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Stepping Out

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SOUND BITE: “The Wells Fargo brand has been phenomenal. It’s been a big win-win.”

Sometime this summer, the last Wachovia Securities branch signs will disappear as the Wells Fargo Advisors logo rises in their place.

It’s been a long time coming. The iconic Wells Fargo & Co. acquired Wachovia nearly a year and a half ago — a period during which Wachovia was consumed with integrating its own acquisition of A.G. Edwards.

At the helm: Jim Hays, a Wachovia veteran who heads Wells Fargo Advisors’ new private client group, a division of more than 11,000 financial advisors split just about evenly between Wachovia and A.G. Edwards alums.

“What’s different now from a year ago is that then we were in the middle of a merger, spending a lot of time merging branch offices, policies, procedures, compensation programs. In the private client group, we are out of that mode now,” says Hays, 46. “Now, we’re spending much more time focusing on growth and being a great operator of the business versus being a great integrator of two organizations.”

As part of the process, Wells Fargo Advisors has retained or reengineered best practices from its two legacy firms. A client loyalty program, called 4Front, which rewards advisors for enhancing their relationships with clients, is a carryover from Wachovia. So is Envision, an investment and financial planning tool. A holdover from A.G. Edwards: the firm’s much lauded training program, which Hays defines as “best in class.”

Meanwhile, Wells Fargo, the nation’s biggest mortgage lender, has grown its investment banking business post-merger in response to demand from the private client group’s corporate clients. It’s not just about delivering more small business loans and syndicate and structured product offerings, Hays says, but providing access to thought leadership.

“Everyone brings something to the party,” he notes.

One of the biggest additions: the Wells Fargo brand itself.

“Our advisors have said ‘Thank God we’re with Wells Fargo.’ The Wells Fargo brand has this long, long history. When the market was at its most volatile, our local banking stores had so much demand from clients just walking in making deposits. They saw it as a safe haven, a place of stability,” says Hays. “Our advisors viewed it the same way. They wanted to distance themselves from the Wachovia brand.”

Wells Fargo acquired Wachovia Corp. on Dec. 31, 2008, the eve of a new year that included historic market turbulence and lingering reputation issues associated with Wachovia’s purchase of Golden West Financial. Dubbed by The Wall Street Journal as “the Deal from Hell,” the acquisition of Golden West — anything but golden — resulted in huge losses for Wachovia.

After a tough year like 2009, Hays says advisors are ready to “get on with it.”

At an annual kickoff meeting for branch managers recently, Hays said you could feel the change in momentum.

“I think if I had to sum up, I’d say advisors want to be positive. They are ready to be in a good mood. The markets have changed, the pace of change has slowed down for us and they feel a lot of relief,” he says. “You could physically see that morale was good and people are ready to move forward.”

Hays, who has a degree in finance from University of Virginia, has worn many hats during his long run in the business. He got his start in 1986, when he and his brother founded an investment banking firm. After that, he joined Merrill Lynch, where he worked seven years as a financial advisor, the last two as a producing sales manager.

During his 18-year tenure with Merrill Lynch, Hays served as managing director of the Silicon Valley Complex in San Jose, Calif., and later as managing director of training and leadership development for the firm’s global private client group. Prior to joining Wachovia as president of that firm’s private client group in 2006, Hays headed Merrill’s private banking and investment group, its ultra-high-net-worth division.

At the moment, Hays is wholly concentrated on his to-do list for 2010. “It’s a big list,” he says. His overarching goal: to grow the business. “There’s a lot of talk around here about client loyalty. That’s our No. 1 objective: to be tops in client loyalty. To do that, you’ve also got to have the highest financial advisor loyalty in the business. The most important driver of client loyalty is their advisor.”

Importantly, Hays isn’t focused on growing revenues by adding advisors — but by helping existing advisors become more productive. If history is a guide, he should be successful. As Hays puts it: “When Wachovia had done a merger, and there were 10 in 11 years, we grew our financial advisor productivity at twice the rate of the industry. It usually happens because you have new products and services that come onto the platform like asset management and lending.” A.G. Edwards, for instance, did not have a robust lending platform. “Now,” Hays adds. “You have 6,000 advisors from Edwards who have the opportunity to grow their business.”

Also on Hays’ to-do list: risk management.

“We can’t eliminate risk entirely, but if we take responsibility for managing risk, being productive and trying to see problems before they become too serious or costly, it goes a long way to protecting our clients and furthering our reputation,” Hays said. “We don’t hope to become the biggest for the biggest sake — but because we’re best.”


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