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Entrepreneurship was his passion, but that did not stop him from getting a licence to be a registered investment adviser (RIA). And it came in handy for serial entrepreneur Harsh Roongta when he had to sign a non-compete agreement with the firm that bought the company he founded.

Roongta, who had been associated with ICICI group for most of his career, is the founder of apnapaisa.com. The company was acquired by loan distributor Andromeda in 2015. After signing a non-compete clause with Andromeda, he began to focus on his RIA practice full-time.

Roongta was among the first lot of individuals in the country to get the RIA licence in 2013. Roongta looks back at his journey as an RIA, his frustrations, challenges and what kept him going, in an interview for the special Mint series commemorating a decade of Sebi’s creation of RIAs (Mint has been speaking to advisers who have completed or are nearing a decade in the profession). Edited excerpts from an interview:

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Describe your career before you became an RIA?

I am an experienced chartered accountant. Most of my working career outside of becoming an entrepreneur has been with the ICICI group. Prior to that, I spent two years, from 1983 to 1985, in tax practice. Then I spent five years in leasing and investment banking divisions of ICICI. I quit the job, became an entrepreneur and ran an investment banking outfit. I rejoined ICICI in 1998 to set up its retail lending business from scratch. That was the turning point for me—from wholesale banking to retail banking. I fell in love with retail banking. I was dealing with real people and not just companies.

An RIA's journey
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An RIA's journey

In 2000, the entrepreneurial bug bit me again and I launched apnaloan.com. Ultimately, this morphed into apnapaisa.com. In 2015, I exited that by selling my stake. That is how I ended up in advisory.

I wish I could say that it was all by design. But at that stage, I had signed a non-compete clause. I had an RIA licence. Even while apnapaisa.com was going on, I had obtained the RIA licence in my individual name. I became active as an RIA after I exited apnapaisa.com.

What was your experience after you started this full-time?

I remember that period as being both intensely satisfying and frustrating. I had found my true calling and the level of satisfaction was unmatched. I have always maintained a lower number of clients so that I can have a high level of involvement with them. It is deeply satisfying when you bring about a change in people’s lives with your advice.

The initial set of clients post-2015, were mostly friends. The conversion rate, though, was very slow. That was the frustrating part. Friends would come to me initially for advice but they often took a lot of time to onboard as a client. A lot of them came back eventually and even referred other clients to me.

I had always worked out of an office set-up right from the start, even when I had just two employees. Yet, the initial income was so low that it could not cover some fixed costs and expenses. Fortunately, I was not financially dependent on the practice at that time. So, I could manage it.

How much time did it take for you to break-even?

It took me three years before the break-even happened. After that, recovering my initial investments didn’t take time. This is a cumulative business. You are making money on incremental amounts, you have a SIP book, in which your fee keeps accumulating.

How has the overall industry landscape changed over the last 10 years?

Unfortunately, there has not been a large growth in the number of RIAs in India. But I am optimistic. It is our job to impact clients’ lives for the better, but if you have just a few thousand RIAs for a country with a population of 1.4 billion, it doesn’t stack up. Now, there is more awareness. Earlier, there was a huge reluctance among clients to pay fees for advice. Even I have faced this when starting out. To be sure, the issue still keeps cropping up, but not so much for senior advisers like me.

We now have a strong industry body—Association of Registered Investment Advisers (Aria). There is an RIA community that is looking out for each other. I remember there was a time that I had got so frustrated, I felt like quitting this profession. It was Suresh Sadagopan (founder of Ladder 7 Financial Advisories), who talked me through that phase. So, over the last 10 years, we have built a base and there is no reason why the next 10 years can’t be the golden period for RIA practice.

Why are there so few RIAs?

It takes time for any new concept to catch on. For example, the National Stock Exchange (NSE) was formed in 1992. Demat was made compulsory in 1996. But it took 9-10 years before a large percentage of shares were converted into demat. If you look at trading volumes, it has been a 10-12-year phenomenon after screen-based stock trading was launched. It is the same for this profession.

Is there anything in the Sebi regulations that you would like to change?

We are required to keep clients’ interests first and so RIA regulations have many requirements to ensure only people of a certain quality enter this profession. In 2013, minimum qualifications, specific certification, experience in some cases, net worth, and some other criteria were laid down, not only for RIAs but also for their employees. Unfortunately, stock tip providers (some of whom also had RIA licences) provided trading call services to gullible investors. A spate of investor complaints led to significant tightening of the regulations in 2020 and this was to keep undesirable elements out. These changes have largely succeeded in reducing investor complaints, but they have also prevented fresh blood from entering the profession.

For example, the requirement of compulsory relevant experience for new entrants meant that even seasoned professionals from other sectors, like information technology (IT), can´t enter the RIA profession even after passing the tough certification exams. They must first serve as an apprentice under another RIA. Amit Kukreja, who is a fellow board member on Aria, was a seasoned veteran from the IT industry when he completed the required certification exams to enter the RIA profession. He, and many others like him, would not have been able to enter the profession under the current regulations.

A post-graduate degree and relevant experience is required for all client facing employees. So, it is difficult to get new employees. Many existing employees who do not have the requisite qualifications will have to leave the profession when the grace period ends in September 2023. Fresh employees are vital to any profession and this is a major barrier.

The requirement to retake the certification exams once every three years creates uncertainty around the continuance of the practice should one fail to pass the exam again. Again, this deters many from entering the profession. Hopefully the regulator will examine these issues and take corrective action.

What’s the hardest part of being an adviser?

The hardest part is dealing with the frustration when a client does not follow your advice, even after agreeing to do so. That includes a simple thing like making a will. We have clients with whom we have to follow up multiple times, and they will still not make a will. I think the hardest part for most young advisers is getting access to clients. At Aria, we are doing a couple of things to address that.

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