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Move Over Henry Higgins

Would the world ever have been made if its maker had been afraid of making trouble? These words come from Henry Higgins in George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion, but they give voice to a central challenge in managing a brokerage branch. As part of this month's package of branch office manager articles, we've profiled five managers who understand that making trouble is often the first step toward the ultimate

“Would the world ever have been made if its maker had been afraid of making trouble?”

These words come from Henry Higgins in George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion, but they give voice to a central challenge in managing a brokerage branch.

As part of this month's package of branch office manager articles, we've profiled five managers who understand that “making trouble” is often the first step toward the ultimate goal of making their charges self sufficient. Each is considered an exemplary performer by his or her firm, and each has a distinct style reflected in the personality of the branch.

The managers hail from far-flung areas of the country and their professional backgrounds are varied, but they all have one thing in common: They faced tall odds against succeeding.

A brutal economy. Disenchanted customers. High broker turnover. Fierce inter-firm competition. A complicated and combative regulatory environment. It's a wonder anyone wants the job (the money notwithstanding). But these people do, and they love their work. That love is, in large part, responsible for their success.

This is not to say these managers are necessarily “popular.” In fact, our reporting unearthed a hint of resentment, much of it from producers who have lost sight of the value of the manager's role. On balance, though, the managers featured here are all well-respected and credited with keeping reps focused in what some call the worst economic environment since the 1930s.

One big producer put it this way, “I am here because of my manager. When I need something, he somehow makes it happen. He just helps me get it done.”

Henry Higgins would be proud.

Electrifying the Branch Office

Many managers refer to the offices they run as well-oiled machines. M.A. Mullis views her two Smith Barney offices as electronic devices.

“But it's like a device without batteries — the branch manager is responsible for the batteries,” says the 47-year old, Augusta, Ga.-based manager.

By this, she means that she supplies the power her producers need to do their jobs. If, for instance, a producer needs help in closing a deal with a large client, she's happy to step in. Likewise, she understands the importance of making it easy for the producers to educate themselves. To that end, Mullis regularly arranges for in-branch seminars and distributes packets of relevant newspaper and magazine articles. The goal is to let producers focus most of their energy on client-specific matters.

Having begun her professional life at the bottom rung of the corporate ladder (as an assistant to a sales assistant — yes, jobs like that exist) Mullis says she understands that each of her 30-something producers in Augusta and nearby Aiken, S.C. have different needs and issues. By addressing those needs, she has helped the two small-city branches generate a very un-small-city like $1.5 billion in assets.

Mullis began at Smith Barney 18 years ago on the municipal bond trading desk and moved into sales a few years later. In 1996, she landed a job as a branch manager. “I had covered [this region] on the product side, and so I knew the FCs,” she says. “It was a unique situation — I didn't walk in as an unknown.”

Phoenix Project

Few branch managers have faced a professional challenge like Steve Dimodica's.

In April 2000, after doubling the size of the three previous branches he had managed, the 48-year-old Dimodica took charge of Morgan Stanley's highest-producing branch in the south tower of the World Trade Center.

A year and a half later, the job he once viewed as a reward for 15 years of hard work had turned into a reclamation project of tragic proportions. In the wake of the 9-11 terrorist attacks (and their attendant emotional trauma),Dimodica was forced to cobble together a plan for rescuing the company's business.

The first order of business was finding quarters for his office's displaced workers. His search initially led him to a large branch at Penn Plaza in midtown Manhattan. But even that branch couldn't handle the huge overflow of workers.

“We had 80 computers and phones, but 220 people showing up,” says Dimodica. Shortly thereafter, the brokers were dispersed to 14 metro area branches. In the midst of all the activity, enabling brokers to focus on clients became a top priority for Dimodica: “Call your clients, call your families; I'll worry about everything else.”

In January, Dimodica put a measure of the experience behind him when he signed on as lead manager of Morgan Stanley's Connecticut complex. He is also manager of the firm's Greenwich, Conn., office, which has about $3 billion of assets under management.

After all the upheaval, his management mantra remains relatively unchanged: “Let the guys be comfortable with what they're doing.”

Walking the Talk

Curtis Brown, the 51-year old manager of Merrill Lynch's Paramus, N.J. complex, believes all producers — even some of the most consistent earners — need something to strive for. To this end, Brown has created a best-practices forum in which top producers discuss their rainmaking methods. “If I've got someone doing $2 million in production, I'll bring in someone doing $4 million to $7 million to talk to them,” Brown says.

The approach appears to be working. Last year the Paramus complex was tops at Merrill by six different measures, including revenue growth, broker retention, liability management and increasing fee-based business. The complex has $11 billion in assets under management, and employs about 120 brokers.

If experience breeds success, Brown's comes as little surprise. He has worked at Merrill for a quarter of a century, in jobs ranging from national sales manager to assistant to CEO David Komansky. Brown came to the Paramus complex four years ago and immediately set about trying fill in the gaps that were keeping the branch from realizing its potential.

One such gap was education, so he set out to create an environment “where people become enthusiastic about learning,” he says.

Last year the firm held more than 60 seminars on a slew of different topics. More than 60 financial advisors have since attained either nationally recognized or internal Merrill designations.

Father Figure

Dennis Drescher, the 50-year-old manager of Prudential Securities' Chicago office, started his professional life as a broker, but left the business for law school. After graduating in 1982, however, Drescher found that he still had the bug, and so he returned to the fold.

However, Drescher does not view his legal training as superfluous. “Much of my job has to do with making sure people follow regulations,” he says.

Then there's the people issue: Drescher is held in such high esteem by brokers he manages that several dozen switched firms when he left Lehman Bros. for Pru in 1997.

Drescher is quick to note he is not a pushover. He's fired his share of troublemakers and low producers, and he demands hard work. But he also insists on making the office a fun place. “That's how I do my recruiting,” Drescher says. “I want this to be the best place at which anyone would want to work.”

That climate should keep clients happy, too. “If you're running an office right, you have to personally set the tone in how clients should be dealt with.” He spends countless hours sitting in on meetings, greeting walk-ins and contacting clients to make sure they're happy. Drescher gave up producing more than a decade ago in order to be a full-time manager. But he gets just as much satisfaction. “You wouldn't believe the feeling you get when a broker you've trained becomes good enough to support his family comfortably,” he says.

Not a People Person

Gene Borcz sees People magazine and thinks, “the enemy.”

In 1988, shortly after being appointed manager of A.G. Edwards' Pensacola, Fla. office — “the worst branch in the southeastern United States” — Borcz reached a decision about how to turn the branch's fortunes: by declaring war on distractions and downtime.

And that included banning all magazines and other non-work-related reading material from the office.

Measures like this, coupled with a management style that stresses preparation, high expectations and relentless organization, did not always make Borcz the most popular man in the office. But having spent seven years as a broker before accepting the manager job, he was confident that the measures he implemented were necessary if the fortunes of the branch were to change.

“I wasn't very popular when I first came in here,” said Borcz. “If you were one of those people who didn't like structure, I made it clear that this office wasn't for you.”

It took a few years, but the practice eventually started to turn around. Now, A.G. Edwards classifies Pensacola as one of its best producers. And since Borcz took over, the office has only lost two brokers that he's hired.

Borcz insists on constant contact with brokers who don't meet his high production expectations. “Unless you're a million dollar producer, we're going to be seeing a lot of each other,” he says.

His ultimate goal, though, is to instill “unconscious competence” in his 16 brokers.

And Borcz isn't just talking through his hat; he's one of the best producers of the branch. “You have to set high standards and constantly push yourself,” he says.

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