, maybe crossing it, we'll find out, of $30 billion. So welcome, Marty. And let's start where I start with everybody. Let's go back in time. And I'm curious, we talked about your origin story, what led you into the business in the first place? What led you then to going independent? And when did you get the aspirations to go national? How did that take hold and how did you get here? So Marty, tell us the Mariner Wealth Advisors' origin story.
Marty Bicknell (CEO, Mariner Wealth Advisors)
Great. I'd be happy to, and thanks, Gavin, for having me on. I really do appreciate it. I think that the story starts with, I spent the first 16 years of my career at a company called AG Edwards, which is a Midwest-based firm out of St. Louis, Missouri. I got really lucky to even be in this field. I was a political science major, thought I was going to law school, and got lucky to be an intern at a single practitioner Edward Jones office for three years in college and just fell in love with the business. And so I moved from a small town in Southeast Kansas to Kansas City, got lucky getting a job at AG Edwards and spent 16 years there. And it was a great organization for me to start from.
The culture was incredible, and that culture is really kind of the basis for the way we think about things and how we do things at Mariner. It's probably no secret that AG Edwards doesn't exist today. And there was a period of time in 2001 that I could see that that culture was changing. And it took me from 2001 to 2006 to kind of figure out what I was going to do and how I was going to react to that. And I laugh about this today, but at that time, I truly didn't even know what an RIA was. And in going through the process of trying to figure out what I was going to do, what my team was going to do, how we were going to serve our clients, I discovered it.
And in May of '06, myself and seven other people, three of them were advisors, left to form Mariner Wealth Advisors with the simple goal of creating something that we could be proud of that put the client first, our people second, and shareholder last. And if you come into my home office, come into the headquarters, get off the elevator, you'll see a big sign on the wall that says that. And it's something that we want everyone in the organization to really, truly believe in and think about it from the perspective of, no matter how difficult a situation is, if you come at it from the perspective of what's best for the client, everything else just works out. And we truly believe that.
Gavin: The shareholders get taken care of if you do those first two things well.
Marty: That's right. And one of the questions you asked in that setup for the origin story is... this was 2006…2008, 2009 were right around the corner. And it's interesting because if I had known that was coming, I don't know if I would have made the decision or not. But had that been the case, I would have missed the opportunity of my lifetime. I mean, 2008 and '09, we took a step back and said, all the major firms, all the Wall Street firms are making decisions to simply stay alive. And a lot of those decisions weren't the best decisions for high-quality individuals inside those organizations or clients.
So we took a step back and said, let's just get talent and we'll figure out what to do with all that talent once we get it. And we went from a company of probably roughly 12 people at that timeframe to close to 60 or 70 in a 2-year period. And it's really led to a lot of the innovative things that we do as an organization, from a client experience standpoint, from products and service offering that we wouldn't have said...we wouldn't have put it on a strategy map, right? But today, they really do differentiate us. And it's a significant part of who we are as an organization.
Gavin: Fantastic. So talk a little bit about that growth progression and how you start to think outside of your original markets and started to think much bigger and more nationally.
Marty: Yeah, when you think about that, coming from a large organization where our job was to serve clients in our local market and then to come into an RIA and understand that we really truly have everything. I mean, you think about serving the client, it's not just a list of services that somebody else has decided that you should offer. You truly can help clients solve whatever they happen to need solved. And in going out and having conversations and meeting individuals inside the industry, you make relationships and those relationships, end up with a new office in Tulsa, a new office in Omaha. We spread out to the East Coast with three New Jersey offices and then one in New York.
And early on, 2011 and 2012 was when we did our first true acquisitions. And, the first 6 or 8 of those, I met 100% of those individuals at a conference, at an industry conference. And it was a relationship-based thing. Instead of us really saying, I want to go acquire somebody in Manasquan, New Jersey, which at the time, I didn't even know where that was, but because our team...
Gavin: Beautiful spot.
Marty: Yeah, it is a beautiful place. Because the team is the right team, that led us there. And then we quickly took a step back and said, inorganic growth is going to be part of our nature, so let's put a team behind it, let's put systems and processes behind it and let's make it part of our model.
Gavin: Absolutely. So let's talk about the model. So you've got, kind of, this far-flung network of advisors serving clients, like I said, across all 50 states. So talk about how your processes, how your technology evolved, and would you say you have a very branded and consistent client experience that you inculcate your advisors that come on into the network and onto the platform with?
Marty: Yeah, that's a great question. So the way we think about this is, we have 40 locations today, 20 of them we built from scratch, 20 of them we did through inorganic means, we acquired. And when we go through the acquisition process, the client experience is where we spend most of our diligence time. The other aspects of an acquisition can be put on a spreadsheet and you get a black and white answer. But culture and client experience are really what we look to, to help us make our decisions. And that client experience needs to be planning-based.
The investment side of what we do, to me, is a means to an end. So the planning side has really got to drive the experience. And so number one, we searched for someone who does the client experience in a similar way and in a way that we believe in, and then we have the philosophy of, if we acquired it, we don't want to change it. So all client experiences are not exact, but they're extremely similar.
Gavin: And so speak about the way you're organized. I think one of the pretty unique things about you is you've developed very specialized roles, and you've got, I believe, and you can tell us more, a very dedicated business development role versus advisors, planners that are just responsible for managing those client relationships. And from what I've seen is you've really built out a very comprehensive team. I was poking around like I like to do, I was looking at your job listings. Your very first job listing right now is for a senior trust officer, which I thought was really interesting. So maybe speak about how you're organized based on the different services you're providing and how you evolved and decide to specialize those different roles.
Marty: Yeah. So I have a very strong belief that the advisor's job and responsibility is the client experience and client contact. And in helping the client through whatever it is they're going through, but at the same time, strongly believe in the separation of duties, the separation of responsibilities. And advisors, in my opinion, can't be lone rangers. They can't be Jack of all trades. They have to focus on that client experience piece of it. So in the separation of duties piece of it, we think about it from the perspective of the advisor's primary responsibility is to be in front of the client or in front of a soon-to-be client. And their job is not to be out building a funnel of prospects, right?
So we have about 40 dedicated business development professionals across the country. And their job is to fill the funnel and to put client opportunities in front of our advisors so our advisors can explain the value prop to the client and help the client understand if we are the right fit. So, a lot of people ask questions about how the handoff works and things like that. The handoff is easy for us because the business development professional is selling another individual versus coming in with an answer. And so when they bring that person in, it's just a very simple process.
And then you think about the advisor's role with the client, then we think about, okay, what are all the things that they're going to need to do to help that client achieve their goals? So we have a dedicated investment team of about 60 individuals. We have today, I think about 140 tax professionals. We have a trust office with three individuals in it today, soon to be four, hopefully. We have dedicated insurance professionals. We have a boutique investment bank. We have retirement planning advisors. So we've tried to assemble all these things so our advisors can just reach up and grab the expertise that they need, but I wanted that expertise to be in-house so that we could control the delivery of what's being delivered, the culture of the individuals and that they believed in that client-first philosophy as well. And you could go through the makeup of any part of how we run our organization and that separation of duties is consistent. And so whether it's operations or technology or HR or compliance, I mean, there's dedicated professionals that that's their responsibility that our advisors can then lean on when they need that expertise.
Gavin: Got it. And so I'm guessing, so you seem very process-oriented, very specialized in terms of the client experience and the resources you have to draw on. So what are the implications for all that? And I guess I'd layer in the profile of your different clients and their needs in terms of the technology itself. Can you, kind of, give us an overview of what their technology stack does, how your advisors interact with it, and the role it plays in the client experience?
Marty: Yeah, I think technology is interesting. The RIA industry is very fragmented and because of that, there are a lot of firms…small boutique firms that can't necessarily spend money like the major Wall Street firms have. And therefore, it's been an industry that's been ignored by a lot of the big technology players of bringing in different tools. I mean, that's changed, people are focusing on us now in building things, but the issue with that is while that's amazing and we're in a period right now that we're in rapid development, rapid change, all those things are still fragmented.
So advisors have to go to two or three different things in order to accomplish a simple goal. And while I think that is going to be short-lived, they're going to be solved, today, it's still complicated. But the efficiency of advisors today because of those tools and the ability to utilize those tools, from a remote perspective, not just because of the pandemic, but in general, if our home office is in Kansas City and an advisor's in city X, Atlanta, wherever, the ability to draw on those things is significantly increased because of technology.
Gavin: Absolutely. How about building off of that? I think about technology and process and client experience, I think about data increasingly. Everyone is trying to harness the power of data, whether that's all the way towards artificial intelligence and predictive analytics and that's action and simply delivering financial wellness, having that holistic view. So can you speak about where you are on the journey to really bring in that data and be able to act on the power of it?
Marty: Yeah, the data perspective, this is something that as recently is Monday, so two days ago, we had an internal meeting about this topic. And, we think of data from two perspectives, right? So I need data to run the business and our advisors need data to serve our clients. So, thinking about simply providing things to our advisors that we start with… maybe it's event-driven, children going to college, retirement age…all the different things that our data can tell us and help us be prepared for, it is great. Things that we're thinking about is being able to have the data tell us when we've fallen behind from a touch perspective and/or a client is visiting our website and searching for certain things that maybe because they're going through an experience, that maybe we should reach out and see if we can help them solve whatever that experience they're going through.
All of this is an area of tremendous focus. But I'm not telling you we can do all that. You know, pieces of it, absolutely we can do, but I think that is where we are going and where a lot of the larger firms are spending time and money on as well. It’s an exciting thing to think about and what it does for an advisor in elevating what they can do for clients significantly.
Gavin: Yeah. Yeah. It's kind of a chicken and the egg. You have to show the client what's in it for them, earn that trust. And once it starts, once it clicks for them, they realize, well, my advisor can really advise me much more holistically, more effectively when they see my financial life, and that's when the magic happens. And you can really become that…do you have a relationship with your clients where they are calling you with any decision involving a dollar sign, you're the call, right?
Marty: We try to position ourselves with all clients, not all clients react this way, but most do as, the first call, if you will. So, it doesn't matter if they're thinking about buying a car, buying a house or making a significant investment decision, we want to support them and help them through that process. I think you mentioned financial wellness. You know, the old, kind of, brokerage model just selling investments is dead. The combination of understanding the wellness aspect of what people are doing is significant, and that could be, thinking about the connection between health and wealth, that could be simply going through an exercise with your client that you can understand what about their money is important to them, right? You know, do they have a fear of loss? Do they have a fear of not gaining enough? Do they have a special needs child that they're trying to figure out how to take care of? All of those things, to me, are the first step of the process.
Gavin: Exactly, exactly. Let's talk about the past few months. Based on what's going on, unfortunately, how have you adapted to that both in terms of managing the business, but then also helping your advisors manage client relationships in a virtual and remote standpoint, both in terms of business development, lead generation, onboarding clients, ongoing client engagement?
Marty: Yeah, it's interesting. So, I mean, obviously, the speed of which firms have adapted and adopted things is a shock. If somebody would have told you, "Hey, you've got two weeks to figure out how to be fully remote," I mean, everyone would have been petrified. So it's interesting. We have some technology that we utilize inside our organization. We have a phone system called RingCentral that is a very neat tool. We have Workplace, which is by Facebook. So that's our intranet and it looks and feels just like Facebook, but it's internal. And then we use box.com.
Before the pandemic, we had less than 20% utilization of those tools across our organization. And we now have 100. So, I mean, it just forced people to figure it out and adopt it. When you think about the things that have changed, I mean, obviously, all of our contact with clients and potential clients are virtual. They’re doing calls just like we are right now. But, we have still in 2020 onboarded 1,400 clients, $2 billion in assets and the process has become different, but both the client and the advisor had to adapt to it.
So it wasn't something that we were forcing a new experience. You know, nobody had a choice. And, ultimately, I don't know when, but ultimately when this is done, the client experience in that process will be very client-centric. I mean, you could have a busy business executive that has figured out that this is just fine for him while he's traveling or doing whatever, or you can have other individuals that really need that elbow-to-elbow conversation. And, the advisor will just have to deliver it to the specifics of the client.
Gavin: Understanding how they want to engage, have things changed?... I was talking to an advisor in L.A. whose clients were like, "This is great. We don't have to sit in traffic for an hour anymore. By the time we come to you, we're stressed out." This is going to be a permanent change and others are going to still want that human touch. Yeah. I think that makes sense. So from a tech standpoint, I know you're involved in the space in ways that many of your peers are not… very directly. So with ScratchWorks, I'm curious what areas of advice tech...As you look out from an investment standpoint and from a utilization standpoint, what are the areas that you're most interested in? What do you think is going to have the biggest impact coming up?
I think one firm that publicly you've got some connections with is Snappy Kraken. And I think when you talk about remote and how you've grown the business in a purely remote and virtual way, I think about tools like that that can help get in front of the right people with relevant content, but just generally speak about ScratchWorks, your investment theses, and how you're looking at that.
Marty: Yeah, I think in general, thinking about this from the perspective of what will drive the wealth business forward? So, technology tools, innovation that will help drive the wealth business forward. So Snappy Kraken, as you mentioned, is perfect. It's automated marketing and the way the industry's fragmented and a lot of the advisors don't have internal teams and people that can help them with that. So, this is a great tool for it. We've invested in a firm that focuses on real estate crowdfunding. So you think of a client in - you pick the city - that wants to put together a direct ownership in a portfolio of real estate offerings, how do they do that? Right? So being able to be diversified geographically is really kind of impossible for most clients. So things that help drive it.
We're spending a lot of time right now with a separate account manager that's focused on digital assets. So being able to have that as an offering for our clients, which we don't have today, but, it's something we're really focused on.
The ScratchWorks idea has been a lot of fun. There’s a group of seven of us that we select… five that kind of sits as judges. So it's very "Shark Tank"-like. And, we have hundreds of people that apply and we narrow it down to three to be able to sit in front of and kind of make the determination. What's interesting about it is it's caused all the judges, all of us, to see things we would've never seen and to understand where people's attention is on products and, whether or not we make investment in it or not doesn't mean we won't figure out a way to either utilize it and/or do it ourselves. But, the interest level in advisor tech, I think is very, very early stage. Even though it feels like there's a lot, I still think it's early stage and only going to grow.
Gavin: Excellent. Let's pivot, talk about another origin story. I don't know what the official launch date was, but your strategic outsourcing business, I might call it a TAMP with MPS and the partnership with Dynasty. Talk about how that came to fruition and what that business is looking like for you.
Marty: Yeah. I'd be happy to. So the way to think about it is, we spend a lot of time talking to advisors so, whether we're recruiting them or looking for acquisition opportunities. I personally speak with over 200 advisors a year. In 2019, we brought on 50 new advisors. That was our biggest year ever. So normally we're in the 25 to 30 range. So, there's 150 to 175 advisors that didn't join our firm for one reason or another.
And when I sit back and think about our organization and all the tools and resources we have, the group of things I mentioned before, our tax, our trust, our insurance, we refer to those as our advisor solutions and having those things and putting them in a frame that more advisors can have access to them and use them is really how Mariner Platform Solutions was born. And so it's a platform offering…advisors become 1099 IARs of MPS. They keep their own brand, they have their own entity. They just have Mariner behind them as they go to market and develop their client experience. So it's been a lot of fun to continue to have the Mariner conversation but in kind of a different context with all these advisors.
Gavin: So you're giving them another option, a way to leverage you. If they want to stay independent, they don't want to become part of you, or just it makes sense as a way to augment their offering. So what are you finding as the key attraction? They have a lot of choices, there's a new TAMP solution every other day, it seems like. What's the attraction and what's the right fit?
Marty: The attraction is the same attraction that I think it is for Mariner Wealth Advisors. The attraction is the platform that we have built, the opportunity or ability to utilize all of our services. There are a lot of choices out there and a lot of firms trying to do similar things, but at this stage, they don't have the ability to show a list of individuals and services that will be fully dedicated to those advisors for their client's experience. And, if investments is the trigger that you're looking for, then “check”, we can help you with that. If you want access to tax professionals that you can bring to your clients, “check”, we have that. I mean, it's only allowing them to do something that we've already built. And because of that, it is getting a lot of attention.
And then you mentioned this in the beginning of this question…the partnership with Dynasty and Dynasty is serving as the middle and back-office component of MPS, so their advisor desktop, their client portal. It made a lot of sense to us to partner with them instead of trying to rebuild all of that under a different platform. And as we were going through the process of determining if we were going to use them or not, in doing our diligence, I completely fell in love with the offering and ended up making an investment in the firm. I mean, that's how much I liked it.
Gavin: And you took your own medicine. You outsourced things that weren’t core and didn’t make sense for you to rebuild. So I'm curious, you talked about the strong organic growth. You've got the MPS outsourcing solution. Given what seem to be never-ending growing valuations on the inorganic side, the M&A side, is that less important to you? You've done a lot of deals over even the past year. How do you think about that going forward?
Marty: Yeah, so acquisitions are a major component of our business model. We are looking at four to five opportunities as we speak. And I would guess that we'll probably, in the next six to nine months, do three or four of them. But the attention on the space is absolutely insane. And valuations have moved, but the biggest move in valuations are for very large firms. And what we're spending a lot of our time is in that $200 million to $1.2 billion area, and valuations have moved for them. But the opportunity for us to come in and plug in our business development efforts and all those advisors solutions things and really elevate that firm still exists. And it becomes a win-win for both people.
Gavin: Absolutely. Switching gears a little bit, despite the national expansion, the massive growth, one of the things that I've really been impressed with is the way you stay involved within the community, through your foundation. Can you spend a minute on that effort and what that's about and what that means to you?
Marty: Yeah, Mariner Foundation was born out of the simple belief that I have that is, to whom much is given much is expected. And as we think about the work that we do and the individuals we have across the country, we wanted to have a way that allowed people to give back. And so we started the Mariner Foundation. It's employee-led. I'm not on the board. I have no decision-making rights into how they go about determining who they're going to allocate money to. But we set it up in a way that it's...we do payroll deduction, so our employees just decide how much they want to give, and then we match it as an organization dollar for dollar. And then our employees submit requests and then that board decides what they're going to give it to.
But what's really interesting is through the foundation, we also allow for a portion of time for everybody to "give back" where they physically can go volunteer and they can do it during our time. And, as much fun as it is with the amount of money that we give to organization, the number of hours our people spend, I mean, it's humbling and it's exactly part of the culture that I want to be a part of.
Gavin: That's fantastic. Well, kudos for that. So, Marty, you've done pretty well. But you don't seem like the kick back and play golf all day, maybe sometimes, but not all day. So what keeps you so engaged? What do you still want to accomplish? And I guess I'd say, what gets you up in the morning, what excites you, gets you up and really engaged, but then also what keeps you up at night?
Marty: I think the drive follows along what I just talked about is the belief that to whom much is given, much is expected. And, we talk a lot about growth and organization. I mean, growth is at the top of the list of priorities year in and year out. And it's not growth for growth's sake, it's growth because with growth comes opportunities. And personal and professional development of our organization is really important. And unless you're growing, you're not creating those opportunities for people to move up or move to something different and giving them the ability to continue to grow, that really drives me.
Helping people provide opportunities is significant. I think about, looking at the leaders of our organization and our average age of employees is 40 years old. That's significantly younger than the industry and continuing to provide those opportunities is very important. I think what I worry about the most today is I truly think we have a very unique culture. And with the pandemic, with people being separated from each other, how do we keep that collaboration? How do we keep that culture, that community feeling going? And it's hard, it's difficult. It's not an easy thing to begin with, and it's made it much, much harder.
Gavin: Yeah, absolutely. My vision there is VR. I think we're going to be in a place where we all have VR, and then we can, like, engage in a quasi-physical space together. I think that's what's coming. Think about that for ScratchWorks, some kind of employee engagement model, and with clients, all get in that same space. That's probably not too far-fetched when you think about what's coming down the pike. Well, Marty, thank you so much. It's really been a great conversation. I appreciate your time.
Marty: Gavin, thanks for having me.