From the March 2012 issue of Research Magazine • Subscribe!

Where Are the New Advisors?

Facing an exodus of talent, financial firms are getting creative about recruitment and seeking people from a broad range of backgrounds.

Where in the world are the industry’s new financial advisors coming from?

From the pharmaceutical industry, from the shipping industry, from the garment industry — and lots more.

Career-changers with proven track records are financial services firms’ most sought-after FA candidates.

And they are sorely needed. The hunt for new advisors is imperative, as more and more older, veteran FAs retire from the business. On top of that, the number of existing advisors has shrunk as a result of the financial crisis, which forced thousands of new FAs and others with weak franchises to exit the business. What’s more, for a time after the crisis, wirehouses curtailed training programs.

And to be sure, the down market and Wall Street scandals caused the profession of financial advisor to lose some of its luster.

According to a study by researchers Cerulli Associates, in Boston, the number of FAs industry-wide dropped from 334,919 in 2004 to 320,378 in 2010. At wirehouses, the total fell from 60,960 to 50,742. Exacerbating the problem of short supply, the average FA’s age last year was 49.6; at wirehouses, 50.6, Cerulli says.

“The problem is that there’s a stagnant, aging pool of financial advisors,” says Mark Elzweig, whose executive recruitment firm, Mark Elzweig Company, is in New York City.

And the problem isn’t going away any time soon.

“The need for new advisors is critical. It’s about to get massively critical because more and more advisors are retiring,” says Bob Patrick, director of education and development at Raymond James, based in St. Petersburg, Fla. “We’re losing more advisors than we’re gaining and who are sticking after five or six years. If we don’t do something about this soon, we’ll extinguish ourselves.”

Thus, firms have gone full throttle in trying to replenish. They have devised new and creative ways to find potential candidates and are offering attractive incentives to secure the ideal recruits.

Not only is work experience a top priority, firms are zeroing in on career-changers —versus young college grads — because they are likely to have overcome a few of life’s hard knocks. Facing adversity, they believe, toughens them enough to deal with the challenges and frustrations of building a practice.

That, they reason, will likely reduce the ever-high rookie drop-out rate. The number of new advisors remaining with firms after three years is, at most, 15 percent, Elzweig says.

But finding the right candidates isn’t a snap. In addition to experience, trainees must be disciplined self-starters with an entrepreneurial spirit who are good at building relationships and a client base. Certainly not least: they need to have demonstrated sales success and possess a network of affluent contacts upon whom they can draw to prospect — right away.

“It’s a rare confluence of abilities,” Elzweig remarks. “But unless they have the raw sales skills, stamina and are driven to work very long hours, they will not be successful.”

That’s why firms are betting on career-changers who have already made their mark in other fields.

“Our commitment is to grow the number of advisors in the industry, not just ‘trade advisors’ with other firms,’ says Tom Fickinger, head of advisor growth and development at Merrill Lynch, in New York City. “The majority of [trainees] we’ve been hiring are new to the industry. Last year we hired the largest amount of trainees into our program ever. The biggest challenge is finding the appropriate people — the ones who have the highest probability of being successful.”

Merrill is in its second year of targeting career-changers to train for its U.S. Wealth Management arm. And it has headed straight to the Internet to find them, mounting display advertising and nabbing significant presence on LinkedIn, CareerBuilder and Monster job-finder sites. Moreover, it uses advanced targeting techniques to reach folks with experience in industries they know transition well to a career in financial advisory; for example, pharmaceutical sales.

Plus, to attract new people, last year Merrill ran more than 100 “career seminars” in its 120 complexes. It has also hired recruiters for each of its markets to help identify and source potential advisors.

Unlike the old days, there is less emphasis by firms today on taking their recruiting message to masses of college undergrads, unless they employ pinpoint marketing strategies.

As Patrick notes: “We’re mostly looking for career-changers who have had at least five to seven years’ work experience after college, have had to fight through some adversity and who have a network they can turn back to immediately” to prospect.

 Raymond James, however, is seeking professionals in post-graduate programs who may be dissatisfied with their current jobs. Such students often have a local network ripe for prospecting.

And colleges offering accreditation toward wealth management is a prime source for Morgan Stanley Smith Barney.

“We spend a lot of time on those campuses,” says Barry Krouk, managing director and head of talent management. “We’re going where somebody has already declared their interest in certification in wealth management, or secondarily, wealth planning.”

MSSB also is big on employing social media to find new FAs. It networks through LinkedIn and other sites and has a robust online ad campaign, Krouk says. “We use social media both proactively — sourcing profiles — and reactively, where we join a chat or blog and participate, then look for referrals.”

Explains Krouk: “We’re looking for someone who has demonstrated success in a previous career and who understands the entrepreneurial spirit of what the FA role is. This is less about age and more about track record. It’s not hard-core sales we’re looking for but a person who’s been out prospecting and knows how to develop a client base.”

Interest Revives

While it’s still notably challenging for firms to find Mr. or Ms. Right Candidate, interest in becoming a financial advisor has been picking up.

“We’re in the mid-to-high 30s [percent] graduating from our training program,” Merrill’s Fickinger says. “We’re very proud of that. The numbers are slowly creeping up from the hires of 2008.”

At Edward Jones, in St. Louis, John Rahal, the firm’s partner responsible for financial advisor talent acquisition, notes: “As we get further from the cataclysmic events of 2008, professionals are more willing to hear about the opportunities in the financial services industry.  As with the ebb and flow of the market, so goes the ebb and flow of the attractiveness of our industry.”

Indeed, Krouk stresses that MSSB has “a broad enough applicant flow to find what [it’s] looking for. There is huge interest in this position. A general posting on a career site brings in a tremendous amount of applicants.”

Generally, the most desirable FA candidate is in the 30s -to-40s age range.

At Edward Jones, the median age of new recruits is 38. In January, the firm took a new tack in approaching professionals from other industries by deploying recruiting teams in selected markets nationwide. Partnering with existing FAs, they are inserting themselves into the community and even joining service organizations, such as the Kiwanis Club or chambers of commerce. Further, EJ is placing particular emphasis on locating people in transition, like those in the military.

It is also forming alliances with universities that have strong programs in entrepreneurship.  And it has a team dedicated to finding women and culturally diverse candidates via military and university channels.

“Competition from other firms and other industries for the right women is very [heavy],” Rahal says. Yet, last year 24 percent of the firm’s approximately 2,500 FA hires were female.

Many perceive women to have a natural knack for bonding and developing relationships.

Merrill, too, is making a push to hire more female trainees. In 2011 it was lead sponsor for three conferences held by iRelaunch, an organization for women seeking to reenter the workforce. This year it plans to expand that partnership.

The right female candidates are prized at Raymond James, where according to Patrick women are thought to be “flat-out better relationship-builders” than men. The B/D has set up its own network for women advisors. Recently, it began running regional meetings where existing RJ female FAs bring their women friends and colleagues interested in becoming advisors. Sometimes these are clients.

Firms’ more aggressive recruiting campaigns include improved screening processes designed to better determine who has what it takes to stick with the FA program.  When rookies wash out early — complaining of hard work and long ramp-up time to build a practice — it is often because firms have failed to accurately gauge their tenaciousness.

“Last year we put in place a process that does a better job of vetting the person to identify the top candidates likely to succeed,” notes Merrill’s Fickinger.

Across the board, interviewers are asking applicants questions meant to reveal more about themselves and are trying to ensure that would-be FAs fully understand the dedication the job requires.

“The more realistic our managers are with candidates in the interview process,” Krouck says, “and do a reality check before we offer them a job,” the better.

Still, Patrick points out: “Even though we try to overemphasize the challenges of the business, trainees underestimate how much work it takes and that you have to fight through hearing ‘no’ a lot more than ‘yes’ particularly early in your career. I wish I had a dollar for every time a trainee [in a prior program with those mostly in their mid-20s] said, ‘Boy, this is really hard work!’ I’d say, ‘We told you that. If it were easy, they’d be paying us all $10 an hour.’”

Creating Incentives

To attract more professionals and help them over the long road to building a fee-based business, firms have extended the length of training programs, all of them salary-guaranteed. For example, Raymond James went from just four weeks’ to two years’ training and now offers a base salary for five years.

Some paychecks can be substantial. “I’ve heard of [trainees] getting $100,000 or more, depending on the career they’re coming from,” Elzweig says. “The firms are making significant investments.”

Further, Merrill and MSSB are assigning a mentor or coach to each newbie to give them a boost. And last year Merrill put in place local practice-management and market-development people to help implement training.

Most importantly, wirehouses are encouraging rookies to team with senior advisors — even from Day One. At Merrill, 20 percent of new FA hires join teams right away.

Notes MSSB’s Krouk: “Success rates are exponentially greater when you’re working with someone at a local level.”

Meantime, B/Ds continue to search for candidates with that uncommon combination of qualities and experience.

One new advisor, Robin Bailey, who joined Edward Jones just short of two years ago, fit the firm’s target profile to a “t”: He was a career-changer, with a strong sales background, who had a long successful run in the printing industry. As a bonus, he’d been investing his own money for more than two decades.

The jovial Bailey, 53, who set up shop in Cross Lanes, West Virginia, is unfazed by all the hard work. But “you do have to make yourself available,” he says. “You’ve got to get up every morning and go get it — because nobody is going to bring it to you.”

And go-getters are just what broker-dealers are nowadays in their quest for new FAs.

“If we can bring in 100 quality people a year and have a 50 percent success rate, I’d be thrilled,” Patrick says. “We’re creating the next generation of advisors who can take a book over from a retiring advisor and continue things on.”

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