An acquisition wasn’t on Ben Jones’ to-do list when the year started. A stars-aligned kind of moment changed everything.
Going into 2021, Ben Jones didn’t think the thriving 22-employee investment wealth management firm he oversaw, Allegiant Private Advisors, was a prime target for acquisition.
Founded in 1997, first as the financial services arm of Sarasota accounting firm Kerkering Barberio, Allegiant had grown into one of the leading high-touch wealth management firms in town. It had some 500 clients and nearly $1 billion in assets under management.
Yet, like so many other things in the pandemic, things quickly changed. In the case of Allegiant, it was when some of the firm’s top 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 Registered Investment Advisor industry giant — No. 5 on the Barron’s 2021 Top 100 list of the largest RIA firms nationwide. It has some 27,500 clients, 428 advisors, 925 associates and 61 offices in 30 states. Founded in 2006, it has more than $56 billion in assets under advisement as of October 2021.
'The biggest part of this was the culture. There was no way we would be able to do this without the culture.’ Ben Jones, Mariner Wealth Advisors
After a courtship that lasted several months — Allegiant’s team flew out to Kansas for a Mariner Day while the Mariner team flew to Sarasota for an Allegiant Day — a deal was in place. The firms announced the acquisition July 8, folding the Allegiant name into the Mariner brand. “We are always seeking to advance our advisor pool with the best and brightest talent, which is why we’re thrilled to welcome such an established group of individuals from Allegiant Private Advisors,” Bicknell said in a statement announcing the deal. (Financial terms of the deal weren’t’ disclosed.)
While Jones went into the process somewhat skeptical, 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 RIA sector is in heavy consolidation mode. “Mariner could be the one of the three or four standing at the end,” Jones says.
That opened his mind to a possible acquisition or partnership — if the right entity could be found. “We started thinking about where we wanted to go,” Jones says, adding Allegiant was on a five-to-10 year path to reach some growth goals, in assets and physical locations. An acquisition, he realized, would get the firm there “much quicker.”
Like many in his position, Jones’ skepticism came from seeing other deals fall apart when the culture, or strategy, or approach with clients — or all three — are misaligned or incompatible. Another factor working against a possible sale when the conversations first began? Jones didn’t want he 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 match we were,” Jones says. “We never thought we would find someone in the industry just like us.”
“The biggest part of this was the culture,” he adds. “There was no way we would be able to do this without the culture.”
That common culture includes an analytical and holistic approach to working with clients. On the employee side, it revolves around setting up teams of entrepreneurial problem-solvers. Another commonality? Hiring staff before the need slams the company in the face — a lesson Jones has adhered to for a few years. “Mariner looks at acquisitions in terms of getting talent,” Jones says, “not in terms of getting more assets under management.”
While some wealth advisors use an acquisition as an actual way to exit the industry, Jones, speaking some five months after the deal was announced, sounded invigorated about being part of Mariner. He’s looking forward to potential expansion, in Tampa and St. Petersburg, and possibly Orlando. The firm is currently hiring, and the power of the Mariner name, Jones says, has provided a significant boost to the candidate pool.
Hiring, training and retention is something Jones and his colleagues put a lot of time into at the firm. Three months into the pandemic, to cite one of several examples, the company instituted a one-day paid sabbatical each employee could take each week. That focus on a strong work culture is only going to increase under the Mariner brand, Jones says, as companies in all industries grapple with whatever the new post-pandemic normal is. “Any business that isn’t looking to change your environment right now,” he says, “is going to be falling way behind.”
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