If the financial advisory business could be said to have anyone that approached the status of a ‘rock star,’ it was, at one time, the branch office manager. Advisors looked up to them. They were the elder statesmen of the profession, possessing experience and wisdom that set them apart. They were well-paid and highly revered by the wirehouse.
That’s all changed. Mounting regulatory issues, the market crash of 2008 and mass consolidation throughout the industry have changed the lives of BoMs over the last several years. They’ve been stripped of much of their power, earning capacity, and job security. Some have gone back into production full-time, and others leave the industry altogether.
Can today’s branch managers keep their jobs- and still keep their brokers happy-- in the face of so much change? We asked some top industry advisors to tell us, anonymously, what they like—and don’t like—about their branch managers:
WANTED: “BROKER’S MANAGERS”
“When our firm merged with another a few years back,” said veteran wirehouse advisor in New York, “our branch manager—who was very well-liked and respected among his advisors-- was deemed ‘redundant’ and sent back into production. Now, we report to the ‘company guy’ -- the ‘Rah, Rah ACME Investments’ kind of manager that most advisors don’t really love,” he says.
Today, firms feel branch managers should be ‘corporate’ men and women first, says Chip Roame, who heads Ca-based industry research and consulting firm Tiburon Strategic Advisors. “The role has also evolved from one of cheerleader to a more integrated role within the company hierarchy,” he says. “It’s increasingly become part of a bigger [corporate] career path—and not just a promotion for the best sales guy.”
As a representative—first and foremost-- of the B/D, the branch manager has increasingly become “part of the house,” says Roame. “The ‘us-versus-them’ mentality-- wherein the manager tended to position himself among his brokers—is falling away.”
The New York-based advisor agrees, adding, “When a branch manager comes from a legal or compliance background, that’s almost always what you wind up with.” But, he insists it’s not to the reps’—or clients’-- benefit. “These guys don’t give much of a crap about what we could or should be doing for our clients,” he says. “They really just want us to push product.”
“I absolutely work better with managers who were advisors once themselves,” said a branch-mate of the New York advisor, who is also a million-dollar producer. “And, I’m sure the others in this branch would say the same. They tend to be much more broker-oriented. They get us, because they were—and sometimes still are-- one of us.”
POWERLESS MANAGERS NEED NOT APPLY
“Brokers really like managers who can keep problems—like compliance issues—off of our backs,” said another legacy wirehouse rep at Merrill Lynch in the Chicago area. “No one wants to work for a manager with no power.”
In the good old days, he says, managers were like superheroes who could get anything done. “If, for example, we wanted to get a client fee waived, the manager snapped his fingers and it was done. Now, he has to go through several layers of management, and a lot of red tape. Unfortunately, upper management has stripped BOMs of much of their power over the last several years. And, it’s not firm specific—it’s industry-wide.”
Nevertheless, the Merrill rep says, there are still ‘strong’ managers who advocate for their brokers. “They’ll still say, ‘consider it done,’ and then go do what they have to. Weak managers will complain about all the things your request will require them to do. And, they don’t want to make any waves with upper management.”
“We had a manager for well over a decade who was a true broker’s advocate,” said a long-time Smith Barney advisor, who asked that his location not be disclosed. “We all really loved the guy. But, when we merged with Morgan Stanley, he was asked to go back into full-time production. New management told him— point blank—that he was too close with his advisors, and they perceived that as a threat. He thought having a good relationship with us was good for the branch. We thought it was fantastic. His retention rate was very high—which was good for us, our clients, for him, and for the firm. It seemed like a no-lose proposition.”
That manager, who opted to leave the firm altogether, has since been replaced twice, the rep continued. “Frankly, no one’s come close to how great he was. If he were still in wirehouse management, many of us would have followed him.”
ACCESSIBILITY MEANS A LOT
A 30-year industry veteran rep in the mid-west says his experiences with branch managers at three different wirehouses were all fairly similar. “Most were either a bit lazy or not very accessible. In the old days, getting trying to get them on the phone could often be downright impossible-- they’d be on the golf course, on a cruise, what have you,” he says.
“Of course, things have tightened up quite a bit for managers these days,” he continues. “But, their attentiveness and responsiveness still often leaves something to be desired.”
A current wirehouse BoM, who requested anonymity, agrees. “The areas where managers need to be skilled are administration, business development and recruiting,” he says. “And, the reality is that almost no one is great at all three of these things. But, the industry pushes recruiting the most—so that’s where a lot managers tend to put most of their focus. And, that usually means a lot less time and attention is paid to reps already on board.”
RECRUITING PROMISES ARE RARELY GOLDEN
Historically, one of reps’ biggest problems with their branch managers has been watching them break the promises they make during the recruiting process, says a 35-year wirehouse veteran in Miami. “When they’re hiring us, they promise us ‘the world’ in terms of support and personalized service. Then, once they have us, we barely see or hear from to them. Once they write us a check, our power is gone.”
A long-time wirehouse BOM, who also requested anonymity, concurred. “I’ve noticed that many BoMs who are supposed to be the best recruiters also often have the worst retention records,” he said. “And, I’m pretty sure it’s because they lie like crazy in the recruiting process.” Nevertheless, he says it’s a risk advisors must consider when they’re thinking of moving-- “particularly when their primary motivation for doing so is to get a big check .”
A broken recruiting promise ultimately prompted the Miami-based rep to switch firms four years ago. “My junior partner was promised— and subsequently denied— a certain amount of authority over my accounts which would have enabled me to retire sooner,” he said. “The manager blamed it on a change in company policy.”
However, he says his current branch manager treats advisors “as if we were his clients. He’s really our advocate. That keeps us happy, which no doubt makes him—and the firm—more money. The arithmetic is pretty simple. Yet, some managers either don’t get it, or they’re afraid to go to bat for us with upper management.”