Wednesday, 16 November 2011

The coming consolidation wave... for bank consultants.

Last year Millward Consulting merged with my firm. The combination gave Millward greater resources to serve clients, and my firm senior-level expertise to develop our talent, deepen our services, and expand our geography. At the time, I didn't think much about a trend developing in bank consulting.

A couple of months ago two other community bank consulting firms merged, Danielson Associates and Ambassador Financial Group. When I asked Dave Danielson about the combination, he expressed interest in having a mix of transactional business and recurring revenue business. The merger served to accomplish that.

Most recently, Stern Agee expanded its services to financial institutions by making the bold move of buying a bank. The reason: use the bank charter as a platform to offer correspondent banking services to clients. This gives Stern Agee the recurring revenue business Danielson mentioned as important to his combination.

Community bank consulting is highly fragmented, ranging from the larger firms to the one-person shops. Consultants are typically highly specialized, such as asset-liability management, and geographically focused. Indeed, when I attended the North Carolina Bankers' convention for the first time, I hardly knew the other consultants that attended. Last week I attended the New York Bankers' convention and knew most of them.

But the number of banks continues to decline, albeit slower than most investment bankers had hoped and predicted. For community bank consulting firms, this means expanding services or geography, or both, in order to thrive. My firm is doing both.

A logical means to accomplish expansion is through merging with other firms. This makes perfect sense, for the reasons mentioned regarding my firm's combination with Millward. Larger, more robust consulting firms can provide a greater depth of experiences for the benefit of clients.

Combinations can also expand geographic reach. Community bankers (and credit union execs) typically don't hire consultants from an Internet search. They hire consultants because they know them first-hand, through mutual aquaintances that are familiar with their services, or by reading articles, commentary, and/or speeches by them. Consulting rain makers must travel to more distant locales, requiring more rain makers. As the number of community financial institutions continue to shrink, this will become more challenging for the very small consulting shops.

The challenges of combining firms, however, rest in the attitudes of the consultants and investment bankers of the firms themselves. Horizontally integrated firms are commonly designed for thriving lines of business to carry struggling ones until they get back on their feet. Ideally, the once struggling business lines are then in a position to carry others when they struggle. Makes sense.

Except thriving lines of business' full of type-A personalities typically don't WANT to carry struggling ones. They want all the fruits of their labor to accrue to themselves. This attitude permeated one of my past employers. The business model made sense on paper, but was difficult to apply. This challenge must be recognized, but need not stop a consolidation wave.

The decline of community FIs will result in continued consolidation among community FI consulting firms, in my opinion. Some small firms may seek greener pastures in other professions. But the relatively larger firms (large consulting firms for community FIs may be 10 employees or more) have an opportunity to expand services, expertise, and geography to better serve clients. This can be positive for the firms' and the FIs they serve.

What are your experiences with community FI consulting firms or your opinion on their consolidation?

~ Jeff

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