It's no secret that sales assistants are the administrative linchpins of many a brokerage office, but never before has their role been so crucial to the smooth operation of their practices.
The reason: Compliance-related paperwork has grown at such a frenzied rate that it threatens to seriously encroach upon advisors' time with clients, portfolios and prospects. This leaves assistants absorbing the brunt of the regulatory make-work.
Trouble is, sales assistants were not exactly swimming in free time even before the regulators decided to go medieval on the brokerage industry. As chronicled in last year's Sales Assistant Survey package in this magazine, assistants in general have taken on all sorts of new responsibilities in the past few years, up to and including many tasks formerly handled only by full-fledged brokers. Throw in the new compliance work, and we're approaching super-saturation.
Yet despite all this, sales assistants appear to be a happy — or at least content — bunch. Two-thirds of the sales assistants responding to this year's survey said as much. Anecdotal information gleaned from interviews supports this; most assistants seem to enjoy the den-mother aspects of their work, and not all of them regard it as a mere stepping-stone to a broker job. Indeed, only 17 percent of respondents to this year's survey even aspire to the position of broker.
After the Deluge
Still, those same interviewed reveal that all is not rosy in the assistant community, because compliance requirements are getting overwhelming.
“Document everything,” is a common mantra these days, and it applies not only to letters to clients, but to all emails and phone calls. One New Jersey RIA reported that he was required to save spam emails too. Why? “Because if you throw it away, the SEC wants to know why.”
Debra Greitens, an SA with Securities America, and one of this year's Outstanding Sales Assistants (see her profile on page 62), says the amount of paperwork she handles has tripled as a result of the number of departments looking for CYA documents.
Then there's the Patriot Act, the anti-terrorism law that ratcheted up the industry's know-your-customer requirements, resulting in — you guessed it — more paperwork.
Kevin Ullery, another Outstanding Sales Assistant (profile on page 58), has not unmasked any terrorists yet but he says compliance-related tasks are eating up more of his day all the time. Though he handles all manner of tasks in the office, including some trading, his main concern is helping the reps at his firm stay out of trouble — making sure they're following SEC procedures regarding communication and archiving, for instance. Ullery, who works at Integrated Benefit Strategies, an LPL affiliate in Grand Rapids, Mich., is also responsible for maintaining all branch compliance files and making sure the office is in compliance and passes the annual firm audit. This last bit involves a monster 36-page checklist that has grown from 15 pages in 1997.
“I'm kind of like a pre-screener for the compliance department,” he says. It's a responsibility he takes very seriously and one the reps respect, even if they can't help referring to him as part of the “sales prevention” department.
Katherine Vessenes, president of Vestment Advisors, a compliance consultancy in Shorewood, Minn., says Ullery's promotion to de facto compliance officer is common.
Firms need safety nets for advisors who are lousy with detail and organization, and sales assistants typically possess the necessary skills.
Still, that doesn't mean that advisors are not involved in the compliance process — just that SAs are usually the best ones to drive it. For instance, Vessenes says she advises advisors to take a couple of minutes after each recommendation to create a paper trail that testifies to why the investment is good for the client.
“I've found the SA is critical here, because they provide the oversight and follow through, to ensure that this actually happens,” says Vessenes., adding that reps often forget the minutiae that a good sales assistant will fortunately pick up on.
How Bad Is It?
This year's sales assistant survey attempted to quantify how heavy the compliance burden has become, and it came away with some interesting statistics. For starters, 67 percent of respondents reported that compliance issues took up more of their time. About a third of the respondents said compliance-related work eats up more than 20 percent of their workday.
True, paperwork is part and parcel to the job description of the sales assistant. But it's also true that as the industry shifts its focus to fee-based relationships and to holistic wealth management relationships with clients, many of the reps' traditional duties are rolling downhill to assistants. From meeting clients to digging up research, to helping rebalance portfolios (more than 86 percent of the survey's respondents have a Series 7 license), sales assistants are all over most practices.
In this year's survey, 43 percent of respondents reported providing “some input into goals and strategies” of the broker(s), while 20 percent said they were “an integral part of goal and strategy development.” In regard to client relationships, 72 percent said clients rely on them for a variety of tasks, including some types of advice. Only 23 percent said clients relied on them just for basic administrative services.
Given these facts, many veteran sales assistants may find themselves experiencing a déjà vu of sorts in having to handle a higher volume of secretarial-type work. Fortunately, the increased attention to paperwork isn't representative of an evolutionary step backwards for assistants, experts said. It's just a sign of firms looking for can-do people in lean times, and sales assistants tend to fit the description better than just about anyone else.
Pay Me My Money Down
If sales assistants are doing more, at least they're getting paid for it. Median total compensation was up in 2003, after a steep drop in 2002. Annual salary, including bonus, was, $40,092, an increase from $37,800 in 2002. Bonuses were up also, to a median of $5,750 from $5,000.
That said, many SAs reported earning quite a bit more than those medians. Twenty-six percent of respondents reported salaries between $40,000 and $60,000 and 28 percent said they received $10,000 to $25,000 in bonuses. Bonuses are typically tied to the broker's production, but roughly a third of respondents said they could rise or fall at the discretion of the broker, the branch manager or the firm.
One reason for the rise in pay is probably a gradual recognition of the indispensability of many sales assistants. As brokers distance themselves from much of the day-to-day paperwork, their need to have an experienced trustworthy person in the sales assistant role rises.
|Time in the industry|
|More than 10 years||$36,700||$7,000|
|6 to 9 years||$33,500||$5,800|
|3 to 5 years||$32,400||$5,000|
|Fewer than 3 years||N/A||N/A|
|Primary job responsibility|
|Type of firm|
|Wirehouse (+2000 reps)||$35,000||$6,000|
|Regional (200-1,999 reps)||$33,000||$5,000|
|Independent (fewer than 20 reps)||N/A||N/A|
|Type of practice|
|Involvement in rep goals/strategies|
|Not involved/not aware||N/A||N/A|
|Aware, but do not provide input||$33,000||$6,000|
|Provide some input||$34,000||$5,000|
|Integral part of strategy/goals||$35,000||$8,000|
Dan Sontag, senior vice president of the advisory Americas division at Merrill Lynch, says the firm is in the process of trying to improve the firm's retention of sales assistants, in part by moving some of their more mundane duties to call centers. The typical length of service for a Merrill SA is eight years, but the firm apparently thinks that number can increase.
“Very often, the [sales assistant] is the first person the client meets,” Sontag says. From then on, “the term relationship manager is very well suited,” and that means the firm benefits from having them be able to focus squarely on client needs.
According to this year's survey, Merrill isn't the only firm having some success in the area of retention. The median tenure among respondents is eight years (up from six years in 2002), and the median age is now 40 years old (an increase of two years).
There's good reason for the firms to pursue long-term SA employment, says Kim Benefield, co-founder of SA Training, a Nashville-based online education and training school for current and prospective SAs.
“Today you can't separate service from sales,” she says. “The SA needs to be a partner. To reach that stage, reps need to truly keep their SAs in synch, because the more they know about the rep and his business, the better and more effectively they can communicate with clients and identify opportunities,” she says.
The degree to which SAs are involved in a rep's practice is largely determined by their education and their skills, according to training experts. In terms of education, 46 percent of respondents to this year's survey said they had an associates degree, a bachelors degree, or a post-graduate degree. Additionally, 87 percent said they held a Series 7 license, a 4 percent uptick from last year. But what is most important is that 45 percent of SAs said they held some “other” designation, whether it be a Series 63, 65, 66 or CFP.
With some additional education and, in some cases, licensure, many sales assistants could easily become brokers, yet, as mentioned above, only about one-in-six aspires to that position.
Still fewer, expressed any sort of desire to move on to other brokerage-related positions: junior broker (13.5 percent), office manager (9 percent) or some “other” position (11 percent). Indeed, the most often cited desired job was SA.
One reason for the reluctance to step into a new job was that SAs often feel ill-suited for a sales environment. Twenty-year veteran, and another of this year's Outstanding Sales Assistants (see her profile on page 66), Lynn Koors, an SA at CapTrust Financial Advisors in Fair Hope, Ala., managed a small client base with her former broker/dealer before realizing something: She felt more comfortable taking care of reps and their clients than trying to build a business.
|60 or over||5||2.3%|
|Median Age: 40|
|Less than 3 years||21||9.8%|
|3 to 5 years||64||29.8%|
|6 to 9 years||38||17.7%|
|10 to 14 years||30||14.0%|
|15 to 19 years||27||12.6%|
|Median years of experience: 8 years|
|I'm happy where I am||67||31.2%|
|Registered sales assistant||10||4.7%|
|Sales assistant for broker team||8||3.7%|
|I plan to leave the brokerage field||8||3.7%|
Koors, for one, feels that SAs could use a professional designation of their own, given the dedication of those who hold such positions. If Benefield and her partner Anne Boyd get their way, sales assistants just might get one their own designation.
|At the discretion of the broker||67||37.0%|
|At the discretion of the firm/BOM||60||33.1%|
|Achievement of preset (performance review)||44||24.3%|
|Median compensation: $40,092|
|Less than $1,000||12||6.6%|
|Median bonus: $5,000|
“All I can say is we're working on it,” says Boyd, who says SA Training has been in discussions with certain organizations she was not at liberty to disclose.
Bill Carter, principal with Carter Financial Management in Dallas, a Raymond James financial affiliate, isn't surprised by the credentials many SAs are obtaining. He says he continues to hire better assistants with each passing year. For example, one of his current assistants has a double master's in finance and financial planning from Baylor University, as well as his CFP certification.
According to the survey, SAs often (47 percent) learn the skills they need from consulting other SAs, or by using their own wits on the job (22 percent). Each of these is a testament to the resourcefulness of the typical assistants, but it doesn't say much for the formalized training they are receiving. In fact, only 16 percent reported receiving formal, structured training.
However, some firms are walking the talk with regard to training their sales assistants. For instance, Securities America, the Omaha-based independent firm, has set up what is deemed Sales Assistant University, a weekend-long program now in its sixth year. The program offers tracks based on experience in areas like technology, investment products, investing basics, client service, “managing your rep,” and, of course, compliance.
Additionally, the firm offers an SA symposium in March that goes into more detail on hot-button issues. The symposium places a heavy emphasis on getting the SAs to work together to come up with solutions and new approaches to the problems they encounter.
Paul West, director of a branch office development at Securities America, says the increased pressure on SAs means the firm needs to continually update training, but it also means it's increasingly important for the firm to listen to their concerns.
The Sales Assistant advisory board serves this purpose. Consisting of nine assistants, from a variety of practice-business models, the board aims to highlight areas in which the the firm is efficient and areas in which it needs to improve.
“In two 2 years, they've made roughly 180 recommendations and we've fixed about 150 of them,” says West.
It's a good start, say the firm's SAs, and it's not hard to imagine thousands of others nodding in agreement.
HOW THE SURVEY WAS CONDUCTED: In June 2004, Primedia Business Marketing Research in Overland Park, Kan. emailed 1,214 Registered Rep. subscribers on a last name basis. Specifically selected were subscribers indicating job function as Sales Assistant.
Outstanding Sales Assistants 2004
Notice one thing about the people pictured in the profiles that follow: They are smiling.
It's no coincidence: This year's edition of our annual Sales Assistant Survey polled assistants about their goals for the future, and the most popular response by far was, “I'm happy where I am.” Anyone familiar with a typical assistant's workload might find that hard to believe, but one clue to their contentment is that they believe their contribution to their practice is recognized as important.
Without further ado, we present our five Outstanding Sales Assistants for 2004…
Detail Devil: Kevin Ullery of Integrated Benefit Strategies (LPL)
Kevin Ullery secured an interview for his job on the strength of a very strange skill: managing a fantasy football team.
Fred Wicht, whose kids were childhood friends of Ullery's, noticed while looking for an assistant Ullery's fanatical attention to detail in the fantasy league and asked him if he was interested in a job.
Nine years later, Ullery is a seasoned assistant, and Wicht's practice is doing well, thanks in large part to Ullery, says Wicht. The pair have a lot in common, says Ullery, but they work well together mainly because of their differences, which complement each other.
“Fred is great with clients, learning their needs and figuring out a plan,” Ullery says. “I'm the details and organization, the nuts and bolts in the background, and I like that role.”
Ullery has a BA and his Series 7 and 63 licenses, and he handles all service-related issues for clients, as well as some more traditional rep work, such as aiding in portfolio development for 401(k)s and individual accounts and also rebalancing. In addition, he makes sure Fred is well prepared when he faces clients, working up presentations and supplying him with all relevant numbers, data and hypotheticals.
“I equate it to delivering a baby,” jokes Ullery.
Updating client accounts and records, while one of the more traditional (and mundane) tasks of a sales assistant, has become a more highly valued skill, due to increased scrutiny from regulators.
All written correspondence and phone conversations are meticulously logged, he says. On his best days, Ullery acts as a prescreening mechanism, reminding reps about compliance procedures, and making sure the office passes its annual compliance audit.
One client, Kathy Wickerham, says Kevin was at her first client meeting and solidified her initial impressions of the firm when she was shopping for a new advisor.
“He always follows up, he's nice and I can count on him to help with anything,” she says.
To an outside observer, “sales assistant” might seem like a position that's a stepping-stone to the broker desk. Not so for the soft-spoken Ullery.
“I don't think sales plays to my strengths,” says Ullery, “but of course I'd like to learn more, take on more challenges.”
— John Churchill
Up and Out: Sharon Moses-Coleman of Smith Barney
When someone asks you to move from Los Angeles to Denver only three months after you've begun working with him, suffice to say you've made yourself indispensable.
Such was the case with Sharon Moses-Coleman. After a few years at Smith Barney, she had just started working with billion-dollar producers Larry Palmer and Marty Erzinger, when the pair decided to move the business to Denver.
“She did what any person in the employment of someone else should — make yourself more valuable than the job description requires,” says Palmer. “She's fully ensconced in our business.”
The offer was enticing, in large part because it was a ticket out of South Central L.A., where she was raising four kids — including her niece, whose mother had died, and a newborn daughter. However, because of her husband's job, Moses-Coleman, 37, couldn't move immediately.
As a further testament to her value to his business, Palmer agreed to stay in Los Angeles another year, and to continue to base the business in L.A., even after he moved to Denver. Eventually, however, Moses-Coleman was able to arrange to move to Denver, and she's found a world of difference.
“After about a year's time I decided it was a place I wanted to be,” she says. “The funny thing about it is, when you're in that situation, being in South Central, you never realize how bad it is until you get out of it.”
Indeed, dealing with change has become the defining aspect of her life. Originally an “army brat” who lived all over the country and abroad, she found herself living in South Central after her parents' divorce, caring for a young son and her sister's daughter. She'd been laid off from Allied Aerospace and signed up for a course on financial services sponsored by the city. Eventually she hooked up with Smith Barney, working for two different reps before moving over to work with Palmer and Erzinger.
In her tenure there she's become a specialist in handling restricted trades, including Rule 144 trades for company officers. To date she's one of a handful of assistants at the firm allowed to process these trades without prior approval.
“A lot of these people are CEOs and CFOs of public companies, and now they call me directly when looking to trade,” she says.
Moses-Coleman has plans to go even further. Palmer offered her the option of becoming a full partner, but she feels she lacks a salesman's dash. Instead, she's considering eventually becoming a branch manager, something she's studying for now.
“I don't think there are many African American females who have reached that level in this industry,” she says. “I think I have what it takes to move in that direction if I decide to do so. If you remain stagnant you'll have a rude awakening eventually.”
— David A. Gaffen
Long Distance Runner: Debra Greitens of JFC Financial (Securities America)
Debra Greitens has never met many of her rep's clients, but the lack of face-to-face contact has not kept her from establishing strong relationships.
“Deb has always been there for me, all the time, anytime I need her,” says one client, who quickly adds that she's never met Greitens — “Not in person, anyway.”
Greitens works for Jack Connealy, head of JFC Financial Services, a division of Securities America. The firm has 53 registered reps, and Connealy has 400 clients of his own, so Greitens stays plenty busy.
The firm is based in Lincoln, Neb., the second largest city in the state. But Connealy grew up in western Nebraska, home to Scottsbluff and North Platte. Like most reps, he landed most of his wealthy clients through personal connections, which means that much of his business is located about 400 miles west of his current office.
This keeps Greitens from physically meeting a lot of the clients. But that doesn't keep her from injecting a personal touch into her work.
“When you get a client calling in a panic, you're helping them and finding out what they need and taking care of those different things for them,” says Greitens, who is 41. “Once you've done that for someone, you're bonded with them.”
Greitens has worked with Connealy for 13 years — eight with JFC Financial after switching from Aragon Financial. She says she's never had any desire to get into the broker business, citing her “complete lack of interest in sales and salesmanship.”
The excitement she gets from the business is based mostly in its constant variety: “You've got different things with different kinds of products that you're constantly learning,” she says. “It's not the same routine over and over.”
The last couple of years have brought their own special kind of variety, and not always the best kind. For instance, Greitens says her compliance responsibilities have “skyrocketed” in recent years. She's finding the reports she used to do just once now have to be done “in duplicate and triplicate.” (She credits the home office at Securities America as being “especially helpful” with compliance concerns.) And with the mutual fund scandals, Greitens was responsible for drafting the letter that was sent out to all the clients, explaining what was going on and how the firm was responding.
But through all of this, she never loses sight of the fact that the client is her top responsibility — even if she'd have a hard time recognizing many of them in a restaurant.
“Of all our clients, if you show me a name, no matter who they are, I pretty much know how their portfolio is put together,” she says. “That's my job.”
— Will Leitch
Den Mother: Tammy Jones of A.G. Edwards
When Tammy Jones alludes to the familylike aspects of her job, she's being more literal than most people would imagine.
The 34-year-old assistant to A.G. Edwards rep Greg Paschal has, on at least one occasion, had to bring her three children, aged 12, eight and four — to work with her.
“This was the first time in years we've had to put in weekend hours,” says Jones, who has worked with Paschal in Aiken, S.C. for the last 10 years. “The kids had to come in, and it got pretty crazy in here for a while.”
It was hardly an ideal working situation, but her ability to get crucial work done in the midst of such confusion speaks to one of Jones' strengths as a sales assistant. Her commitment to her family speaks to another: In her eyes, it's not enough to know a client and their portfolio details. She also takes the time to get to know them personally, and to know about their children and other important relatives.
Clients seem to appreciate the personal approach. When they call, “I'm the one they always ask for,” Jones says. “It can be a lot for [Greg] to handle, so I'm always on the phone with them, talking them through anything rough.”
This is not to say that Jones is just some sort of glorified receptionist. Her most important responsibilities include working with local legal and accounting firms on detail-specific matters involving Paschal's client accounts.
She also played a central role in keeping the office operating smoothly in the tumultuous move to A.G. Edwards from Edward Jones in 2001.
“I'm very detail-oriented, which is so important,” says Jones, who has her Series 7 designation but does not aspire to be a rep. “If I weren't, I couldn't do this job.”
Still, client relationships lie at the heart of Jones' job, and dealing with the approximately 600 households under Paschal's umbrella (he manages $125 million) has taught her a lot about the faces behind the accounts.
“I treat it like customer service, except realizing that they're more than just customers,” she says. “They're going through the same things that I'm going through, what any of us are going through.”
— Will Leitch
Ardent Supporter: Lynn Koors of CapTrust Financial Advisors (Wachovia)
One of most important developments in Lynn Koors' career was deciding what she didn't want to do.
While working as a sales assistant at A.G. Edwards a few years back, she was given an opportunity that many in her position dream of: a small book of clients to call her own. For Koors, though, juggling this important work with her regular assistant's duties was anything but a dream.
“I'd be doing a proposal but then somebody would need something and I'd get sidetracked,” she says of her double duties. “I prefer the work I'm doing now; I like being on the support side.”
And that's a good thing, too, say the reps she supports in the three-year-old CapTrust office in Fairhope, Ala. Koors is the sole support person for the business, and with 20 years of experience, she's more than capable of handling every need of the team and its roughly 800 client households, the team members say.
Her official title is operations manager, but, according to the advisors in her office, those two words can't begin to describe the skills and abilities she brings to the job.
What Koors enjoys most are the care-giving aspects of her job. “I'm a mother to everybody,” she laughs.
Some of her duties overlap with the advisors', she says, but she doesn't have much trouble respecting the “delicate balance” that such situations demand.
“Clients need to depend on their brokers for advice, so I try not to get into that end too much,” she says.
That said, she does put her Series 7 to use for one client, executing on all his investment ideas.
“She takes care of everything for me,” says client Joseph Gregory. “It's very seldom I have to talk to the ‘boss.’ I do most my stockpicking through Lynn and I couldn't be more pleased. She's fantastic.”
In addition to stock tips, Gregory shares with Koors his love of gardening, bringing growing tips and techniques, and even the occasional plant to the office.
And while that type of relationship isn't possible with every client, such contact is her favorite part of the job.
Koors' unflagging positive attitude shines through when discussing compliance — a sore spot for everyone in the financial services industry. She says the paperwork burden has actually had a net positive impact on the practice.
“While it takes some time away from clients, the extra paperwork actually forces us as a team to know clients that much better.” And that's fine with her.
— John Churchill