More Advisors Are Going Independent, With No Regrets

DIY isn’t only for investors—financial advisors are increasingly going the independent route too, transforming an industry long dominated by large brokerage firms and wirehouses. As it turns out, advisors are happy once they make the change. More than 90% of respondents to a survey by Charles Schwab’s Schwab Advisor Services report they have no regrets about their decision to go it alone.

Key Takeaways

  • Financial advisors have more and more options to stake it out on their own as an independent registered investment advisor (RIA) instead of being an employee of a firm.
  • Being an RIA gives you independence and flexibility, and you don't have to share your commissions or pay for desk space at a brokerage.
  • What you'll lose is the administrative and sales & market support, office space, training, and the financial, regulatory, and legal backing of larger companies.
  • Independent RIAs, however, tend to report being happier and can make higher incomes.
  • Independent RIAs generally have no limit to their income.

Growth in Independent Advisory Firms

Rewind several years and most financial advisors were tied to a larger firm, be it a big Wall Street bank or a regional brokerage. But in the last few years, more advisors have been making the leap to become independent advisors with help from the likes of Charles Schwab, which offers trading, clearing, and other services to support that business model, and , which provides wealth management and technology platforms for select independent financial advisory firms.

“Independent advisors are the growth story of the advice industry,” said Jonathan Beatty, senior vice president, head of sales and relationship management at Schwab Advisor Services. “We will continue to see momentum accelerate as more advisors choose to move to the independent model, confident in the knowledge that it is a better way to serve clients while also offering the opportunity to build and grow something of their own. ”

With the RIA market expected to see strong growth in the years to come, Schwab and some of its peers including Fidelity Investments and TD Ameritrade have seen a pickup in business thanks to a wave of brokers jumping ship from the likes of Merrill Lynch and Morgan Stanley, aiming to gain more control over their own lines of business. Changes to the fiduciary rule have also prompted an increase in the RIA business model.

RIAs Are Happier, Make More Money

In its Independent Advisor Sophomore Study, released in March 2018, Schwab Advisor Services polled independent financial advisors and found that of the ones who made the leap, the majority—more than 90%—said they have no regrets and would make the same decision. What’s more, those same survey respondents said they are happier now that they are independent. The survey found that RIAs have benefited not only from the freedoms independence brings but also from a revenue perspective, with seven in ten saying they have increased revenue since going independent.


Schwab Advisor Services’ 2021 Independent Advisor Outlook Study's growth rate for RIAs past 2021.

While 94% of the poll takers said becoming an RIA was driven by a desire to do what's right for their clients, 73% signaled it was to build better, longer-term relationships with customers. That 'do right by the clients' philosophy appears to be paying off, at least with those polled by Schwab. The survey found that close to half of advisors, or 48%, think working with a fiduciary is the most important benefit for clients while advisors said they have kept an average of 87% of their clients after going independent.

The 2021 Outlook Study done by Schwab found that 50% of independent advisory firms acquired more clients in 2020 than in previous years. Of those advisors surveyed, 62% reported regular video meetings with their clients as well as 32% more tech-supported and automated workflows. These results clearly point to advisors being able to handle their clients and workload away from the traditional financial planning atmosphere.

Should RIAs Still Start Their Careers at Brokerages?

Making the decision to trade the comfort and protection of working for a large firm to become your own business owner can be intimidating, but once financial advisors decided to make the move they didn’t rest on their laurels. Schwab found that two-thirds of advisors said it took under three years to make the decision to move to an RIA model and when they did it, 90% of advisors transitioned within a year. Not surprisingly, most of the advisors in the survey had started out at a full-service bank or brokerage firm or were employed at a national or regional broker-dealer before transitioning to the independent model.

Of those that started out at a bank or brokerage, 33% said they chose that path to get the necessary experience. And while this career path is still very common among new advisors just coming into the wealth management industry, Schwab Advisor Services and Dynasty Financial Partners see an alternative for young advisors. Shirl Penney, Dynasty's President and CEO, describes going independent as akin to learning a foreign language, and points out that advisors increasingly want to be independent, but not alone.

What Is an Independent Advisor?

An independent investment advisor is one who does not work for an investment service company such as Schwab or Vanguard. Independent advisors will usually start at one of these larger companies in order to learn the ins and outs, then once they are comfortable and have a deep client book, they begin setting up their own service.

What Are the Advantages of Being an Independent Financial Advisor?

The advantages of being an independent advisor are mostly focused on your ability to potentially earn substantially more than if you were traditionally employed, and the freedom to serve your clients as you see fit. Independent advisors may have access to a great range of products as well since they are not responsible for steering investors into products or funds owned by the company employing the advisor.

How Much Does a Financial Advisor Get Paid?

A financial advisor can be paid in a number of ways, but most commonly they are paid based on a percentage of the money they manage for their clients. This is commonly 1%, but can change based on the client, their needs, and the business model of the advisor. Advisors will also work on an hourly basis if they feel it may be more beneficial to their clients or if that client will not provide enough capital for a percentage-based fee model to be profitable.

The Bottom Line

Going independent has its pros and its cons. It will be up to the growing RIA-support services in the industry to show new wealth managers that they can find independent success within a supportive community of fellow entrepreneurs. It might be scary leaping into the unknown, but it seems that as long as you are prepared, there is a high probability of being happier and possibly even wealthier.
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