M&A Talk with Leading RIA Aggregators and Integrators: Marty Bicknell of Mariner Wealth Advisors
Marty Bicknell is the CEO and President of Mariner Wealth Advisors. As CEO and President, he drives the strategic direction for the firm, coming up with innovative solutions to help meet the needs of Mariner’s clients. Marty has extensive personal and professional experience with closely held family businesses and their unique complexities. As a result, he is a recognized leader in wealth management and is often sought out as a mentor by other successful entrepreneurs.
With the goal of keeping the client at the center of what they do, Marty and seven others founded Mariner Wealth Advisors in 2006. Marty’s vision was to build a firm that could simplify their clients’ lives by having the resources they need under the same roof. Marty and Mariner’s promise is to always put the clients’ interest before anything else – a promise they haven’t budged from in their 17 years of business.
I’ve had the unique pleasure of following the evolution of Mariner since its inception, so having Marty’s insight and experience available to the DealQuest community is such an honor.
THE INCEPTION AND CORE OF MARINER WEALTH ADVISORS
Coming from a background of the wirehouses, that’s all Marty knew. The first 16 years of his career were spent with A.G. Edwards, an incredible firm with an incredible culture that, too, went through its own changes; ones that impacted many advisors, including Marty. By that point, he needed to figure out his next step and was fortunate enough to come across two people from Fidelity who educated him on what the RIA industry was. Once he had a handle on the fiduciary model and the RIA industry, he knew it’d be a great fit for his clients, his team, and his own personal goals, and he “jumped right in.”
He and his fellow founders started Mariner Wealth Advisors with a simple philosophy that still stands today:
- Clients first. No exception.
- Associates second.
- Shareholders last.
This philosophy became important to Marty and the Mariner team because many firms today tend to prioritize shareholders a bit too much, and for Marty, he wanted his clients to feel their needs and wants are met; never having to question if Mariner is on their side, or not.
FROM ORGANIC GROWTH AND ONBOARDING TO M&A INTEGRATOR: WHY MARINER SWITCHED
Looking at the wirehouse model, it isn’t uncommon to find a “corner office guy” be the best business development professional, but not exactly strong at advice. Looking elsewhere in the office, you’d find the opposite is true for someone else.
For many years Mariner Wealth’s growth was from a combination of organic growth and onboarding new advisors, but not from doing M&A deals.
With an unwavering dedication to their core philosophy, Mariner focused on client outcomes, differing from the model within the wirehouses. Mariner started as an in-house tax practice. In addition to that, Mariner also owns their own Insurance General Agency. All of the many steps of forming Mariner allotted Marty and the team to bring to the table many different and new things, allowing them to perform bigger and greater for their clients.
After about 10 – 12 years of operating primarily under organic growth, the studies began to show that organic growth was actually a lot lower, and slower. If you look at the average firm – below the big aggregator firms – you actually begin to see that growth is sitting at or under 3%.
Compiling the staggering growth statistics for firms that pursued deal-driven growth, Marty’s philosophy for Mariner, and what he and his team want to achieve for Mariner’s clients, making the switch to the integrator model began to make sense.
WHERE THERE IS FAILURE, THERE IS A CHANCE FOR GROWTH
The model switch wasn’t an instant, overnight decision for Marty and the Mariner team. The switchover actually began in 2011 with Mariner’s first acquisition deal. Marty frankly states that it was an opportunistic deal that ultimately didn’t work out. It was a financially sound and beneficial deal, but culturally it was not a good mix. This resulted in Mariner having to ask their three largest revenue producers to leave the organization, taking their clients with them.
This failure wasn’t without its lessons in growth. It made Marty take a step back and evaluate, and learn what their non-negotiables were for a deal. Those non-negotiables in deals haven't faltered much since that first failed deal.
THE HOW OF THE SWITCH
In 2012, Mariner applied that knowledge and successfully completed four acquisitions. From 2012 to 2018, Mariner had a holding company approach, with approximately 20 firms that Mariner owned, on average, 70% of; wherein they kept their own brands. This initial aggregator approach allowed Mariner to enter into the acquisition space. The problem was that they weren’t getting any synergy, and they were simply sharing 70% of the profits of the firms.
In 2018, Mariner really began the transition from that aggregation approach to an integration strategy, starting the One Mariner Project. The One Mariner Project involved:
- Buying out minority owners
- Brands transitioning to the Mariner brand
- Operating under one ADV
The acquisitions from 2019 onward were full buyouts, which is an impressive feat considering these deals were entirely self-funded until June 2021, when Mariner brought in their first private equity partner.
INTEGRATOR VS. AGGREGATOR
For Marty and Mariner Wealth Advisors, the philosophy of “clients first” meant their firm’s growth was dependent upon how they could provide their best for their clients. This is not to say that other models don’t or can’t work, as we know many firms operate under various models to serve their clients in their own best way. The key here is knowing what will work best given your unique business goals and target clientele.
With that in mind, I hope you take away from this series some actionable next steps you can use to determine which wealth management model – or combination of models – works for you, your business, and your clients or which of the featured firms might be a good fit for you.
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For my full discussion with Marty Bicknell, and more on the topic:
Listen to the Full DealQuest Podcast Episode Here
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FOR MORE ON MARTY BICKNELL & MARINER WEALTH ADVISORS:
Corey Kupfer is an expert strategist, negotiator, and dealmaker. He has more than 35 years of professional deal-making and negotiating experience. Corey is a successful entrepreneur, attorney, consultant, author, and professional speaker. He is deeply passionate about deal-driven growth. He is also the creator and host of the DealQuest Podcast.
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