Seek Professional Help

Hiring a CPA or other skilled specialist to be your sales assistant could catapult your practice to the next level

It was a cold winter evening in December 2003 when Joe Sheehan first laid eyes on Eric Kittner. Kittner, then 25, had been an auditor at Arthur Andersen, the accounting firm that was destroyed in the Enron collapse. Kittner was working at a local CPA firm in St. Louis, but was looking for something more interesting. The thought of another tax season made him cringe.

Sheehan had been a financial advisor for 15 years, the last 10 with the Moneta Group, an independent financial-planning group where he also served as a managing principal, overseeing an office of 27 reps. While he had successfully targeted clients with $2 million or more in investable assets, his annual production was stuck below $500,000, which he attributed to his time-consuming supervisory duties. “I was running as fast as I could, but I wasn't getting anywhere,” Sheehan recalls. But with the right kind of help, he was sure he could provide the level of client service that could facilitate a jump to the $1 million mark.

By a few degrees of separation (Sheehan's son was friends with Kittner's sister-in-law), both wound up at the same holiday party that night. During their conversation Sheehan learned that Kittner, a Philadelphia native who attended Catholic University, had amassed a lot of experience in his brief professional life. In addition to conducting corporate audits, he had handled estate-planning issues and had analyzed the tax treatment of property sales for individuals and small business owners.

Despite decades between them — Sheehan was 54 — the two men hit it off. The more they spoke, the more they realized their interests were aligned. Sheehan saw that a young man with Kittner's technical knowledge could be a great asset to a high-net-worth practice. He also realized that Kittner would not be a typical sales assistant — he would cost a lot more to hire and would expect to play a major role in taking the practice to the next level.

Over the next few months, the two men hammered out an arrangement. Sheehan talked about his vision for the practice — serving as a family CFO for high-net-worth households and providing high-touch, responsive client service. Kittner finally came on board as a sales assistant and partner in the practice. Sales assistant is actually a misnomer because Kittner considers himself a professional consultant. And his base salary — which Kittner declined to disclose — is comparable to what CPAs with his experience were making at the time (roughly $80,000-range, recruiters say) plus a bonus plan: roughly 10 percent of annual revenue growth.

Takes Money to Make Money

So far, Sheehan's investment has more than paid for itself. “My business has grown twice as fast in the last two years than it did in the previous five,” Sheehan says. In fact, his gross production is up to more than $800,000 from $450,000 just two years ago. And assets under management have grown 25 percent per year over the last two years to $125 million.

Sheehan says he could not have done this well with a traditional sales assistant who only brought a Series 7 and a sunny personality to the table. Kittner handles complicated client queries such as the tax implications of selling a home in one state and buying in another. He often accompanies clients when they meet with an estate-planning attorney. He has also obtained the certified financial planner (CFP) license to go along with his CPA and now plays an important role in making investment recommendations for clients.

Sheehan, meanwhile, is spending more time prospecting and getting in front of existing clients. And both men agree that having a CPA on tap gives the practice a special edge when talking to clients about investment and planning choices. “The tax background is huge,” Kittner, says, “Everything we do has some type of tax implication.” For Sheehan, the partnership also opens up the path to a possible succession plan. While the two have ongoing discussions about that possibility, nothing formal has been arranged.

Sheehan isn't the only financial advisor who has reaped the rewards by investing in professional talent at the sales assistant role. Chandler Taylor, a Moneta advisor who manages $3.4 billion in assets, hired Cynthia Barnes, a bank broker of nine years, to help organize his book of business and run the day-to-day operations. Barnes, whom he met when the two sat for their CFP exam, joined Moneta after she became fed up with selling commissioned products and was seeking more of a financial-planning role. “It's given me a huge lift,” Taylor says. “She's extremely organized and technically competent, which reduces my red time — everything outside of planning the future of the practice, seeing clients and looking for new clients.” That extra level of expertise is the reason Moneta reps are able to maintain longer client relationships than at other firms, he says.

Rob Roxas, a Wachovia Securities rep in Wayzata, Minn., has also garnered the benefits of hiring a more skilled assistant. When he needed a sales assistant in 2004, he passed on the usual candidates and paid a premium to hire a young CFP. The assistant became Roxas' “client service manager” and, thanks to the added planning capability, his practice's production has jumped from $350,000 to $828,000 in just 18 months.

An Emerging Trend

Broker coaches and recruiters say they expect more advisors and reps, particularly those with high-net-worth clients, will come to understand how much leverage they can derive from investing in a sales assistant with a professional background — even if the starting salary is twice what a typical clerical assistant can command.

“It's really the wave of the future,” says Katherine Vessenes president of Vestment Advisors, a consulting and training firm for advisors based in Minneapolis. Vessenes, who has advised Sheehan on practice-management issues, is also co-author of Building Your Multi-Million-Dollar Practice (Kaplan Business, 2005). “The top advisors are going to bite the bullet and spend the money and their businesses will really take off,” she says.

At the very least, it will leverage the advisor's time and give him peace of mind because he will know that his well-heeled clients are in good hands. “Financial advisors need to focus on what they do best, which is the high-level client touch points and prospecting,” says Vessenes. “If you want to work with high-net-worth people, you need someone skilled, not someone making $28,000 to $40,000 a year.”

And, given the growing complexity of financial-advisory work, the professionalization of the sales assistant makes a great deal of sense, particularly for independent brokers, CFPs and advisors working in RIA practices. “For an independent advisor, the CPA makes a lot of sense,” says Howard Diamond, chief operating officer of Diamond Consultants, a recruiting firm in Chester, N.J.

Even so, many advisors are too cheap or too risk-averse to make the leap. Reps, who are muddling through the way Sheehan once was, may feel that they can't afford to reduce their own take-home pay to take a chance on hiring a professional assistant. That's fine, says Vessenes, if they're comfortable in the knowledge that they are unlikely to ever break into the bigs and are handicapping themselves when it comes to finding and serving wealthy clients. “It's going to limit how well their business will grow,” Vessenes says. “Advisors need someone who is knowledgeable and detail-oriented. Otherwise, something is going to fall through the cracks, leaving them open to unhappy clients and potential lawsuits.”

It can be particularly challenging for wirehouse reps to bring in their own professional assistants, but some million-dollar producers have made the investment. “There's no way you can build your business without the right people supporting you,” says Bruce Pomerantz, a Wachovia Securities rep managing $1.37 billion in assets. “Don't be greedy. Don't try to keep everything for yourself.”

Pomerantz offers his sales assistants — who are not CPAs but have multiple broker licenses — equity in the practice by doling out monthly payments based on percentage of net revenue. He is keen on the idea of adding a CPA, too. “I've been thinking of doing something like this myself,” he says.

With his clout and cash flow, Pomerantz probably won't have trouble bringing in a CPA. But lesser wirehouse reps may run into obstacles. “The wirehouse firms are very rigid,” says Rick Peterson, an executive recruiter who works with the big Wall Street firms. “In fact, most brokerage firms won't do it.” At the big firms, he notes, reps have little say over who they're hiring, because often they are locked into a certain pay grade. Nevertheless, “wirehouses should be thinking along these lines,” Vessenses says. She adds that wirehouse reps could be at a competitive advantage when marketing against advisors like Sheehan.

The Need for Training

Then there's the longstanding complaint from reps that they shouldn't have to pay their assistants out of their own pocket, rather the firm should pick up the tab. Roughly 70 percent of sales assistants are compensated, in part, using broker overrides — an allotment of a rep's pay. In wirehouse land, there exists a major dilemma over how to structure sales assistant pay, which has fueled a tug of war between reps and management. A lot of reps in the lower to middle ranks feel caught between a rock and a hard place because the lower you are in the pecking order, the lower the quality of support you receive. Basically, it's a Catch 22: You can get a better assistant only by increasing your production, but without a first-rate assistant your chances of boosting production are low.

Meanwhile, firms say they are committed to better equipping their sales assistants to support their advisors but SAs' are quick to point out that it's not a very coordinated effort. According to Registered Rep.'s annual sales assistant survey, only 7.6 percent of the respondents say they receive formal, structured training. By keeping them from learning the nuts and bolts of the business, the firms can justify their lower pay, some SAs say.

Registered sales assistants tend to get a bonus or added pay from the reps they support — a median bonus of $6,704 last year — largely because they deserve it and their reps couldn't do business without them. But SAs biggest complaint remains that there are “too many responsibilities for too little pay,” as one survey participant said. “The firms that disregard the value of a sales assistant and put unrealistic demands on certain levels of compensation really hurt themselves,” says Mike Stern, a top-producing Wachovia rep in Vineland, N.J. who specializes in estate planning.

And if you, the advisor, find yourself running in place like Joe Sheehan was, maybe it's time to up the ante and get yourself a trained professional. “Don't look at it as a lump-sum payment. You're investing for the future,” he says. “If you want to work with high-end clients, you need an experienced person.” As the adage goes, you've got to spend money to make money. Why not spend your beans on someone trained to count them?

Estimated Median Salary and Bonuses for 2005

Total Compensation Bonus
Experience
20+ years $57,646 $12,000
15 to 19 years 54,545 11,250
10 to 14 years 49,230 7,030
6 to 9 years 44,999 6,041
3 to 5 years 39,999 4,317
Fewer than 3 years 39,999 1,999
Primary job responsibility
Client management $52,333 $8,928
Client service 43,333 5,714
Series 7
Yes $49,736 $7,356
No 41,000 4,642
Type of firm
Wirehouse (more than 2,000 reps) $49,999 $7,291
Regional (200 to 1,999 reps) 47,307 7,499
Type of practice
Fee-based using mutual funds N/A N/A
Commission-based on sale of individual securities $42,500 4,624
Separately managed accounts 49,999 7,142
Mix 47,599 7,142
Region
New England N/A N/A
Mid-Atlantic $51,765 $4,807
East North Central 44,999 5,750
West North Central 47,500 7,499
South Atlantic 49,230 8,125
East South Central N/A N/A
West South Central 49,999 7,499
Mountain N/A N/A
Pacific 51,667 9,999
Involvement in rep goals/strategies
Not involved or aware $42,741 $3,055
Aware but not involved in their development 47,767 6,833
Provide some input 47,999 7,812
Integral part of strategy development 54,285 7,499
Source: Prism Business Media Marketing Research
What's Your Bonus Based On?

Respondents Percentage
FA's production 159 51%
Achievement of preset goals 54 17
The discretion of the FA 128 41
The discretion of the firm 128 41
Do not receive a bonus 14 4
Total Compensation

Respondents Percentage
Less than $20,000 3 1%
$20,000 to $24,999 8 3
$25,000 to $29,999 15 5
$30,000 to $34,999 28 9
$35,000 to $39,999 37 12
$40,000 to $44,999 41 13
$45,000 to $49,999 41 13
$50,000 to $54,999 61 21
$55,000 to $59,999 0 0
$60,000 to $69,999 29 9
$70,000 to $79,999 23 7
$80,000 to $89,999 10 3
$90,000 to $99,000 3 1
$100,000 or more 10 3
Median compensation: $48,170
Total Bonus

Respondents Percentage
None 25 8%
$1 to $999 24 8%
$1,000 to $2,499 33 11%
$2,500 to $4,999 46 15%
$5,000 to $7,499 44 14%
$7,500 to $9,999 30 10%
$10,000 to $14,999 38 12%
$15,000 to $19,999 25 8%
$20,000 to $24,999 14 4%
$25,000 or more 35 11%
Median compensation: $6,704
Source: Prism Business Media Marketing Research

Outstanding Sales Assistants 2006

The brokerage industry is overflowing with sales assistants who go above and beyond to keep their practices running smoothly. Here are profiles of five such assistants.

The Partner: Susanne Chontos

J.B. Hanauer & Co.

Susanne Chontos is so good with Gregg Auerbach's clients that even his mother prefers to speak with her rather than her advisor/son about finance. It's no wonder Auerbach credits Chontos for helping to triple his production from $400,000 to over $1 million in the seven years they've worked together.

Chontos, who has a Series 7 and 63, began her career as a secretary at J.B. Hanauer & Co. in Parsippany, N.J., and says she very much enjoys the “supporting role.” And although she's technically labeled a sales assistant, Chontos, 31, says she's viewed as a colleague and that Auerbach “works with me on the same level as he would with another advisor.” In fact, Auerbach refers to her as his partner.

And why shouldn't he? In 2002, when Auerbach decided to transform his transaction-based business into a wealth-management practice, Chontos was the one orchestrating and obtaining all of the necessary information from their clients to help make the switch. When it came to convincing a large not-for-profit client to make the wealth-management switch with them, Auerbach says the presentation and reports Chontos prepared “contributed tremendously” in the nonprofit's decision to stay on.

Chontos, Auerbach says, is an unusual sales assistant. “I don't see assistants take the initiative to understand and learn the products and then take the time to deliver the information in a way that clients can understand,” Auerbach says.

Although she's helped double Auerbach's assets to about $200 million, Chontos says she is still in the learning period of her career. “I've learned what I know from Gregg, and I'm still growing because of him,” she says.

The feeling is mutual. “I have the right person in the right role. It's very crucial for a business,” Auerbach says.
Halah Touryalai

The Future Leader: Tracy Conrad

UBS

There are a lot of things financial advisor Susan Johnson says she could do without in her life and work these days, especially as she looks for someone to take over the lead role in her practice. Chief among the things she cannot give up? Her assistant, Tracy Conrad.

A native of Allentown, Pa., Conrad came to Chattanooga nine years ago with an associate's degree in accounting and the need for a job. She joined the UBS branch as a temp but Johnson, a 34-year veteran of the business, quickly offered her a full-time job.

A technologically challenged Johnson calls Conrad her “whiz” and notes that she does more than just organizing and helping draft client proposals and reports for client reviews. Since Conrad has her Series 3 (commodities), 7 and 63 licenses — with the Series 65 (registered investment advisor) on the way — she is well prepared to handle a wide range of tasks. And as one of the senior “registered customer service associates” (CSA) at her UBS branch, Conrad is asked to train new colleagues, too. Unfortunately for Johnson, she has to share Conrad with two other advisors in the branch, the three of them accounting for a total of $250 million in assets under management.

Johnson chalks up Conrad's success to energy, organization and drive. “My husband says Tracy has become an obsessive workaholic, just like me,” Johnson says with a laugh. She adds that Conrad will go all out to help a client. One example: She recently volunteered to stay after work to sort out 10 years of financial records for an elderly client. The husband, who managed the couple's affairs, had been stricken with Alzheimer's, leaving the wife overwhelmed. Conrad sorted her out.

So confident is Johnson in Conrad's abilities that she offered her the lead role on the team she wants to form so she can let someone else drive the business. Conrad turned it down. “I love the clients, I just don't want the increased liability and responsibility,” she says. “I love this job.”
John Churchill

Today's Mom: Amy Foster-Mayberry

Barstow & Co. and Shonsey Wealth Management

Balancing child rearing with a career is no small feat for anyone. But Amy Foster-Mayberry has it all figured out. Foster-Mayberry is an independent contractor sales assistant with Barstow & Co. and Shonsey Wealth Management, two separate branch offices affiliated with independent broker/dealer Securities America in Omaha, Neb. Because she is an independent assistant to two independent FAs, she is able to work part-time and even from home, where she can also keep an eye on her two young children.

But she shoulders a full workload, handling everything from customer care to compliance and operations functions for the two FAs. One of the advisors credits Amy with her successful move to the independent side of the business. “I've had a lot of assistants. At Merrill Lynch, we used to chew them up and spit them out,” says Holly Murphy-Barstow, president of Barstow & Co., a predominantly fee-based advisor practice with 100 clients and an asset minimum of $1 million. “She's by far the best one I've had. She's really like a junior partner. I don't know what I would do if I lost her.”

Foster-Mayberry describes herself as a “very family-oriented person.” She says, “I have been able to create a position in which I can maintain my business contacts and continue to grow in my career as well as be with my children during this important time in their lives.” She adds, “By changing the ‘normal’ work environment into something that is more flexible, Holly and I have found that we are happier, and so are our clients.”
Kevin Burke

The Asset Harvester: Dawn Macht

Investment Centers of America

Brad Connors hired Dawn Macht as his sales assistant because she came highly recommended from the one person who exhibited all the characteristics Connors was looking for — his mother.

Connors, a rep with Investment Centers of America in Waseca, Minn., a rural town about 77 miles outside of Minneapolis, needed to replace a recently departed SA, so he consulted his mom, a longtime executive secretary. Macht worked in the HR department of his mother's office, and she recommended Macht right away.

Four years later, Connors couldn't be happier. “I just knew Dawn was going to be perfect for the team,” says Connors, which includes a junior rep, Kevin Cox, and a part-time office assistant.

A self-described “bull-headed German-American,” Macht is the middle of five children who grew up on her parents' 200-acre dairy farm in Ellendale, Minn., milking cows and doing other chores like driving the silage harvester — a truck that collects and chops corn — which she still does occasionally “to relax.” After high school, she received a vocational degree in “dairy herd management,” and owned and operated her own herd of dairy cattle for two years.

Now she helps Connors look after 630 households — many of them farmers — with $60 million in assets. “It was difficult for a while,” says Macht of the career leap. Armed with her Series 7, Macht splits her time between customer service and marketing, a role that grows as the business progresses. She drafts a biannual newsletter — a combination of investment-related news, cooking recipes and word games — that is intended to get wives, kids and grandparents involved, and also plans client/prospecting events like a recent tailgate party — without the booze — at the local high-school football game.

What Macht does not do is solicit new business, but that might not be far off. Connors asked her to become his partner, an offer she turned down because she didn't feel ready. “I can see it perhaps down the road, but not yet,” she says.
-JC

The Introvert: Michelle Corey

of A.G. Edwards

Michelle Corey claims to be an introvert, but you wouldn't know it from talking to her. Or perhaps she sees it as her duty to overcome her inner shyness. “I try to manage each client on a personal level — get to really know him or her,” Corey says. “As we're helping clients transition into retirement, it's very scary for them. You need to be there to get them through and let them know it will be fine.”

But it's not just the softer side of the business that Michelle excels at. Corey, who works for Herb Ormond at A.G. Edwards in Greenville, N.C., has earned her Series 7 and Series 66 licenses, as well as the AAMS (accredited asset management specialist) designation. And she says she's working towards being able to review the accounts of smaller third-tier clients on a regular basis. “I never want to be in charge of selecting investments for clients — that's really outside of my comfort level,” she says. “But I would be happy to identify an account that might need some more help, some massaging of the assets.”

Ormond gushes about Michelle, whom he hired in 1995. After all, he says, her “attention to detail and extreme service mindedness” have been key to helping him almost triple the size of his business since she arrived. It really took off in 1998 and 1999 when referrals started rolling in. Today, he manages over $180 million in assets and does over $1 million in production. Michelle says Herb is the hero, while she's kind of like the control-top pantyhose. And then she laughs. Sounds like an introvert.
Kristen French

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