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Owning the relationship doesn’t mean control

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A few banks are finally embracing the idea of succession planning. But as an industry trend, this is a slow-moving train. And from someone who often argues the positives of the bank channel, I have to say, this is one issue that doesn't engender a lot of sympathy even from me.

Many of the challenges faced by banks--or any industry--are from outside forces: competitors, government regulation, digital disruption and so on. But banks' challenges stemming from not having a succession plan in place is completely of their own making.

To be sure, there are a few exceptions. We have an article about U.S. Bank's succession plan as part of this month's InDepth package. And we've written in the past about smaller institutions, such as Corning Credit Union, which put together an ad-hoc plan for an aging adviser who retired. In that case, a group of younger advisers inherited his book after a two-year phased handover period.

But the norm in this channel is still for the banks to view their advisers the same as an employee at any other firm. That is, they can retire whenever they feel the combination of their personal savings, 401(k) and Social Security will offer them the lifestyle they want.

But it's not so cut-and-dried for advisers, or banks.

I suppose the thinking on the part of most banks is somewhat understandable. But it's outmoded in today's industry. In private conversations, many bankers still say that they own the book of business, not the advisers. Some are downright defiant about it. And while true, it's not very practical.

For a bank's wealth clients, the adviser is the face of the bank for better or for worse. In fact, in bad times, clients will often separate their bitter feelings toward their bank and their more positive feelings toward "their guy." (There were numerous reports of this during the crisis, when feelings toward banks were at a low point.) So, yes, banks legally own the relationships, but if advisers decide to leave, many of the clients will follow. Just how many will follow the adviser is debatable.

We have a related slideshow in this InDepth package with data borrowed from Kehrer Bielan that suggests about 10% of clients will leave initially with their adviser. But we've had other contributors in the past say that over time, a dedicated adviser will lure up to 50%.

Indeed, we have another article from contributor Rick Rummage that's predicated on the idea of luring over a good portion of existing clients. He recommends that bank advisers should proactively carve out a better situation for themselves in the years before retirement by leaving their banks and setting up shop elsewhere that will offer a better jumping off point for their retirement.

For banks, the problem is two-fold. First, many of their aging advisers are nearing retirement age and are in the perfect position to heed Rummage's advice. Moreover, in the age of the fiduciary rule, banks and broker-dealers are looking to their advisers to develop deeper relationships with clients. In some cases, advisers will have to trim back their book, but the clients they keep will be the most lucrative. And with a deeper relationship, they're the customers who will be more likely to want to maintain that relationship even if the adviser jumps ship.

Again, this challenge does not generate much sympathy, even from me, because the wound is pretty much self-inflicted. If banks dropped their high-handed attitudes and acknowledged the realities of advisers' client relationships, that would at least create the proper atmosphere for them to get this one challenge right. Then they could spend their time and energy focusing on the bigger business challenges, like government regulation and digital disruption.

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