In 1987, Jill Bradley was a financial advisor at Merrill Lynch in Louisville, Ky. when J.C. Bradford and Co. tried to lure her away. In her negotiations with J.C. Bradford, she asked, “‘Why don’t you make me branch manager?’”
Much to her surprise, they agreed, and Bradley became one the very few female branch managers in the business and the second ever at the firm. Twenty-seven years later, she is still a complex and branch manager at Wells Fargo Advisors in Louisville, overseeing 15 advisors. She and a partner also hope to exceed $2 million in production this year.
In 2006, we interviewed Bradley and three other female branch managers, about their experiences. Today, only Bradley remains a branch manager. Heather Hunt-Ruddy, who was a complex director for 10 years at RBC Dain and then Wachovia, later acquired by Wells Fargo Advisors, was promoted to regional president of WFA’s greater St. Louis area in January. The other two female managers declined to be interviewed for this piece.
A 2007 SIFMA Diversity Study—the latest the group has done—found that women represent 12 percent of branch managers. A recent Cerulli Associates study says women now represent 11.5 percent of financial advisors. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reports that women now comprise 18 percent of executive/senior-level officials and managers at the 1,283 companies that fall into the category “Securities and Commodities.”
Hunt-Ruddy and Bradley believe more women are, and want to be, branch managers today than in 2006. “I co-chair WFA’s Women’s Managers Initiatives committee, and our numbers are growing every year,” Hunt-Ruddy says.
“I see more women coming into this role, but typically from other salaried positions,” says Bradley, who never gave up her book of business. “For some, it may be a steppingstone in a career path. But I don’t see seasoned women leaving production for this job anymore.”
As with any experience, Hunt-Ruddy says, there’s been both good and bad aspects to the job.
“Having a role that actually allows you to set the tone and influence the environment so strongly is a wonderful gift,” she says. “I believe amazing things can happen in great environments.
“I might even argue that my inter-personal relationships were actually better because I am a woman. I had top producers tell me things they said they’d never have felt comfortable confiding in some of their former male managers.”
Hunt-Ruddy did encounter discrimination, but she says it was very rare and only early on.
“I had one tough older FA who referred to me as ‘little girl,’” she recalls. “But, he later apologized for that. I think most people wanted to do the right thing.”
“In 1987, this job was held almost entirely by men, so I tried to model myself after them, which was a big mistake,” Bradley says. “People’s reasons for wanting to be branch managers could certainly be ego-driven. A sizable number wanted to be ‘the captain of the ship.’ But, like a parent, a good branch manager never puts him or herself first. I really liked the job and helping FAs. I got more comfortable in my own skin, and stopped trying to fit a mold. For me, this job has really been a calling, and I think my advisors know and respect that.”
Hunt-Ruddy agrees, noting her decade as a branch manager taught her that the happiness of any branch is largely dependent upon the leadership skills of the local manager.
“You can have a firm that is imploding and yet have a great branch, and conversely, you can have the best firm in the world but an unhappy branch because the local leader doesn’t have the right skillset.”
Good relationship skills and an ability to lead people toward the best possible outcome are the most essential elements to the job, she says. “I see managers fail most often when they just want to be the boss.”
The role of a branch manager has changed dramatically over the years, the women say.
“There’s a great lack of autonomy today,” Bradley says. “We used to be allowed to make more decisions ourselves, which gave us more to spend with our advisors. I think FAs’ perception of today’s ‘corporate dropdown’ environment is that it deflects their branch managers’ attention away from them.”
“I think there is a common misconception that branch managers don’t really matter anymore,” adds Hunt-Ruddy. “But, I believe quite emphatically, that they matter now more than ever. The risk environment is a huge change for FAs. There are always new products, ideas and strategies emerging. The only constant in this business is that it keeps changing. I think you need incredibly strong leaders to help everyone understand this, adapt to it, and thrive.”
Her advice to women looking to climb the industry ladder? “First, perform well in your current role. You have to be doing a great job now to be tapped for the next role. Second, while it sounds trite, a positive attitude matters tremendously to the people in charge. And, third, be prepared to ‘raise your hand.’ It’s rare these days for someone to get tapped on the shoulder for a promotion.”
Finally, “always look for mentors,” she says. “I’ve sought out and cultivated relationships with both male and female mentors throughout my entire career who have helped me tremendously.”