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Business Observer Thursday, Nov. 10, 2022 2 weeks ago

Naples ultra-high net worth services firm finds exit strategy

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Benson Blackburn founder Michael Benson says he considers the deal more of a "merger than an acquisition."
by: Mark Gordon Managing Editor

When Michael Benson walked into his golf and country club in Naples recently, he was met with congratulations and attaboys all around on his pending “retirement.”

News trickled out that the company he founded 46 years ago, Naples-based Benson Blackburn, a financial services firm that specializes in insurance consulting for ultra-affluent families and closely held businesses, had been acquired. While true, Benson, 66, rebuffed the R-word. “I said, ‘wait a minute, I’m not retiring,’” Benson says. “I’m just getting started. I’m excited as ever to take this business to the next level.”

Benson will be doing that in conjunction with Chicago-based Alera Group Wealth Services, a division of Alera Group, an independent, national insurance and wealth services firm. Financial terms of the deal, announced Nov. 2, weren’t disclosed. Both Benson and firm Principal Scott Blackburn will remain with the company as it continues under the banner Benson Blackburn, an Alera Group Company, according to a statement. 

“Benson Blackburn is among the few specialist firms in the country with the skills to sit across the table from ultra-high net worth clients and their close advisors to develop wealth preservation strategies,” Tina Hohman, executive vice president and wealth services practice leader with Alera, says in the statement. “The team’s expertise will benefit clients not only in wealth services but throughout other Alera Group divisions.”

Benson Blackburn, with three employees and a team it leverages at M Financial, an insurance-buying consortium where it places insurance, is one of the more prominent firms serving high-net worth clients in Naples.

Benson founded the firm in Cleveland in 1976 and recalls he was “on airplanes 17 days per month” when it was in build and growth mode in Ohio. He relocated to Southwest Florida and moved the firm headquarters to Naples in 2007 to “get off planes,” also realizing many wealthy snowbirds were making similar moves, either for six months or year-round. The firm had six clients in Naples that first year, and has since grown that to some 250 families.  In total, Benson Blackburn has placed nearly $8 billion in life insurance since it was founded. In addition, in 2013 Benson and the firm founded the NextGen Speaker Series, which has brought an A-list of accomplished speakers, in business and philanthropy, to town.

Tina Hohman with the Alera Group. (Courtesy photo.)

Benson started thinking about succession a few years ago, in part to recognize Scott Blackburn, who, at 34, is the next generation of the firm. “The question was how do you provide capital for an exit strategy?” Benson says. “We concluded we needed a strategic partner.”

Benson researched firms that could fit and he placed a cold call to the Alera Group.

Founded in 2017, Alera has made at least 150 acquisitions, Hohman says, which has led to more than $1 billion in annual revenue. It has 3,500 professionals in offices nationwide who handle employee benefits, property and casualty, retirement plan services and wealth services. 

Hohman, in an interview with the Business Observer from her Chicago office, says Alera’s model is to find and acquire firms in well-defined niches, while also embracing a range of advisor business models. While Alera will handle HR, IT and other services for Benson Blackburn, it doesn’t intend to alter the business model or client approach. “We acquired them because they have a phenomenal business,” Hohman says. “We didn’t buy them just so we could change everything they do. We believe the best ideas win.” 

Benson adds that Alera’s entrepreneurial partnership approach is a big reason why the deal works, and why it came together relatively quickly, eight months after that first call, in March. That goes for both the long-term future of the business and Benson’s near-term future, as he continues to stiff-arm retirement. “I look at this more as a merger than an acquisition,” he says. “I’ve been so energized by this.”

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