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Going it alone: ex-Merrill LatAm advisor's lessons on launching your own business

Chief executive of independent financial advisory firm Maximai, Lisa van Walleghem, gives her view on the transition from a wirehouse to running her own business.

Over the last few years, independent broker dealers and RIAs in the US have made a push to break into the international space.

With several large institutions revamping their international units to either focus on more niche client segments or exiting the business completely, the opportunity has been ripe for smaller firms to take on experienced managers with large client books.

In this piece, Lisa van Walleghem (pictured above), chief executive of Maximai, talks about her firm’s first six months as an independent firm.

After more than twenty years with Merrill Lynch, Van Walleghem along with Thomas J. Butler launched Maximai in September 2016 in partnership with Dynasty Financial Partners. During their time at Merrill’s Miami base the duo managed $550 million in client assets.

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Making the transition

'Transitioning to independence after decades at a traditional financial services firm is exciting and challenging. But when you have a global business, there is an added level of complexity – from clients living outside the US, compliance and legal considerations and sophisticated client portfolios.

'The reality of the benefits of becoming an independent advisory firm has exceeded our highest expectations. Whether considering investment opportunities for clients or strategies to expand their business, a whole new world has opened up for me and the Maximai team.

'One example: the access to what I found to be cutting edge technology to deliver our products and services was a big surprise.

'Since day one, it’s been a 24/7 work schedule. The process was very intense in the beginning and, at six months, remains intense. The whole team faced a steep learning curve. We are connected and dedicated to our business weekends and evenings.'

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Key lesson

'A key lesson learned was the realization that my team and I were living in a bubble in terms of the offerings and the overall advisor experience at our prior firm compared to the independent space.

'In my view, independence provides a more comprehensive and sophisticated level of investment offerings for our clients. For the advisor, instead of dealing with wholesalers, as an independent RIA, we are now dealing with investment principals, CEOs and decision makers when discussing new investment offerings for our clients. I have found this to be very empowering.'

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Client reaction

'Our clients have been extremely supportive. I was surprised at how quickly assets have moved. In addition, once clients understand the benefits of having their accounts at Maximai, they are offering us more assets held at other custodians to view, to manage and to aggregate.

'We strive for our clients to understand and embrace the concept that we act in their best interest, and that we are not ‘employees’ of some larger financial institutions that may have other interest before theirs.

'To be viewed as their financial partner, their wealth management advocates, we strive to deliver wealth management advice with minimal conflicts, a transparent fee structure and look to simplify the often complex world of investments.

'Another benefit is our ability to offer a consolidated view of a client’s portfolios. Through our partnership with investment management platform, Addepar, we can aggregate all clients’ investment portfolios from different custodians into one statement.

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Making partners

'At this stage, we are focusing on how to best leverage the support and knowledge from our strategic partners, like Addepar, research company Callan, and the different areas of Dynasty Financial Partners. I believe that having partners like these are what sets us apart their firm over the wirehouses and banks.

'The partnership with Dynasty has allowed our team focus to be 100% on client transition, during the crucial early stages of our independence. The community, has also brought great benefits by connecting us to other advisors who can provide ideas, advise and our happy to collaborate with our team, all of which promote a great client experience.'

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Quick growth

'Another unexpected plus has been quick growth; Maximai has had to hire more staff earlier than originally planned as we strive to offer a “high touch” experience to clients.

'We have been able to attract a larger share of the clients’ investments so as a result, we have hired one full time and another temporary worker so far.

'We also have two college interns committed to joining us this summer. We want to grow intelligently and make thoughtful hires.'

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Bonding benefits

'Overall, my team and I have found that the feeling of empowerment and control to run our firm’s P&L and having the final say on everything related to our business and the client experience has been very rewarding.

One unforeseen benefit of the move to independence is that the transition became a major bonding experience for me and my team. As a result of the learning curve and the long hours, we have become stronger, more committed and more passionate about serving our clients and growing our business.

'At the six month mark, we are preparing for our first offsite meeting, where we will take a deep breath, celebrate what we have achieved and prepare for the next step in our growth. '

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Events
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