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Can Producing while You Manage Make You Better at Both?

You’re not likely to find many branch managers like Jim Pekelder these days. He’s a complex director for Wells Fargo Advisors in Omaha, overseeing 31 reps in his own branch, and another 30 spread among a half-dozen smaller offices. Pekelder’s complex assets total about $5 billion, certainly enough to keep him busy (and well-compensated). But, with the help of a junior partner, he also manages 1,200 of his own client accounts worth about $130 million in assets.

That would make Pekelder a very busy man—and somewhat of a rock star, frankly. But like anybody else, Pekelder entered the industry as a lowly young rep, and like other reps of his vintage, he endured seven corporate mergers and five back office conversions—only to come out the other side as the manager of a large complex.

Perhaps even more remarkably, he never gave up his book of business.

“No one ever asked me to stop producing,” he says. “And, it looks like 2011 will be my best year of production ever.”

Pekelder acknowledges he’s been approached for several non-producing manager positions at other firms over the years, and had even thought about moving back into full-time production. But, he didn’t consider either option for long. “Honestly, I think I’d be bored doing just one or the other,” he says. “I’m very high-energy, and I hate routine.” But, he stresses, “I’ve also always had have a great team in place, which has enabled me to balance both of the roles of manager and producer.”

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He points to Deb Knust—his operations manager for the last 21 years—as one example. “She’s been an invaluable business partner to me. My father always taught me that if you want something done right, you have to do it yourself. Well, that mentality doesn’t work in a role like this. It was Deb who convinced me to delegate.”

As a producer, 80 percent of Pekelder’s business is fee-based, which also helps him leverage his time. “Tracking managed portfolios is less time-consuming than transactional business,” he says. “And a lot of my production responsibilities have become somewhat automated with the advent of [Wells Fargo’s proprietary] Envision Investment Planning Process,”—which includes a software program designed to help monitor progress toward a client’s goals, adapt to changing conditions, and manage investment risk. “The profiling is extensive and yields valuable data,” he says. “Yet, it’s incredibly efficient.

“We also have a great client contact management system,” he says. Aside from his operations manager, he has two assistant managers, and he meets with all of them at least once a day. “My office door is always open. Ease of communications with both clients and reps is essential.”

Pekelder credits much of his success as a manager to producing—and vice-versa. “I think the best managers are typically those who stay close to where the ticket is written. And, I think producing mangers have an unfair advantage with our books, because we get to see the best practices of all of our advisors.”

Still, he admits there are unique challenges to his job. “Each time we’ve undergone a corporate merger, I’ve seen a dip in my production, because I had to work harder to retain my advisors.” Time management is also constant challenge: “Something can happen at any time, which can change the whole course my day. My team has always had to understand that and be flexible and self-sufficient enough to work around it.”

And he recalls late 2008 through early 2009 as being his roughest time ever as a producing manager. “I had both nervous clients and nervous reps calling me, looking to me for advice.”

Related: A Former Branch Manager on Why BOMs Should Keep Their Books

For 16 years, Brain Lewis has been a producing manager of what is today MSSB’s Orinda, CA branch—part of the firm’s five-branch East Bay, CA complex. He oversees 11 advisors in a branch that does $13 million in annual production, he says, noting that each advisor averages over $1M in annual production.

He also began his career as a rep, training at Dean Witter in San Francisco in 1998. In 1995, he was tapped to manage the firm’s newly-opened Orinda branch.

Like Pekelder, he had his share of offers to be the non-producing manager of larger branches at other firms. He also turned them down. (Incidentally, Lewis’ wife is a non-producing BOM for MSSB—in a different market). And like Pekelder, he never gave up his book of business.

It appears he, too, made the right decision: 2010 was Lewis’s third year as a Chairman’s Club Member, which recognizes MSSB’s—and previously, Morgan Stanley’s—top 2% of FA’s.

Interestingly, Lewis says he was not a formidable producer until he became a producing branch manager. “As a rep, I did about $200,000 to $300,000 a year in production. But, I never wanted to give up that book. My business has grown eight-fold since I began managing, because I’ve learned so much more about the business by doing it. I’d never have grown so quickly otherwise.”

Lewis and Dan Weiner, a partner he joined up with two years ago, manage $700M for some 150 households. The duo’s focus is on high-net-worth investors, he says, who typically have investible assets ranging from $1M to $10M. They have 12 households with assets of $10M to $80M, and one household with $130M in assets. Lewis is the fixed-income specialist; he calls his Wiener the “equity syndicate.”

When prospecting for clients, Lewis says there’s an instant credibility that comes with also being a branch manager. “It’s really just a matter of perception,” he admits. “It doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a fantastic broker, but people tend to think it does. And perception is often reality.”

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It also helps with recruiting, he says. “The advisors I seek know I face the same challenges they do as a producer, and I think that entices them.” And whom he’s chosen to recruit has been pivotal: “When we first opened this branch, one advisory team was generating 80% of our revenue. As manager, my job was to recruit as many new advisors as quickly as possible. But, I wanted a team of equals—which we basically have now. We have ‘balance,’ which definitely makes the branch run more smoothly.”

The fact that his senior registered sales assistant, Diane Repulles, has been with him for 15 years also gives him an edge, Lewis says. “I haven’t gone through the pain and suffering of hiring and training a new one. That’s a rarity in this business.”

And, like Pekelder, he espouses an open-office-door policy.

As part of a complex, he says he gets tremendous assistance with operations and compliance from his parent branch. “I think the large firms are trying to free up producing managers so we can focus more time on ‘producing.’ It is more economical for everyone. Though, we certainly still have our day-to-day managerial responsibilities—like recruiting and coaching. When I was starting out, it wasn’t so easy to balance both roles. But the complex structure has evolved to where we don’t really have to favor one role over another. And, I decided I’d never view this dual role as a burden—but rather, as a tremendous asset.”

Still, he says he understands how once non-producing managers who must produce again to make a living might be resentful. “It’s tough,” he says. “I never gave up my book, so it’s been easier for me to be a producing manager.” But, as both his and Lewis’s stories suggest, keeping or even re-building a book can be well worth a manager’s while in the end.

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