M&A Update: OneDigital Acquires Westminster Consulting

The deal adds to 2021’s record-setting pace for adviser industry mergers and acquisitions, while underscoring the emerging competitive pressures facing even sizable independent firms.

Westminster Consulting is the latest retirement plan advisory firm to be acquired by OneDigital Investment Advisors, the registered investment adviser (RIA) subsidiary of OneDigital.

The transaction adds to the record-setting pace of merger and acquisition (M&A) activity in the advisory and asset management space. According to Echelon Partners, there were 76 deals that took place in the first quarter of 2021 alone. This is the largest number of deals in a single quarter in the history of the advisory and wealth management industry.

OneDigital’s leadership says the addition of Westminster Consulting will support the firm’s broader retirement and wealth division with new, streamlined fiduciary and investment consulting capabilities tailored for defined contribution (DC) and defined benefit (DB) plans.

While independent, Westminster is by no means a small retirement planning practice. Indeed, it has been repeatedly recognized in PLANADVISER’s Top 100 Retirement Plan Advisers listing. Sean Patton, a partner and senior consultant at Westminster Consulting who will be joining OneDigital via the acquisition, is also a frequent source and speaker at PLANADVISER events.

M&A consulting firm Wise Rhino Group represented Westminster Consulting in the transaction. Peter Campagna, partner at Wise Rhino Group, offered the following statement about the acquisition: “Westminster Consulting has been an innovator in the retirement world for many years. Developing a fiduciary services platform, creatively engaging participants and serving the needs of complex DC/DB, foundation and high-net-worth clients, [Partner and Senior Consultant] Thomas Zamiara and Sean Patton have built a special practice.”

Upon joining OneDigital, Westminster Consulting will operate under the registered investment advisory platform of OneDigital Investment Advisors—adding more than 71 retirement plans and $6 billion in plan assets. Zamiara and Patton will join OneDigital, and each will have the title of senior vice president of retirement services. The entire Westminster team will also join OneDigital, serving in adjacent roles from the home office in Rochester, New York, and from locations in Syracuse, New York; Princeton, New Jersey; and Great River, New York.

Patton recently spoke with PLANADVISER about operating as an independent firm in an environment in which aggregators such as OneDigital and Hub International are drawing together larger and larger groups of advisers and support staff. Though he gave no indication that his practice was, presumably, in the final stages of negotiating with OneDigital, Patton did speak frankly about the growing importance of operating at scale.

Patton said the motivation for the firm was quite clear during Westminster’s founding in 2003.

“Our vision was based in the fact that too many people who handled institutional assets, and who were fiduciaries to their clients, didn’t necessarily understand what their responsibilities entailed, especially with respect to the Employee Retirement Income Security Act [ERISA],” Patton said. “We saw a big business opportunity in providing that fiduciary expertise for plan sponsors.”

Many elements of the business are the same today as they were back then. What has changed, however, are some of the things sponsors require and expect from their consultants. As Patton and other sources see it, expertise about fees, funds and fiduciary responsibilities remains important, but sponsors also now expect advisers to be able to address health care benefits and retirement plans in a combined, holistic way. Clients also increasingly look for support in financial wellness—a massive and evolving topic covering everything from debt management and budgeting to employees’ money-related anxieties and mental health issues.

Patton said the pandemic has forced employers of all types, here in the U.S. and globally, to think about the health and immediate financial needs of their people in a new way. To be engaged and responsive service providers, advisers must make a similar pivot, he said, and this means speaking to clients and prospects about bridging the gap between health, retirement and financial wellness. It means helping employees create strategies to pay down toxic debt and embrace the importance of creating emergency savings funds outside of the retirement plan. If an adviser cannot do these things effectively, Patton and others agree, he will have a hard time keeping clients or selling to new ones.