New OneDigital Adviser on Succession, Growth and More

For one advisory shop, the start of discussions about succession planning quickly led to deeper questions and, eventually, a major step forward for the firm and its staff.

Founded in 1999 and located in Basking Ridge, New Jersey, the advisory firm Gouldin & McCarthy prides itself on its focus on personal financial planning and retirement plan consulting for small to medium-sized companies.

As recounted in the following Q&A discussion with Michael Gouldin, a founding partner and senior vice president, the firm’s professionals aim to bring peace of mind to employers and individuals alike. He says the firm’s recent acquisition by OneDigital will allow his team to build on its longstanding vision of bridging the divide between traditional wealth management and corporate retirement planning, while also solving big questions about succession planning and scalability.

PLANADVISER: Can you please tell us about your motivations for founding Gouldin & McCarthy, particularly with respect to the vision of doing both wealth management and corporate retirement planning?

Gouldin: Originally, I actually wanted to serve individuals and be that traditional high net worth wealth manager, but this was back in the mid-1990s. At that time, I was a young professional, and I didn’t have any gray hair—yet—so the types of clients I was targeting were frankly not very interested in having me do their wealth management.

So, I looked around and saw that there was another emerging path and started calling business owners to offer to work on their 401(k) plans. At the same time that I was getting some of my first corporate clients, I could already see that this was a soft entry point to eventually help people deal with personal wealth assets, based on the trust I could build on the retirement plan services side.

I think we had our early success in part because we started talking about fee transparency and value-for-fees before it was cool. That was our play to get in the door at a company: ‘You are paying all these fees and the adviser isn’t doing very much for you.’ It was a real value play. That was the source of trust and growth for our business.

PLANADVISER: How has your staff grown and changed since the founding?

Gouldin: The first partner to come on board was Dan McCarthy—in fact he is my brother-in-law. Early on I convinced him to join the business and we’ve worked together since.

When Dan came on board, he took over as the lead on the servicing and care of the corporate clients, while I continued to do the overall sales and worked on the individual clients. That’s how we were able to build a diverse business, and we had a handful of additional folks come on over the years to support us.

I will say, partly due to luck but also because of our initial vision, we have been fortunate to build out what everyone is trying to build out now through mergers and acquisitions—which is the opportunity to have complementary business lines across retirement plans and individual wealth management. I would like to say that I’m a genius and saw this vision from the beginning, but frankly, that’s not the case.

There was a method to the madness, of course. We would go to the industry conferences and see that those who were doing only 401(k) plans or only wealth management were missing something.

PLANADVISER: When did you start to think about things like succession planning and the longer-term future of your firm?

Gouldin: I would say that, by the time we got to two or three years ago, we started thinking in earnest about succession planning, and at the same time we started reflecting and thinking about where we wanted to be, growth-wise, in another 10 or 15 years. These conversations were very much linked, in our case. For us, the succession discussion started with long-range planning. It wasn’t anything urgent, which made the process much less stressful and, in the end, more successful.

So, I am 52 at this point, and my partners for the most part are in the same age range. I say that to underscore that we could have perpetuated this firm as an independent entity for a long time. We also have a business leader who is in his late 30s, so the possibility of purely internal succession planning was there. However, the answers to the questions about growth and scalability in an increasingly competitive industry were not.

PLANADVISER: Is this why the discussion of the M&A option came up?

Gouldin: In a way, yes. It’s a bit of a funny story. I was actually listening to a podcast that featured the firm Wise Rhino Group and their leader Dick Darian, who is well known to your readers. He was talking with the other guests about the positioning of these firms that are looking to create a bridge between corporate retirement planning and wealth management. I was really inspired, because the vision he was describing really sounded like the vision we already have, but what we had been doing over the years was on a more micro scale compared to the strategic, serial acquirers.

I called Dick and we had a few discussions, and we eventually engaged Wise Rhino Group just to do a business evaluation and to talk about growth and succession. In that process, we got real about succession planning, growth opportunities and M&A options. Long story short, when we ultimately met OneDigital, it was immediately apparent that we had found a fit for the future of our firm and our staff.

In terms of our staff and our partners, this has been quite a journey—because remember, we didn’t necessarily start this process with the expectation of doing a sale so soon. However, the whole team shares our enthusiasm, and we’ve all had the chance to meet and hear from the folks at OneDigital. They have the same corporate culture that we have and the same vision for the future. That’s so important, and it is really exciting.

I’m gratified that our staffers now have the opportunity to grow professionally in a way that they simply might not have been able to do in a small independent advisory shop. At OneDigital there are more than 3,000 employees, and there are job opportunities all over the place. We told our people that we absolutely want them to develop professionally and do the best for themselves at our new firm.  

The benefits to the practice itself are going to range from deeper technical expertise to cross-selling opportunities. Aligning with OneDigital will allow us to continue to build on our expertise with a high-touch client service model to offer world-class service and expertise—for the decades to come.

PLANADVSER: Looking ahead, what challenges do you foresee for your firm and your industry peers?

Gouldin: The fundamentals of the advisory business remain very promising. There is so much need for the types of services and expertise that retirement plan advisers have. On the other hand, some obvious challenges come to mind. For example, regulatory challenges are always going to be an issue in this industry.

Any practicing adviser can tell you there is a lot of overlap, and even competition, between the regulators we must answer to. We always need to work to make sure we are understanding the evolving regulatory requirements and ensuring our regulators understand why what we do is so important.

From a strategic standpoint, we need to ensure that the scalability we all talk about is really there—that we can provide individualized and personal services in a world that is increasingly digital. It’s going to be a balance. People want everything via their smart phone, but they also want easy access to individual, human support. It’s a balance, and getting that balance right is so important.

On paper, a firm can scale indefinitely with robo-based services, but that’s not what the future looks like—without the human touch. There’s always some hand-holding that is going to be needed. You have to have both great people and great technology.