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An 'Old-School' Branch Manager in a Whole New World

More work, same pay has been the story for branch office managers over the past decade. It took a tragedy among his ranks to help one Wells Fargo manager find personal value in an increasingly difficult job.

In 1996, at age 35, the former FA and regional sales manager Stephen Viets was already becoming a branch manager for the second time at what was then Prudential Securities’ Carmel, CA office. He oversaw 25 reps. It was a time when BoMs were highly revered by both their firms and the advisors they managed.

He did his job well, moved up the ranks and now is a Market Manager for Wells Fargo Advisors, overseeing seven branch offices across Las Vegas and California’s Central Valley. He visits 100 advisors and 90 support personnel monthly. In the first quarter of 2012, he drove 14,000 miles. He still remains primary office manager of WFA’s central Las Vegas office, with 25 advisors, $3 billion in AUM and $12 million in revenue.

Despite the increased responsibilities, his compensation has been “dramatically unchanged” since his early days in Carmel. Where single-office branch office managers used to make some 4% of their branch’s total revenue, today that number is closer to 1%. Everyone has taken a pay cut. “I’ve actually always been pretty well paid,” Viets explains. “It’s just that I have a lot more work to do these days.” Wells Fargo says it wants its market managers to oversee a single office to keep them close to clients and avoid creating a purely administrative level of management.

But becoming a Market Manager just months before the crash of 2008 made Viets’ job far tougher than anyone could have imagined. A 51-year-old advisor in Viets’ Las Vegas branch took his own life. "The man felt there wasn’t any future for him,” Viets says. “But we would have been a lot better off today if he was here."

In retrospect, neither Viets, who hold a master’s degree in psychology, nor the rep’s colleagues can point to any signs that the advisor was suicidal. A police investigation found him to be happily married and free of financial, legal and health troubles. WFA followed up with its own investigation, Viets said, to ensure no professional impropriety had occurred.

“This was one of my finest and most risk-averse advisors,” he recalls. “I still don’t know why this happened. Some people are overwhelmed when they feel they’ve lost control over everything. I think that may have been the case here.”

The tragedy re-confirmed for Viets that building personal relationships with advisors and mentoring them – the kind of work for which brand managers were once so admired – is every bit as important today, despite the increased pile of administrative and managerial tasks that need to be completed.

“I was led to believe this rep was not speaking to a mental health professional,” Viets says. “If he were, he might still be here. Immediately after his death, I distributed mental health hotline cards to all of my employees. Three have since told me they were glad I did this—that they actually sought counseling.”

This tragedy helped Viets realize that his strength as a manager was to "instill confidence in people whey when they don't have it. I have to help create or paint a vision for them, and give them a reason to go forward."

“I know every one of their birthdays, their wives and kids, their interests, passions, etc.,” Viets says. “I have to. That lets them to feel they can come to me with professional or personal issues, which is critical to the success of any manager.”

He recalls trying to manage an advisor who seemed to lack any motivation. “He was what I call a ‘lifestyle broker,’” Viets says. “Just happy with the status quo, and not looking to work any harder.”

“I sought advice from an old college psychology professor. He told me to ask the guy what his parents had died of. I was surprised to say the least but I asked. He told me they both died of cancer. Then, the professor said, ‘ask him if he loved his parents.’ I just followed along with these seemingly silly questions. He told me he adored them. Next, the professor had me suggest that he help fund an oncology wing at the hospital where his parent were treated – in their memory. The advisor loved the idea, began working really hard and was ultimately able to do it. There was always a vision in this guy’s heart—we all just needed to find out precisely what it was. Without visions, people perish.”

Several months ago, David Jancuk stepped down from his job as producing branch manager with Morgan Stanley Smith Barney after two years to become a full-time producer in Viets’ Henderson, NV branch. Having known Viets for seven years—and having known, first-hand, the difficulties of branch management in today’s world—made the decision easy, he says. “I could easily have produced at MSSB, or anywhere else,” says the nearly million-dollar producer. “But, I told myself if I ever left management, I’d go work for Steve. He loves his job—eats, sleeps and breathes it. A former BoM myself, I couldn’t imagine where else I’d find that these days.”

And while Jancuk’s branch is not the location Viets runs directly, he says it doesn’t matter. “He visits all of us all the time. He always answers his phone. His knowledge of the stock market is amazing. He’s hands-on with everyone in his market. He just accompanied me on a meeting with five of my largest accounts.”

While there are seven branch managers within Viets’ market to guide advisors, Jancuk says, “there’s something about having upper management walk in your door on a regular basis to chat or brainstorm with you that really makes you feel valued.”

Chris McInnis has been a rep for Viets in WFA’s western Las Vegas branch since 2004. And while during that time Viets’ responsibilities and territory have grown exponentially, McInnis says “he does the same things for his reps today that always has. When he visits each branch, he doesn’t run right up to the top producers first. He’s taught me a lot about the business, and a lot about life. I’m both a better a rep—and a better person-- for having known him.”

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