From the October 2008 issue of Research Magazine • Subscribe!

October 1, 2008

And They're Off!

Are they horses or wholesalers? That was my first thought as I entered the hotel lobby for my broker-dealer's most recent national conference. The room buzzed with all the excitement of the Kentucky Derby pre-race festivities. The three-day event was chock full of exciting activities like pro baseball games, rock concerts and the all-important dine-arounds. And, of course, it offered financial advisors and hoards of sponsor personnel the opportunity to mingle freely with the hope of having one of those Kodak-moment bonding experiences.

For advisors, the national conference is a chance to scan the product horizon to see if there might actually be something new out there that would benefit their clients. This is no easy chore. Advisors must endure countless free drinks, squishy balls, key chains, pens, and -- with any luck -- a few Morton steaks to get to the details.

For wholesalers, this event presents an opportunity for them to actually speak to the advisors who have been dodging their phone calls for the past five years. How long each wholesaler may get to speak with these advisors is anyone's guess, so like any good thoroughbred, he or she needs to get out of the gates as fast as possible.

A couple of races tend to take place at the broker-dealer national conference. The first is the three-day race -- a marathon, if you will. Each wholesaler takes on as many advisors as he or she possibly can in three days. It's a free-for-all.

You can tell who the yearlings are right away. They barge into conversations with their business cards and widget brochure extended. "Hey, how about an appointment? Is Monday or Tuesday better for you?" An awkward silence and a glare or two usually follow these moments.

The savvy veterans, you can tell, have been here before. Their approach is subtler. It usually starts with a witty story or a joke. When Mr. Advisor relaxes, believing it unlikely that he will get hit in the head with a VA kit, Mr. Savvy goes to work. Using his expense account like a whip to a horse's butt, he charges ahead: "Let me pick up that tab for you. Can I buy your kid a pony?" Mr. Savvy can be shameless. He'll do whatever it takes.

Because Mr. Savvy is careful not to mention business, Mr. Advisor remains comfortable and continues slurping Chivas all the way down the home stretch. While Mr. Savvy is pushing Mr. Advisor back to his room on a luggage cart, it's time for the final sprint. Here, before Mr. Advisor loses consciousness, Mr. Savvy makes him sign an affidavit for a series of future appointments. To be on the safe side, Mr. Savvy snaps a few Polaroids, too. His work is done.

The big race -- otherwise known as the main event -- is the 10-minute presentation. This second race is more of a sprint than a marathon. In honor of their shelling out tens of thousands of dollars, the sponsor companies are given the opportunity to speak for 10 minutes in front of hundreds of advisors who would rather be having their prostates checked. Typically, the sponsors are brought up to speak one right after another to make the comparisons even more glaring.

If you happen to be in the lobby prior to the start of the big race, you'll know just what that pre-race paddock feels like. Groups of two and three are huddled closely, mapping strategies. Laptops are opened and BlackBerries are purring. One can only guess how many brain tumors are formed during events like these.

As in any horse race, at the end of the day there are winners and losers. Some do better than expected, while others break a leg and should be shot. The winners are congratulated; the others wander off dazed to pack up their booths. They've survived to race another day.

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Once a mildly amusing comedian, Bill Miller now works as a recruiter for a top independent broker-dealer; reach him at writingbill@mac.com.

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