They are problem-solvers. They are cheerleaders. And they roll up their sleeves to work alongside their advisors these Top 10 Branch Managers for 2010. In the four years since MainStay Investments/New York Life offered to sponsor this event, the people who have led the pack have stood out for their devotion to their staff of financial advisors, as well as to their clients. Obviously, these two groups go hand-in-hand. You can't build and maintain a successful and profitable branch in the financial advisory business unless both the advisors and their customers are satisfied.

Whether it has been more regular face-to-face meetings with clients, or getting an outside coach to assess the strengths and weaknesses of an office, these top performers take the necessary —and sometimes unpleasant — steps to make it work. Yes, it's about recruiting star talent, but it's also about retaining those advisors and their clients; keeping morale up when the markets come crashing down and clients are in a panic; and keeping everyone on track so advisors can help clients meet their financial goals. Branch managers have to manage up, as well as down, so it's not an easy job — not by a long shot. So, here is a brief snapshot (presented alphabetically) of each of the Top 10 Branch Managers for 2010, who will be honored at a dinner in New York City in early May.

 

J. Steven Austin
Managing Director,  Complex Manager
Morgan Stanley Smith Barney, Birmingham, Mich.
Number of advisors: 169
Branch AuM: $13.3 billion
Branch Revenue: $100 million

Steven Austin's motto could well be, "Opportunity knocks, and I answer." That's how Austin became a financial advisor and, later, a branch manager.

"It's [working in the financial services industry] the best thing I've ever done in my life, other than marry the woman I married," he says. "I cannot think of any other industry that would have me that has such a potential for good."

Back in 1987, fresh from Texas A&M with an engineering degree, the Lone Star native was trying to sell radio ads at the Shearson Lehman Brothers branch in Austin, Texas, when he caught the attention of a Shearson manager. The man convinced Austin to enter the brokerage house's training program. Fast forward to 1994, Austin was at a Smith Barney company dinner, seated next to one of its executives. That executive recognized leadership qualities in Austin, and the next step for him was branch manager.

Austin believes in accountability and measuring success. And that goes for each of the 169 FAs and 80 support staff that work in the three branches he oversees. One technique is to "huddle" daily at the Birmingham, Mich., branch before the market opens. During the a.m. gathering, Austin and his staff review strategies, and he acknowledges FAs for reaching goals. All the while, Austin thinks that work should be fun. For instance, "upbeat music," such as ZZ Top, plays at the morning meeting to get the staff ready for the day, Austin says. "I want them to go out energized to build client relations," he adds.

Austin, having coached his children's sports teams, brings those mentoring skills to the office, where he tailors his management approach to the individual FA.

— Michelle Lodge

 

John Decker
Managing Director, Branch Manager
UBS Financial Services, New York, NY
Number of advisors: 150
Branch AuM: Over $15 billion
Branch Revenue: More than $100 million

John Decker first came into his role at his New York office in 1992, when it was a start-up Paine Webber office with $700 million in assets. Today it has grown to more than $15 billion.

That achievement is just part of the ambition that Decker works to create with his team. "We started in the mid-90s with the goal of building the best branch in the world," Decker says, "and that's still my goal."

To help accomplish that, Decker has filled his team with people who love to win and often have overcome adversity to get to where they are. In turn, Decker helps them to identify business, family and personal goals and how he can create a win-win situation for both them and the firm.

Decker says he adopted that win-win strategy for survival while growing up with three stronger, older brothers on a farm in Michigan. He also treats his branch employees like family. That includes sending birthday cards to every employee, their spouse and their children, as well as employment and wedding anniversary cards. "You can't imagine how many cards this [amounts to] with 400 people in the branch," Decker says.

Decker also loves seeing clients "win," whether it be with retirement, children's education, establishing a hospital wing in their name, or simply making more time for family. "I just love helping people reach their business, family or personal goals," Decker says. "I love helping people get what they want."

— Lorie Konish

 

Frank Drago,
Senior VP Wealth Management|
Citi Personal Wealth, New York, New Jersey
Number of advisors: 73
Branch AuM: $8.4 billion
Branch Revenue: $33.9 million

In the last year, Frank Drago rolled up his sleeves and took a nine-month crash course alongside his own advisors to prepare for the exam for the Certified Financial Planner designation.

Some of his advisors were surprised to find out how much he still remembered from his career beginnings as a financial advisor, says Drago, who plans to sit for the CFP exam in July. The test will require rigorous preparation in the coming months, says Drago, who has trained for enduring challenges both professionally and personally, having run marathons and worked up to a three golf handicap.

Working alongside the financial advisors toward a common goal is also a habit, Drago says. The CFP certification plans follow Citi's push to have its advisors advance toward financial designations including the CFP, CIMA or CFA, he says. But Drago does not hesitate to help his FAs in other ways.

One of his financial advisors recently came and thanked him, Drago says, for convincing him about a decade ago that he could successfully make the transition to the commission-based position from the bank side. Now with a son in college, that advisor has been able to pay the full tuition, Drago says.

"That stuff doesn't put any money in my pocket, but it just gets my juices flowing," Drago says. "It's really why I'm in this business and why I'm doing what I'm doing." 

— Lorie Konish

 

Catherine Galgano
Complex Manager, Senior VP
Morgan Stanley Smith Barney, Hartford, Conn.
Number of advisors: 110
Branch AuM: $8.3 billion
Branch Revenue: $60 million

Clients continuously are looking for the highest level of engagement. They're looking for more out of their relationship with their advisor than they did five or 10 years ago," Catherine Galgano says. And, given the world's increasing reliance on social media, it's an ongoing challenge to use these networks to the fullest to improve the client experience.

While tools, like Linkedin, are less than a decade old, a desire to improve communication with clients is ageless. But in times of economic uncertainty, an extra bit of hand-holding is warranted, she says. "Many clients have become paralyzed by (difficult market conditions). It has become more difficult to get them to make decisions and to take action," Galgano says.

"So we constantly and consistently have client workshops and seminars. They're looking for that higher level of engagement."

What seems to be working is face-to-face contact. "We typically have events where we ask our older generation to invite either younger children or grandchildren so that we can develop multi-generational relationships and build relationships with that generation," she says.

The Morgan Stanley branch manager says that she is constantly working with her staff on marketing plans, "so that they can lay out a level of client engagement that is significantly higher and greater than what other advisors are doing in the marketplace."

Going forward, the plan is to increase the number of client events. Galgano plans to do least nine a year so clients and prospective clients can meet with experts.

— Judy Schoolman

 

Michael Hines
President, Consolidated Planning Corp.
Raymond James Financial, Atlanta, Ga.
Number of advisors: 6
Branch AuM: $402.8 million
Branch Revenue: $2.7 million

When Michael Hines first saw the clouds over the markets lifting in late 2009, he made an unusual move. This two-time top ten branch manager hired an outside coach to assess his Atlanta office, and even subjected himself to the process.

The results included some morale issues that blind sided Hines. To change that, the entire team started having monthly, all-day meetings. A management team was formed to consider issues once entirely handled by Hines. The team also streamlined their work with clients, creating a tiered priority system based on revenue to make sure they consistently reached top clients. All of their clients, in turn, were given a list of contacts they could regularly follow up with.

Those new developments have only built on the confidence Hines had in his team going into the financial crisis. Even though the 2008 fallout happened while he was on a business trip to Ecuador, he did not have to leave immediately, knowing his team was up to the challenge.

To deal with the crisis, Hines has leaned on his early career experiences in the 1970s when the markets were also turbulent. "It made me realize you can go through tough times and survive," Hines says. "But you have to have a long-term perspective. You have to think about 10 years, not 10 months for your investments."

— Lorie Konish

 

Sin Kwoun
Branch Manager
Wells Fargo Advisors, Washington, DC
Number of advisors: 37
Branch AuM: $1.7 billion
Branch Revenue: $2.7 million

When asked about his management style, Sin Kwoun recalls a favorite saying of his first mentor: "Authority is a poor substitute for leadership. "For Kwoun, that means setting a positive tone and blocking anything that gets in the way of advisors' new business and revenue goals. It also means open communication.

Kwoun put that philosophy to work when his office began a large technology integration in 2009. Adjusting to the change was more complicated for Kwoun's team, he says, which includes a couple of combined former A.G. Edwards' offices. While the switch was "ugly" for a few months, according to Kwoun, open forum meetings eventually turned from gripes about the new system, to talking about positive new features that it offered. A team member also passed along constructive criticism to the program's creators, which resulted in continued improvements.

"Just because people don't talk about it doesn't mean it isn't there," Kwoun says. "I just try to nip that and say, 'Listen, anything you could say to anybody else you can say to me. I'm not going to judge you. I will defend what I do and what we do as a company. But the thing to remember is it's not us against you. We're all in this together.'"

— Lorie Konish

 

Frank LaRosa
Complex Manager, Senior VP
Morgan Stanley Smith Barney, Mt. Laurel, NJ
Number of advisors: 172
Branch AuM: $14.2 billion
Branch Revenue: $115 million

Frank LaRosa first began training as an investment advisor while attending college full-time and studying for the Series 7 exam. Still, he worked full-time and maintained a number one spot at the top of the 175-member class at Prudential for three consecutive years.

The ability to set ones work apart is what first attracted LaRosa, who competes as a boxer in his spare time, to this business, he says.

"[Boxing is] an individual sport where you know right away if you're doing a good job or not," LaRosa says. "And you can't blame anybody else for not being prepared. And that's what I love about this business. If you're successful, you did it on your own. If you fail, you can't blame anybody."

LaRosa knew that he could grow his business and become a multi-million dollar producer. But he says that personal achievement could not compare to the opportunity to help advisors grow their businesses.

"To give them an idea, have them take that idea, run with it, and then have it work and have them benefit and trust that you're there to help them," LaRosa says. "Those are the rewarding parts of what I like to do."

Evidence of those rewards came in 2010 when, as complex director for Southern New Jersey, LaRosa's team was the only office in the region to have positive net acquired assets and were also number one in gross revenue increase. LaRosa has since been promoted to complex manager in Philadelphia, the largest complex in the region.

— Lorie Konish

Jeffrey Reiss
Complex Manager, Senior VP
Morgan Stanley Smith Barney, Jericho, NY
Number of advisors: 135
Branch AuM: $10.5 billion
Branch Revenue: $93 million

When faced with a team that was thinking of splitting up, Jeffrey Reiss made one condition: they had to talk it out.

During that conversation, Reiss says, talk turned from team members airing out their problems, to convincing themselves, and each other that they should stay together. Now several months later, the discord has become a joke, even to the team, Reiss says, and their performance has skyrocketed.

That incident is part of an open communication style that Reiss strives for. "We don't always have to agree," Reiss says, who has been named a top 10 branch manager for the second time. "We want to encourage people to have a valid, strong opinion, and everybody's on the same team to win." Reiss' complex has also vowed to take that same upfront communication approach to clients. Following the market crisis, the advisors now strive to be way ahead of market trends, Reiss says, which means they will be ready with a proactive approach if similar events happen again.

Most of Reiss' job involves making sure the advisors get the tools they need, which he works to ensure with regular management meetings and constant contact with management and FAs in person and by email, text and phone. "Many of our people are just so well trained," Reiss says. "They just need to continually get out in front of new monies, and to be able to figure out with them how to do that ... gives them a degree of confidence."

— Lorie Konish

 

Stephen Viets
Managing Director
Wells Fargo Advisors, Las Vegas, NV
Number of advisors: 25
Branch AuM: $5.6 billion
Branch Revenue: More than $12 million

Moving forward owes much to recognizing mistakes and tragedies of the past, according to Stephen Viets, who can look upon his more than 30 years in the financial industry and 20 years as a branch manager.

"What I discovered was the ability to put your arms around somebody's shoulder and feel genuine empathy, while giving them a definitive plan," he says. This wisdom comes amid what he calls the most "gut wrenching" time-from 2008 to the present.

The times have been so hard, he said, that one his people, "actually one of my best people," took his own life. "The man felt there wasn't any future. But we would have been a lot better off today if he was here," he says.

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

Viets likens this vision to an aircraft's flight plan. "You don't want to deviate from that plan, you want to stay on course. Right now we got forced down heading from New York to California. But we haven't crashed and we're not out of the game and we're going to get back up in the air."

One area for improvement going forward is for the advisors in his branch to communicate with clients more. Even though he said that networking sites such as Linkedin and Facebook can be used to increase business, his advisors don't currently use these tools. "It's generational."

In planning for the future, Viets looks forward and voices concern about government and regulatory issues that may affect the industry. He also looks back at the last 36 months to determine what went right or wrong. He then develops a plan based on that assessment for the future.

 — Judy Schoolman

 

Thomas Walrond
Complex Manager
Raymond James & Associates, Bala Cynwyd, PA
Number of advisors: 62
Branch AuM: $4.4 billion
Branch Revenue: $35 million

Thomas Walrond was a man in search of a branch to manage, so he started his own. "I convinced them [Raymond James] to take a risk and let me open up a Philadelphia office in 1998," Walrond says. "We've gone from zero to $35 million in revenue and expanded from one branch to 12, in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware."

Such a risk, albeit a calculated one, is common for Walrond. He's the same guy who changed his college major in the 11th hour — from computer studies to finance — after he realizing that a more rewarding career was in the financial services. "I wanted to work with people more," he explains, which is something that the tech world lacked for him.

Now, with 13 years as a branch manager — who also maintains a roster of his own clients —Walrond believes in staying on the lookout for whatever enables the 62 financial advisors in the dozen branches to excel.

One way has been to institute a policy whereby his FAs create an investment guide for each client. He encourages the advisors to use the plan throughout the year and to "not let their emotions and the headlines impact the investment decision process."

A second way has been to set up "client appreciation" get-togethers for FAs and their customers to interact. One such lavish affair, for 250 of the branches' best clients, was held at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, with a viewing of its exhibit of the 19th century Russian painter Marc Chagall, replete with food from one of city's best caterers.

The final element, an key to Walrond's success: It's the "we" factor. "In leading financial advisors, you almost have to be collaborative, if you are to excel and be a good leader. That's the differentiating point."

— Michelle Lodge