Brokers Go Gray as Youth Unsustainable Without Cold Calls
Alex Freemon was so eager to be a stockbroker after graduating from the Georgia Institute of Technology last year that he said he was happy to go door to door selling mutual funds for Edward Jones & Co.
The brokerage flew him to St. Louis, where he practiced knocking on a model door in a classroom of would-be brokers at the company’s headquarters, then sent him back to Atlanta to walk the streets for 10 hours a day for about $30,000 a year plus commissions. Freemon said he quit in March after realizing he would have to spend five years struggling to meet sales goals before he could focus on helping clients make financial plans.
“Until you actually go out and hit the pavement, it doesn’t really sink in,” said Freemon, 23, who now works as a business analyst at a software company in Atlanta. “It’s not impossible, but it’s definitely not sustainable if you have a family or anything to do besides knocking on doors.”
Breaking into the brokerage business is getting tougher as declining fees make small accounts less profitable and government restrictions on unsolicited calls make phone sales taboo. That’s leaving big firms struggling to replace a retiring generation of advisers who helped accumulate trillions of dollars of assets and generated steady profits for years.
“The only way you can do it is if your dad is rich and he’s got country-club buddies he can send you or you’re a psycho who can work 20 hours a day,” said Josh Brown, who helps oversee about $350 million at Fusion Analytics Investment Partners LLC in New York.
Stockbrokers have for decades helped manage Americans’ money, earning commissions when they sold securities, mutual funds and other products to individual investors. The biggest brokerages -- Merrill Lynch, Morgan Stanley (MS), Wells Fargo & Co. (WFC) and UBS AG (UBSN) -- have seen their market share drop to 42 percent from 49 percent in 2007 amid competition from discount brokers and independent advisers, according to Sean Daly, an analyst at Boston-based research firm Cerulli Associates.
The shift to discount brokerages is happening as individual investors return to the stock market. Charles Schwab Corp. (SCHW)’s client assets rose 14 percent in the first quarter, as the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index (SPX) headed toward a record 1633.77 yesterday. That’s more than twice the 6 percent increase for Bank of America Corp. (BAC)’s wealth-management unit.
Brokers also are leaving the biggest firms to join or start smaller money-management businesses, known as registered investment advisers, that don’t take commissions. From 2009 to 2012, the ranks of investment advisers increased 7 percent while the number of brokers fell 9 percent, according Aite Group LLC, a financial-research company based in Boston.
Brokerages have cut back on training costs since the financial crisis to boost profits, helping increase the average age of advisers at the biggest firms last year to 53, up from 48 in 2009, Daly said. To maintain their ranks, they’re paying millions of dollars in bonuses to lure experienced advisers, said Howard Diamond, a recruiter in Chester, New Jersey.
“It’s an eat-what-you-kill kind of industry, and unless you can hit the ground running, the firms are just not that interested in you,” Diamond said.
Morgan Stanley (MS), which has 16,000 brokers, more than any other firm, last year reduced its trainee class to 1,250 from 2,000 to cut costs, Chief Financial Officer Ruth Porat said on a conference call in July. Christine Jockle, a spokeswoman for the firm, said the smaller training program is still sufficient to replace advisers who leave.
Bank of America plans to hire at least 1,200 trainees this year at its Merrill Lynch brokerage unit, which has the second-most advisers, down from 2,500 in 2012, according to Susan McCabe, a spokeswoman for the Charlotte, North Carolina-based bank. She said the fluctuation was normal and declined to say how big the training program was previously.
“Nearly 80 percent of our revenue comes from people who started in the training program,” Dwight Mathis, head of new adviser strategy at Merrill Lynch, said in an interview.
Selling stocks to individual investors has long been a way into Wall Street for young men with little experience. Former Citigroup Inc. Chief Executive Officer Sanford I. “Sandy” Weill started his career as a broker at Bear Stearns Cos. He was so shy at the time that his wife would call him at the office to remind him to pick up the phone and find clients, according to “Tearing Down the Walls,” a 2003 biography by Monica Langley.
Billionaire investor Carl Icahn’s first Wall Street job was at Dreyfus & Co., according to his website. A former colleague who asked not to be identified because he still works in the industry said he knew Icahn would be successful when the colleague was trying to pick up a woman at a dance at a Catskills resort and saw Icahn sign up her father as a client. Icahn and Weill didn’t respond to messages seeking comment.
“We were viewed back then as having a lot of information that no one else had,” said David McWilliams, who became a broker in 1978 when he was 21 and now heads wealth-management transformation at the U.S. brokerage of Zurich-based UBS. “You couldn’t get a stock quote without calling us.”
Eight of the 10 brokers profiled in the 1992 book “The Winner’s Circle” got started by cold calling, or pitching stocks and bonds over the phone to strangers. One describes it as “dialing for dollars -- that dreary process every broker must endure during the initial stages of his or her career,” according to the book.
“It’s a numbers game,” said Chris Gardner, whose struggle to make it through the training program at Dean Witter Reynolds Inc. while homeless and raising a son was the basis for the 2006 movie “The Pursuit of Happyness.”
“You just sit down and you start making the calls, 200 phone calls a day,” said Gardner, who closed his brokerage Gardner Rich LLC last year and is now a motivational speaker. “That’s not going to be effective anymore. Everything now is done electronically.”
That’s been made more difficult by the popularity of the National Do Not Call Registry, established by the Federal Trade Commission in 2003. The list has grown to 217.6 million telephone numbers in the U.S., which has a population of about 315 million people, according to the agency’s website.
“Cold calling is certainly challenging given the advent of no-call lists,” said Tom Allen, who helps run Wells Fargo’s 800-person training program, where trainees are 36 years old on average. “Everybody’s got caller ID these days, and everybody screens their calls.”
Advisers need more experience now because they spend the majority of their time helping clients with retirement and estate planning rather than pitching stocks, UBS’s McWilliams said. The Swiss bank this year will place almost half of its 200 trainees into salaried positions helping established brokers rather than starting them as commissioned salesmen, he said.
Wall Street’s training cutbacks have left Edward Jones, a 91-year-old St. Louis-based firm with more than 12,000 advisers, as a bigger employer of would-be brokers than Morgan Stanley and Merrill Lynch (MER) combined. It hired 2,682 trainees last year and plans to add a similar number this year, according to Steve Kuehl, a partner who helps run the program.
“Rather than growing our financial advisers through acquisition, we have an organic-growth model,” Kuehl said in a phone interview. “We try to help them learn how to present their value proposition in terms of helping people meet their financial goals. The core is face-to-face.”
Early in their training, Edward Jones brings new brokers to its headquarters, where they practice knocking on doors and talking over finances in “role-play suites” designed to look like homes or offices, Kuehl said. They review tapes of themselves with coaches to improve their technique, he said.
“The idea is to get them talking about something,” said Chris Mackey, 25, who worked at Edward Jones for about a year starting in 2011, after playing football for Jacksonville State University in Alabama and a stint at Merrill Lynch. “Ultimately the goal would be to get the name and phone number.”
Ted Jones, the son of Edward Jones’s founder, used to visit training classes to jab the air with red boxing gloves labeled “handshaking calls” and “phone calls” to emphasize the need for both kinds of contacts, according to the firm’s website.
“They’re the only ones that train that way,” said Danny Sarch, president of recruiting firm Leitner Sarch Consultants Ltd., based in White Plains, New York. “They don’t participate in the recruiting wars.”
After the role-playing, Edward Jones brokers return to their towns, where they’re told to go door to door to compile a list of prospects. Michael Cheung, who worked for the firm in 2010 when he was 25, said he’d sweat through his clothes walking in Gulfport, Mississippi, until he looked like he “came out of a swimming pool.” Brokers must watch out for dogs, he said.
“The ones that chase you are the small ones, like a Chihuahua, but they’re very aggressive,” said Cheung, who now works for Scottrade Inc. in Austin, Texas, helping Chinese-speaking customers trade online.
New Hampshire regulators said in a complaint last month seeking a $3 million fine that Edward Jones brokers knock on doors to circumvent the do-not-call rules. John Boul, a spokesman for the company, said the case was based on a single complaint and that the firm denied the allegations.
Old-fashioned salesmanship has been working well for Edward Jones. Net revenue for Jones Financial Cos., the brokerage’s closely held parent, rose to a record $5.03 billion last year and has climbed 42 percent since 2009, outpacing Merrill Lynch’s 10 percent growth in the period, regulatory filings show.
The training program has allowed Edward Jones to keep its sales force about the same size even as more than 10 percent of its brokers have left each year since 2007, the filings show.
Hiring brokers away from competitors isn’t a sustainable strategy for replacing those who retire, according to Bob Patrick, 51, director of education and development at Raymond James Financial Inc. (RJF) The company, based in St. Petersburg, Florida, has extended its 138-person training program to two years from four weeks to increase its success rate, he said.
“We can’t keep rotating people around because we all keep getting older,” Patrick said. “We’re extincting ourselves.”
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