If you view your sales assistant merely as a secretary, even a glorified one, then you are handicapping your own potential. If anyone still doubts the role that a talented sales assistant can have in helping gather more assets, he need look no further than some of the country's top producing reps.

The top producers, the ones who are at the peak of their game, not only couldn't survive without them; they couldn't have made it even close to the top of their profession in the first place without them.

“The top producers view sales assistants as investments; the bottom producers view them as expenses,” says Randy Carver, founder of Cleveland-based Carver Financial Services, a division of Raymond James. “The bottom producers are the ones who tend to see them as secretaries. That's foolish.”

Last December, Carver commissioned a study of how reps used their assistants, and how assistants' roles affected their practices. The results left little doubt about the importance of sales assistants to improving broker production. Top producers — those with more than $1 million production — averaged 4.6 staffers per rep, middle producers 1.5, and low-end producers (below $500,000 production) less than 1. In spite of that, middle producers reported sales assistants as accounting for 39 percent of their expenses, while top producers reported only 32 percent. In other words: A practice with qualified, happy sales assistants will thrive, and they will more than pay for themselves.

“It's not just a matter of assistants doing whatever they can to make lives easier for reps,” Carver says. “They're a vital part of any successful practice, in everything they do.”

In many ways, this is the best time to be a sales assistant. As reps across the country are reevaluating their practices — whether it's transferring to a fee-based business, making a stronger move toward an advisory capacity or simply focusing further on high-net-worth clients — the need for qualified sales assistants will rise. With brokers now focusing more on gathering assets, they are relying on sales assistants more to keep the office running in their absence. For example, sales assistants don't just do administrative work, but also are responsible for some of the investment research work. And sales assistants are key in helping care for the needs of current clients, from answering basic questions to dispensing advice and reassurance. Perhaps never before have sales assistants played such a crucial role in the securities industry.

“Sales assistants have a better chance right now to shape their reps' business than any time in the last 20 years,” says Kim Benefield, co-founder of SA Training, a Nashville-based company that provides advice and education to sales assistants nationwide. “A few years ago, sales assistants were seeing so many brokers making so much money, and they said, ‘I can do that.’ Now they're more comfortable in their roles and can really make a difference in an office.”

Money Moves

It's not surprising, given the state of the industry, that assistants are making less money than they did in 2002. According to Registered Rep.'s annual Sales Assistants Survey, the median assistant salary, including bonuses, was $37,800, down almost $2,000 from 2002. Last year, 25 percent of sales assistants made between $35,000-$40,000; this year, it's 20 percent.

“Most of the salaries are down because bonuses are down,” says Benefield. And bonuses are down because brokers' own production is down. “Many brokers have had to rethink their whole business (in the midst of the downturn), and of course that's going to have an effect on assistants.”

The study bears her out, with the average respondent's bonus dropping to $5,000 from $6,052 in 2001. Most observers don't think it has anything to do with assistants' performance on the whole, or even their importance; it's just the way things are now. “You definitely have found that [reps] have cut a lot of the little perks [assistants] used to have, and anything extra brokers might have given assistants in the past certainly can't be justified now,” Carver says. “I mean, [the compensation drop] makes sense; every office is cutting. But it certainly hasn't been because of the work sales assistants have been doing.”

Not surprisingly, the sales assistants who are a more central part of a practice's policies are making the most money. Those who classified themselves as an “integral part of an office's strategy and goals” made an average of $39,200 last year; those who simply take care of non-strategy related issues averaged $35,063.

The study also shows that firms that have successfully made the transition to fee-based business are paying their sales assistants better. Fee-based sales assistants earned an average of $40,000, compared to the $35,100 for those in commission-based practices.

Surely by now the notion that sales assistants make photocopies and fix coffee is outdated, if it were ever true in the first place. Of all the SAs surveyed, only three said their job was primarily clerical in nature. In fact, a whopping 83 percent of SAs carry the Series 7 designation; another 10 percent have their Series 6. And that figure is primed to rise too.

But perhaps most telling is the pay scale for those involved in client management vs. client service. Those who deal more specifically with client accounts average $41,500 a year; while those in the more clerical, task-based realm make only $34,126. Sales assistants might be making less compared to booming years past, but they're certainly doing more — and, in many cases, they know clients better than their reps do.

From Soup to Nuts

Kristen Pruitt worked as a rep for one year. She had her own book, an office — all the trappings. At the end of the year, she decided she'd had enough of the struggle and switched firms — from Edward Jones to Raymond James — and jobs: She became a sales assistant. Buoyed by the comfort of a set salary rather than the stress of a commission, she thrived in her new role. With a background in social work, Pruitt took to the personal assistance side of the job. So one minute, she's explaining a portfolio rebalancing to a client, and the next? “I do pretty much everything for them, from balancing their checkbook to helping them decide what the best price for aluminum siding is,” Pruitt says. “You're always hunting down the best service for your clients. It's financial social work.”

Pruitt compares her job to that of a nurse practitioner. In her office, her advisor, Van Pearcy (a former colleague from her days as a rep), usually spends an hour with a client, and when that time is up, Pruitt takes over, tying up loose ends and making necessary adjustments to the account — just like a nurse who administers the medicine a doctor prescribed.

Several sales assistants surveyed identify with the nurse practitioner concept. Angela Montoya, an SA for Wachovia rep Greg Royse in Palo Alto, Calif., says she feels the tender touch with a client is sometimes as necessary as a portfolio adjustment. “[Royse] is so busy, he can sometimes not have time to really talk on a personal level with one our people,” Montoya says. “When they're stressed about something, oftentimes, they just need to talk through it with me to get it straight. After talking to me for a few minutes, they're laughing and completely feeling better.”

But don't get the idea that the sales assistant is just there to give the clients attention and hold their hands. In today's understaffed and stressed offices, sales assistants are called upon to carry real loads with real responsibilities. With real money on the line.

In Ragen MacKenzie's Bellevue, Wash. office, sales assistants Kate Colgan and Kari Hansen have nearly as much responsibility and input as the reps do. Colgan is in charge of the office's portfolio management system, and Hansen oversees cash ratio programs that help clients move in and out of equity positions with ease. In Lutherville, Md., Morgan Stanley sales assistant Karen Padgett handles the majority of trades, account reconciliation, cost basis research and portfolio adjustments, while still training new SAs who come in the office.

“You can't really depend on other people; when a client needs help, you have to know exactly what to do to help them, immediately,” Padgett says.

Registered Rep Associate?

With the increasing responsibilities sales assistants take on, a seed has been planted among some sales assistant organizations: Why not a professional designation? It's not that far-fetched of a thought. Benefield says SA Training has received overtures about the possibility of a Sales Assistant Professional Association, and she says the group would be interested in spearheading an effort. They're also looking into the possibility of an official “para-” designation, like a paralegal or the aforementioned nurse practitioner.

It's a symbol of the growing notion of sales assistant as its own singular profession, complete with standards and training. Firms are putting programs into place that give SAs more room to expand their skills and knowledge than they've ever had before. Morgan Stanley, for example, has started a Career Development Team program for sales assistants, which provides training and assistance to SAs who are looking to move up. The program, which picks a senior sales assistant from each region to spearhead the efforts, allows them to achieve different status levels, ranging from “Client Service Associate” (Morgan's term for sales assistants) through five other steps, culminating in “Associate Wealth Advisor.” Each level is considered a promotion with a pay raise, and each sales assistant is regularly given assignments and tested to reach the next level up.

“We're trying to show them that there's more of a career in this other than just being a secretary or a broker,” says Padgett, who worked her way up from a receptionist to one of the consultants on Morgan's plan. “We're giving sales assistants the opportunity and the structure to come in and learn, just like advisors are. Because what's good for the sales assistants, we reason, is good for the reps, and for Morgan.”

In this time of transition, every ounce of knowledge for a sales assistant counts. Because steps made today are destined to pay off down the line.

“This is a time to really define where your talent lies,” says Benefield. “Sales assistants are right on the front lines now.”

Estimated Median Salary and Bonuses for 2002

Total Compensation

Bonus

All respondents (485)

$37,800

$5,000

Time in industry

More than 10 years

$42,000

$6,700

6 to 9 years

$39,000

$5,000

3 to 5 years

$35,050

$4,000

less than 3 years

$33,950

$2,000

Primary job responsibility

Client management

$41,550

$7,185

Client service

$34,126

$3,500

Series 7

Yes

$38,900

$5,000

No

$33,250

$3,500

Type of firm

Wirehouse (2,000+ reps)

$38,547

$6,000

Regional (200-1,999 reps)

$37,420

$4,500

Local (20-199 reps)

$31,650

n/a *

Independent (less than 20 reps)

$36,000

$2,000

Type of practice

Fee-based

$40,000

$5,000

Commission-based

$35,100

$3,500

Mix

$38,000

$5,520

Region

West

$39,400

$5,205

Midwest

$39,000

$5,000

Northeast

$37,000

$5,000

Southeast

$36,000

$5,000

Involvement in rep goals/strategies

Not involved/not aware

$35,063

$2,500

Aware, but do not provide input

$36,800

$4,000

Provide some input

$38,000

$5,000

Integral part of strategy/goals

$39,200

$5,300

*Results are based on fewer than 20 responses and are therefore unreportable.

Age

Under 25

22

4.5 percent

25-29

81

16.7%

30-34

88

18.1%

35-39

81

16.7%

40-44

79

16.3%

45-49

58

12%

50-54

47

9.7%

55-59

19

3.9%

60 or over

5

1.0%

Median Age: 38

Years of Experience

Less than 3 years

58

12 percent

3-5 years

174

35.9%

6-9 years

82

16.9%

10-14 years

64

13.2%

15-19 years

57

11.8%

20+ years

48

9.9%

Median age: 6 years

Goals

I'm happy where I am

140

28.9 percent

Junior rep

79

16.3%

Other

74

15.3%

Rep

62

12.8%

Office manager

45

9.3%

Paraplanner

24

4.9%

I plan to leave brokerage field

23

4.7%

Sales assistant for broker team

18

3.7%

Registered sales assistant

17

3.5%

No answer

3

.6%

What's Your Bonus Based On?

Broker production

226

57.7 percent

Broker discretion

155

39.5%

Firm/branch manager discretion

93

23.7%

Achievement of preset goals (performance review)

51

13%

Other

28

7.1%

No answer

4

1%

Total Compensation

Less than $20,000

5

1 percent

$20,000-$24,999

17

3.5%

$25,000-$29,999

59

12.2%

$30,000-$34,999

93

19.2%

$35,000-$39,999

97

20%

$40,000-$44,999

63

13%

$45,000-$49,999

44

9.1%

$50,000-$59,999

53

10.9%

$60,000-$69,999

20

4.1%

$70,000-$79,999

12

2.5%

$80,000-$89,999

4

.8%

$90,000-$99,999

4

.8%

no answer

14

2.9%

Median compensation: $37,800

Total bonus

Less than $1,000

30

7.7 percent

$1,000-$2,499

85

21.7%

$2,500-$4,999

67

17.1%

$5,000-$7,499

61

15.6%

$7,500-$9,999

18

4.6%

$10,000-$14,999

52

13.3%

$15,000-$19,999

23

5.9%

$20,000-$24,999

21

5.4%

$25,000 or more

21

5.4%

no answer

14

3.6%

Median bonus: $5,000

Licenses/designations

None

46

9.5%

Series 6

51

10.5%

Series 7

402

82.9%

Series 11

2

.4%

Paraplanner

4

.8%

HOW THE SURVEY WAS CONDUCTED: In August 2003, Primedia Business Marketing Research in Overland Park, Kan. emailed 1,842 Registered Rep. subscribers on a last name basis. Specifically selected were subscribers indicating job function as Sales Assistant.

Outstanding Sales Assistants

One started as a receptionist. Another started as a rep. One has been on the job for more than 20 years. The top sales assistants chosen by Registered Rep. come from all walks of life, from all across the country, with different backgrounds, life choices and specialties.

But the one thing they have in common is their devotion — to their practice, their reps and, most important, their clients.

The annual Registered Rep. sales assistants survey found that in the process of growing more intimately involved in their reps' practices, SAs across the country are cutting larger professional profiles for themselves. The tasks of fetching coffee and keeping track of appointments have given way to bona fide practice-management duties, and today's SAs have licenses and certifications to match the rising importance of their jobs. Assistants? Please. These specialists are in many cases the very foundation of their practices. In the profiles that follow, Rep. gives them some of the best their due.

The Power of Two

In the Bellevue, Wash. office of Ragen MacKenzie, sales assistants' positions might be better described with another title.

After all, the two current assistants — Kate Colgan, 51, and Kari Hansen, 32 — both have their Series 7 and 63 licenses and carry nearly as much expertise as anyone else in the five-person team. One long-time assistant actually made the leap to broker a few years ago.

“I'm always shocked by what other brokers are worrying about and doing because they don't have the assistants that we do,” says Stan Freimuth, a Ragen broker who has been in the business 34 years. “They don't show their assistants a high degree of expectations — they have them answer the phone, and that's it.”

As Freimuth indicated, Colgan and Hansen do quite a bit more than answer phones for the team, which grossed more than $3 million in production in 2002. Colgan, who has been with the group since 1989, is responsible for maintaining the group's portfolio management system, including its performance-reporting module. Hansen, who has been with the group since 1997, oversees programs that review cash ratios for clients and help them move in and out of equity positions easily. With the exception of formulating the investment strategies, which is left to the team of Freimuth, Lance McIntosh and Jennie Rush (she's the assistant-turned-broker), Hansen and Colgan are just as involved in the clients' financial lives as any of the brokers.

In some ways, the assistants are more involved, particularly when it comes to communicating with clients.

“We have team meetings where we all get talking points and discuss how to make sure clients are comfortable,” says Hansen. “We're there to calm [clients] down — we don't want them to feel they're somewhere where they're not comfortable.”

The fact that the pair is licensed helps them in this regard, and because they are not saddled with the time-consuming task of plotting investment strategies, they have time to lend a well-trained ear to the occasional nervous client.

“The clients who are familiar with me sometimes just need to speak their mind a little bit and feel like they're heard,” says Colgan.

She adds, “We do get the occasional call with somebody who is nervous about what's happening in the markets. We do our best to reassure them.”

Freimuth says perhaps the best thing about Colgan and Hansen is their ability to work together. “They're so comfortable with each other. There's a total lack of professional or personal jealousy,” says Freimuth. “In a lot of command-and-control type groups, you have to ask the one right person; here, we don't have any of that.”
David A. Gaffen

Guarding the Door — With a Smile

Think of Angela Montoya as the world's nicest velvet rope.

If Montoya, who has worked as Wachovia rep Greg Royse's sales assistant for three years, is doing her job correctly, clients eager for a moment with Royse won't make it past her. But they will leave with a smile on their faces, and they will get the information they sought in their meeting with him.

“I usually know what our clients want when they call before they've even mentioned it,” says Montoya, 29. “I don't think they realize sometimes that not only do I know what's going on with their account, but that I'm often the one actually taking care of it for them.”

She adds, “It's always encouraging when they call demanding that they talk to [Royse], and after talking to me for a few minutes, they're laughing and completely feeling better.”

It's easy to understand why the bubbly Montoya connects with clients, and it's very important to Royse's business that she does. Royse has more than 300 clients in his retirement planning business, and without Montoya, he would have a hard time making them feel as though they're getting personal attention. One example of her connecting with clients on this level: She once showed up at a 50th wedding anniversary for a pair of clients with a dozen roses. A simple gesture to be sure, but one that that is likely to be remembered.

“You get a lot of people in here who are older, and maybe don't hear that great, and there's a lot you have to keep straight about them,” she says. “I try to make it so [Royse] doesn't have to deal with anything other than the work he has to do. It makes it easier for him, and the clients like knowing they have a knowledgeable person who's always there for them.”

Montoya — a single mother who entered the business with very little knowledge of the industry — is currently studying to take the Series 7 exam. But she's not planning on stopping there.

“I plan on getting the Series 7, 9, 10, 63, all of them,” she says. “I love to help people, and this is an immediate and real way to do that.”
Will Leitch

Above and Beyond in Reno

For most experienced sales assistants, pulling extra duty in a rep's absence is par for the course. But Sharon Beesley of Smith Barney takes that commitment to another level.

Her rep, John Klacking, has some intense personal distractions — including a nine-year old son with leukemia — that have forced him to spend prolonged periods away from the office. In those periods of absence, Beesley, for all intents and purposes, takes the reins of the practice.

“It's been a tremendous benefit to have someone like Sharon in this position,” says Klacking, who has been a rep for 19 years and currently works in Smith Barney's Reno, Nev., office. “You always think this happens to somebody else …Thank God someone was there when it did happen.”

Beesley, an Oregon native, moved to Reno for happier reasons: because “my husband wanted to ski.” After selling advertising for a radio station for seven years, she tired of going to rock concerts all the time and started to look into the brokerage business.

She's been in the Reno office for 11 years and owns licenses to sell insurance and a Series 7. She says Klacking considers her a partner in the business, although she's not sure whether she wants to develop her own book. The point is almost moot at this point anyway, given the energy she currently devotes to supporting Klacking's practice.

“It's a sad situation,” she says. “Luckily, we have a client base that's totally understanding.”

Her help extends to Klacking's son John as well. She manages the torrent of packages and communications for him as part of an effort to keep him from being “bombarded with stuff,” she says. “We're just trying to organize it so it's not overwhelming to him.”

Klacking tries to get back to the office as much as possible, but he has, for the time being, moved his family to Houston while John fights his illness.

“No matter what happens in my life, I'll always remember what Sharon did for us,” Klacking says. “I can't tell you how much that's meant with her there, and how it would be without her.”
DAG

A True Teaching Assistant

With all the work Karen Padgett does on behalf of other sales assistants, it's a wonder she has time for her rep's clients at all.

Padgett, a former receptionist, is the driving force behind her branch of Morgan Stanley's Career Development Team, a training program that aims to show sales assistants how to grow and advance both professionally and personally.

“[Reps] are always expected and given time to study and learn, but there really isn't a program set up for sales assistants; they've had to do it on their own,” says Padgett, 46. “We give them a program where they can constantly learn and bring in new things. Instead of feeling like a secretary or like you're up against a wall at a certain point, you can really find your place.”

Padgett, who has her Series 7, 63 and 66 designations, has worked for John Jaeger, now a Morgan senior VP with more than $200 million assets under management, her entire career, with stops at Kidder Peabody and Alex. Brown.

“I bring in assets and manage them, and she does everything else,” Jaeger says. Over the years, she has helped forge new opportunities for sales assistants, including new job titles and responsibilities (her official title is now “Associate Wealth Advisor”). And with Jaeger, she helped Morgan's Lutherville, Md., office with its recent move toward a fee-based business. She and Jaeger have been running a primarily fee-based business for more than 20 years, she says.

Still, with the constantly changing face of a rep's practice, Padgett is called upon more and more by clients to “hold their hands.” She works with portfolio adjustments, trades and account reconciliations. But perhaps her most valuable work involves simply making the clients understand what's going on with their accounts.

“In this environment, you have to be there for them all the ti