PI financial corp.’s recently announced agreement to acquire the client accounts of Union Securities Ltd. (both firms are based in Vancouver) is part of an unusual growth strategy.

PI wants to grow through acquisition, but it is not looking for merger partners. Instead, PI is looking for business owners willing to get out of their businesses entirely and allow PI to buy up their assets.

In addition to the acquired Union client accounts, 60 financial advisors who serve those clients will be joining PI’s private-client services division.

“Most firms would like to merge,” says Max Meier, chairman and CEO of PI. “But when you’re strong, you don’t really want to merge with another firm. We waited until the principals were willing to sell the accounts and the brokers.”

PI’s goal is to be a “consolidator of smaller firms,” Meier adds. “We would like to be the leading independent firm across Canada.”

The move will boost the number of advisors at PI – which now has offices in Vancouver, Victoria, Calgary, Regina, Winnipeg and Toronto – to 175. Prior to this acquisition, the firm had more than $2 billion in assets under administration.

Founded in 1982, PI is an independent investment firm that targets high net-worth clients. Three years ago, PI acquired Gateway Securities Inc., a Vancouver-based investment dealer that served individual, corporate and institutional clients. That deal resulted in the acquisition of client accounts and 13 advisors.

“You can [make such acquisitions] in difficult market conditions,” Meier says. “It takes some courage. When all the firms are doing well, nobody wants to sell you 60 investment advisors and their clients.”

Meier says he hopes to add another firm every six months, with a rough goal of doubling the firm’s size over the next five years.

“We need willing participants,” Meier says. “People who will turn over their business to us.”

One of the most attractive elements of the Union deal for Meier is the anticipated seamless transfer of the Union advisors’ accounts to PI’s computer systems, which is scheduled for Oct. 15.

Each advisor among the new arrivals is being paid a retention bonus, committing him or her to stay with PI for the next six years.

That could be a lucrative period for those advisors if PI’s history is any guide. Meier is proud to point out that PI has never lost money during its 30 years of operations. It started off back in 1982 with capital of $252,000 and has since grown that to $33 million.

As Meier transforms his regional firm into a national one, he says, he hasn’t encountered any bias against his Western Canada base.

“There are strong firms [in Vancouver] and in Toronto – and weak ones, too,” Meier says. “If you have capital, you have credibility.”

PI is using a creative strategy to take advantage of a challenging environment, says Dan Hallett, vice president and director of asset management with Oakville-based HighView Financial Group.

“Sure, it takes guts,” Hallett says. “But if acquisitions are truly strategic, well thought-out, well priced and funded smartly, this can be an absolutely terrific time to make smart acquisitions.”

As examples, Hallett cites Bank of Nova Scotia’s strategy of building up its wealth-management business during the financial crisis of 2008-09, when it acquired Dundee Bank and a portion of DundeeWealth Inc., as well as Sun Life Financial Inc.’s stake in CI Financial Income Fund. (All five companies listed above are based in Toronto.)

PI is largely a employee-owned company. Three-quarters of the company’s shares are held by 45 employees, with 25% of that employee-owned portion being held by Meier and fellow co-founder John Eymann. National Bank of Canada owns the remainder of the shares.

Meier co-founded PI with Eymann in 1982 following a 10-year stint in commercial banking. Born and raised in Zurich, he had come to Canada in 1970 at age 23 along with his wife, Margrit, for language training. Meier never went back.

PI could survive quite well through its own organic growth, Meier says, but that is not his style. He believes that, if you’re not moving forward, you’re going backward.

“You have to grow to get ahead,” he says. “You need to increase your market share. You need to get more investment advisors from other firms.”

Another goal of Meier’s is to maintain an advisor-friendly environment at his firm. PI doesn’t require its advisors to conduct business in a particular way. Some are wealth managers dealing with blue-chip companies; others focus on junior financings and speculative stocks.

“That’s what [the PI advisors’] clients want,” Meier says. “We have the full range. We don’t tell our brokers what to sell. Each one comes up with [his or her] own value proposition.”

Meier prides himself on his accessibility. He answers his own phone, usually on the first ring, and answers emails promptly.

“I want to be accessible to our clients and to our staff,” Meier says. “Anybody can call me anytime. We’re not that big; we keep things pretty informal.”

PI’s marketing program involves sponsoring athletes. The firm recently sponsored Marielle Thompson, a ski-cross racer ranked No. 1 in the world, a partnership that enables PI to put its logo on her helmet and tuque. IE

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