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Succession Plans
Kevin Supka of Independent Advisor Group helps businesses get ready for their next step

by Pina Rahill

In 1990, as he was plodding along in his sixth year processing and administering licenses for Colonial Penn Insurance Company in Philadelphia, Kevin Supka, then 31, experienced the “first worst day” of his career. He got laid off—“at a time when you were actually embarrassed about it,” says Supka, who had a baby, a mortgage, a car payment and a wife who was a stay-at-home mom. He recalls stuffing his family pictures, random awards and other office regalia in a box and then being escorted out by a security guard. “I was red-hot mad—at myself and at life,” he recalls.

But within 10 weeks, following up on a lead from a neighbor over pizza and beers, Supka started a new job at PSFS Bank across from City Hall in downtown Philadelphia. Hired as a third-party provider to head up a new bank offering, Supka sold investments to the bank’s customers. He worked there for two years. “It was a great branch,” he says. “We really worked the client base and built a pretty successful book of business.”

Then “worst day No. 2” came along. On a Friday in December 1992, the troubled PSFS was seized by the government. “A tall woman in a black trench coat [with] a metal binder enters the bank and asks me who I am,” recalls Supka. The next day what was left of the bank was sold to Mellon Financial. When Supka showed up for work that Monday, a senior manager told him and the other financial advisors that Mellon wasn’t interested in selling investments, so Supka could keep his clients.

Supka recalls thinking: Aha! A business is born here.

Investors Insurance Services, as the business was called up until two years ago, would grow steadily, expanding its book of business by partnering with other financial service providers. In lieu of hiring advisors as full-time employees, Supka would partner with independents. He provided an environment where advisors could share best practices and have the “ability to be independent with your own business, but not feel like you were on an island.”

The approach worked. When Supka eventually left Philadelphia, he moved into his own 600-square-foot space in Glenside with a full-time office manager and a cadre of nine advisors. “It was lonely at the top,” Supka says in jest, explaining how he came in on Saturdays to “clean the toilets.”

He moved again in two years to an even larger space in Jenkintown. “That’s when we really started to expand,” Supka says. He stayed there 14 years, up until two years ago when he joined forces with Michael Brady and Leonard Borcky to form what is today Independent Advisor Group LLC.

Today, Supka is president and CEO of a firm that occupies 5,000 square feet in Horsham (more than eight times the size of his first office in Glenside), and that has nine other office locations from Reading down to Paulsboro, N.J., 20 full-time employees and 30 independent advisors that collectively manage $1 billion dollars in assets across a few thousand clients. Supka manages about a fifth of that business on his own. And while he is no longer cleaning toilets, he takes pride in still doing the hands-on financial advising work. “It gives me the perspective that most advisors have—I understand what it’s like to do this job every day,” he says, describing a job he’s been doing since his mid-twenties.

Supka, now 58, married for 32 years and father to two grown daughters, reflects on how the job of managing money has evolved over the years: “It used to be you were a simple broker. You bought and sold securities on behalf of clients. It was very mechanical. Now, you no longer hear the term ‘stockbroker’. You hear ‘financial advisor’ and in addition to managing a client’s entire portfolio, we get a grip on a client’s expenses versus income; we’re asked about going with a 30-year versus a 15-year mortgage, whether to buy or lease a car, about setting up a 529 account for grandkids. It’s much more holistic.” And with this more holistic approach, Supka believes that “clients should be expecting to know what happens if Kevin Supka gets hit by a bus.”

For this reason, Independent Advisor Group is focused on ensuring that succession plans are in place. Across the industry, 85 percent of advisors do not have a person identified to carry on the business they’ve worked 20 or 30 years to build. “This creates a problem for the industry,” Supka says. “It leaves [the customer] in a lurch.”

With a good succession plan, the customer ultimately wins. But so do the young financial advisors who are looking to break into the business, a business known for having a very high failure rate. By partnering with a seasoned advisor and working alongside them, the new advisor sees up close what it takes to build a successful independent practice.

According to Supka, nearly 100 percent of his firm’s business has a succession plan in place. Supka’s successor, in fact, is a 40-year-old advisor who will work alongside him over the next five years.

Morte Smitham, 71, of Aston, has known Supka for nearly 20 years. Once a quarter, they review all his investments over lunch at a small restaurant near his home that Supka particularly likes. And what if Supka gets hit by a bus? “No worries there,” Smitham says, then adds, “I’ll be gone before him anyway.”

Supka also did right by Smitham’s mother, who recently passed away. Smitham says that the investments Supka recommended for her generated the funds necessary for her care in the end. “He was very good to her—sent her flowers and came to visit,” he adds.

But don’t be fooled into thinking that because Supka is focused on succession planning that exiting is the only thing he’s planning for.

From the very beginning, Supka has relied on LPL Financial for back-office services. According to Supka, LPL is the largest independent broker-dealer in the country, their closest competitor half their size. Of the 4,300 offices affiliated with LPL, Independent Advisor Group comes in at No. 20 when ranked according to production. Supka’s dream is to be No. 1. “We’ll have to grow by acquisition,” Supka says. “You can only do so much with the existing base. But we’ve got incredibly good people. I know we’ll make it.”

For more information on Independent Advisor Group, call 215-442-9400 or visit www.independentadvisorgroup.net.

Photograph by Allure West Studios

Suburban Life Magazine