Univest's acquisition of RIA firm Girard Partners almost two years ago may be just the beginning of an RIA buying spree.
With the integration of Girard largely behind it, the Souderton, Pa.-based bank is likely to consider buying others, according to Kevin Norris, president of Univest Wealth Management and president and chief investment officer of Girard Partners.
While "there's nothing on the table today," Norris says he anticipates that Univest will acquire additional RIA firms because "there are so many of them out there." Many RIA firms, he explained, are plagued by a lack of succession planning and are eager for buyers.
Indeed, the number of RIAs bought by banks so far this year is already greater than last year. According to mergers and acquisition firm Silver Lane Advisors, 24 RIAs, representing roughly $163 billion in assets under management, have been bought by banks this year. That compares with 23 RIAs with about $44 billion in assets under management that were bought by banks in 2014.
Norris, one of the founders of Girard Partners, and his four partners had good reason to sell the firm in 2014. Five bidders were fighting over Girard, with each offering more or less the same amount but different payment terms. Though the partners could have continued to run the business, they opted to monetize it rather than operate it indefinitely into their senior years.
Norris declined to disclose how much Univest paid for Girard, saying only that it was "a healthy sum."
In addition to being a good cultural fit, Univest gave Girard access to new customers and capabilities, allowing the firm to grow organically through the bank. The firm had roughly $500 million in assets under management when it was sold to Univest.
For its part, Univest gained a national brand that would help raise the profile of the bank's trust department, adding "sizzle" and "sexiness" to the business, Norris said.
To date, the integration has gone quite well, with Girard retaining all the advisors it had prior to the acquisition. "I think we work well together," Norris said. "We all know what our marching orders are."
The bank, he said, has a young new CEO, 42, who wants to grow the organization and "has the fire in the belly to do it."
While Girard Partners retained its name and operates as a separate line of business, it's been "seamlessly integrated" into Univest, Norris said. Girard is now part of four other business units –the trust, municipal pension plan, retirement plan and brokerage businesses—that make up Univest Wealth Management, which has $3 billion in assets under management and supervision.
"Usually in the first three years, you're still in the honeymoon phase," said Jeffrey Brand, a managing director at Silver Lane Advisors. "The real test I think for an RIA acquisition is when you start looking at seven-plus years out."
If there's a good cultural match between the two organizations, most deals tend to work the first few years, Brand explained. "Where banks get into trouble is they get in love with the idea of the business without knowing the nuances between investment management and banking," Brand said.
Girard and Univest operate primarily in the same geographic footprint but that hasn't created any difficulty as is sometimes the case when banks and RIAs operate in overlapping territories. Even though Girard has a national footprint, with clients in every state, it has a strong concentration of clients in eastern and northern Pennsylvania, where the majority of Univest clients are located.
"Depending upon the service offering that Girard offers and the clientele they're targeting, it may be very complimentary," said Brand. "I'm guessing they're fishing at different depths."
That may well be the case. Univest's brokerage unit serves mass-affluent clients with $100,000 to $500,000 in investable assets, while Girard Partners caters to investors with more than $500,000. Both units have seven wealth advisors each.
"We're not competing with the bank," Norris said. "We're an extension of the bank's capabilities."