Times are tough for branch managers. And, like many people facing challenges, there’s often much to be gained by the support of your peers (hence, the existence of this newsletter). But, when a manager recently called our office asking if there were any “associations” whereby BoMs could ask one another questions and share ideas, we found that, outside of firms’ occasional Branch Manager Advisory Council meetings—which most of the managers we asked dismissed as “company -supervised rhetoric”—there really weren’t any. (Of course, the RegisteredRep.com Advisor Forums host lively debates.)
Securities America is trying to change that. Branch managers and OSJs seemingly getting a no-holes-barred chance to benefit from the experience and expertise of their colleagues through the firm’s newly-formed branch manager collaborative study groups, and through “BranchXchange”—an on-line internal peer-to-peer communication forum for branch managers, introduced last August.
BranchXchange is the latest in a series of internal communications initiatives developed by SA, says Gregg Johnson, the firm’s senior vice president and director of branch office development and acquisitions. In 2007, AskSamX—an internal blog site for financial advisors—was introduced, allowing them to converse and ask questions on a variety of topics ranging from practice management and planning strategies to products and services. The site averages 15 to 20 conversations per day, and a statement released by the firm earlier this year indicated that “nearly 50 percent of [its] producing advisors are benefiting from the experience and expertise of their colleagues.”
Securities America is an independent firm with over 1,900 advisors nationwide. Its 155 branches— defined as offices with 3 or more reps— house 1,174 of them. Each branch has its own BoM/OSJ, Johnson explains. Most of the remaining 600 reps report directly to SA’s Kearney, Nebraska, home office, and use its compliance services, and other back-office support.
“Our branch managers and OSJs have a wealth of knowledge and expertise in a wide range of issues,” Johnson says. "We felt that providing a systematic way for them to share their individual expertise and experiences would be enormously helpful to them.” So began BranchXchange (and AssistantXpert is another internal blog site the firm recently formed for sales assistants.)
BranchxChange has been particularly useful, Johnson says, since the firm—like many IBDs—has seen tremendous growth due, in large part, to the travails of the larger investment firms. “While the majority of our advisors come from other independent firms,” Johnson says, “in 2008, our wirehouse recruits were up 40 percent. As we grew, we wanted our managers to be able to share ideas on how to deal with and facilitate this growth; how to recruit, attract and retain wirehouse reps. The list goes on.”
Johnson’s own job responsibilities include helping recruit advisors and branch offices from other firms, and working with existing branches on expansion. He stresses the firm is not trying to police the site in any way; it’s meant to be an open forum. “The content is driven by them. The primary goal is for them to bounce ideas off—and get feedback from—one another.”
Additionally, Securities America’s first day-long Branch Managers Study Group—where a roundtable of twenty BoMs and OSJs were asked to share their “best practices”—took place in October. The event was so well-received, he says, that the group plans to meet every three months (the next is scheduled for June). It generated enough interest that SA is now forming a second group.
“I don’t know of anything like this,” says Don Patrick, sole branch manager for Atlanta-based Integrated Financial Group, a nationwide consortium of 55 independent FAs—and an additional staff of 35—which uses SA as its broker/dealer. “One of the biggest challenges is a sense of isolation,” he says. “The collaborative study groups—and on-line systems like BranchXchange and AskSamX—are taking that away and letting us benefit, both from industry experts, and from one another. BranchXchange is still growing, because it’s new. But, I have no doubt it will be enormously popular. AskSamX has been so successful that we’ve created a similar system for our own advisors.”
An important note: “We had our branch managers pay all of their own travel expenses for the first study group and plan to continue to do so,” Johnson says. “This ensures that we’re getting folks who really want to be there.”
While most of the regional and wirehouse firms also have branch manager advisory councils, some legacy wirehouse BOMs—who asked not to be identified—did not believe they were of much help to branch managers.
“These meetings are definitely policed by upper management,” says one wirehouse BOM in the southwest, “so we know we’re only hearing what they want us to. They are supposed to meet quarterly, but I haven’t seen one in over a year,” he says. “And, our branch managers are not encouraged to share ideas outside of this forum. In fact, I would say that any branch manager who wants to keep his job knows better than to be seen—or found communicating with—another BOM.”
And while the notion of an internal branch manager blog site sounds great, says another wirehouse BOM in New York, “I don’t see how it could ever really work. I think upper management would be afraid that managers would discuss their compensation and find huge inequities. I also think that if one manager had a problem with the firm, he might publicize it and try to encourage his peers to leave. The reality is that compensation should be fair across the board, and firms should work to keep an unhappy manager on board. We should be able to have a program like BranchXchange. But, I just don’t see it happening.”