Advisors spend careers spanning decades planning other people's retirements, yet when it comes to their own retirement, a surprising number put it off or barely talk about it.
"Doctors don't like to treat themselves, and I don't think financial advisors like to think about their own retirement," says Mickey Wasserman, a recruiter in Agoura Hills, Calif.
But they shouldn't shy away from a topic they otherwise deal with daily, say retired advisors and experts.
About one-third of all financial advisors will retire in the next 10 years, according to data from research firm Cerulli Associates. Advisors who have retired or are entering retirement have the same advice for their peers: Start planning now, and don't be afraid to talk about it, even with your clients.
Insiders and experts say that advisors' reticence may be due to a fear that clients will jump ship.
"Great clients are hard to attain. I think it's natural [to think], 'Gosh, if I tell clients I am slowing down, they'll leave,'" says Larry Palmer, 55, who is retiring from Morgan Stanley after more than three decades in the business. He started at E.F. Hutton in 1981 while finishing his degree at UCLA; he's finishing his career with a book of business worth roughly $1 billion.
The timing of retirement is not an easy decision, of course. Most advisors love their jobs. Insiders note that it's easy to stay in this career well beyond traditional retirement age, barring health issues.
"There are a lot of advisors who will die in their seats. They keep working well into their 80s," Wasserman says.
And, admittedly, for some advisors that's OK. For example, Ameriprise advisor Dan Hirsch, 68, has no formal plans to retire.
"I still have the fire in my belly," says Hirsch, who is based in Chesterfield, Mo.
He notes there's a strong social aspect to his work: "These families I work with are not just clients; they're friends. I go to church with them. It's more than just business."
Palmer, however, says that there's also nothing wrong with exiting at an earlier retirement age.
"If I said I had worked for AT&T for 33 years, anybody would ask me, 'Well, when are you going to retire?'" he says. "But our industry is unique. It's not like a utility company, where after 30 or 35 years, you're done."
Experts note that coasting along means that advisors could miss out on opportunities to cash out.
An advisor selling a book of business might fetch a higher price if that book is growing, rather than declining because the advisor has been doing less prospecting for clients as he ages.
"The problem you have is that a lot of advisors, when they start thinking about succession planning is when their business is in decline," says Rob Blevins, president of Rowlette, a Dublin, Ohio-based recruiting firm.
For advisors at firms that do not permit them to buy or sell books, there could be the missed opportunity to receive a so-called sunset deal.
For example, UBS' deal ranges from 70% to 230% depending on such factors as length of service at the firm, AUM and net new money.
The wirehouse's retirement program is designed in part to encourage advisors to plan their retirement, says Matt Levitan, head of human resources, UBS Wealth Management Americas.
"Think about it ahead of time. Understand when you want to do it. Then pick your partner correctly," Levitan says. "You've spent your whole career building value in your book. You don't want that value to go away."
Taking care of these matters ahead of time means that advisors won't face headaches or worse down the line.
"It's something you should be thinking about if you are over the age of 50," says Merrill Lynch advisor John Kulhavi, 72. "You could have a heart attack tomorrow. You don't want to leave everything in disarray."
Kulhavi, who joined Merrill in 1970 and is based in Farmington Hills, Mich., has an 18-person team, including support staff and junior advisors. They oversee more than $1.2 billion in assets.
Talking to clients about your retirement may seem tricky, perhaps even nerve-racking. But advisors who have been through it say it's less painful than what they foresaw.
Palmer is passing on his $1 billion book of business to Scott Mahoney, another advisor at Morgan Stanley. He says that, when he told clients of his formal retirement date, they focused on the positive, not the negative.
"They didn't say, 'Thank you for the net returns you delivered for the last 30 years.' The majority said to me some form of, 'Larry, thank you so much for taking care of my family all these years,'" he says.
Palmer contends that advisors will be doing their clients a favor by letting them know there's a plan.
Indeed, having a plan and being transparent about it can mean a smoother and happier transition for both the advisor and the clients, senior advisors say.
"They all know what the succession plan is," Kulhavi says of his clients, pointing to his younger team members, though he declines to specify when exactly he will retire.
For his part, Palmer says his transition into retirement has progressed smoothly.
But he realizes that advisors aren't trained in how to tell clients that they are bowing out.
"That's not an easy conversation to have, because it is unnatural. It's easy to sit down with you and tell you 34 reasons why you should be a client of mine," he says.
Now on the other side of the tunnel, Palmer says he realizes how much easier the transition can be if clients are explicitly told what the multi-year plan is.
The secret sauce, Palmer says, is transparency.
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