There's nothing like a home-office visit to give you a flavor for the new firm you're considering — and to help you decide whether it's the right place for you and your clients. Sure, if the branch office manager is doing his job, you should be able to find out quite a lot about the firm from him. But a physical visit to headquarters can give you a more complete sense of what matters to management, how the firm is changing, how well it responds to advisor needs and how much service support you can expect. So many advisors consider the home-office visit a time-consuming nuisance — just a chance for the firm to wheel out a dog-and-pony show that bears little resemblance to reality. But if you're considering a move, don't make that same mistake.

While not all firms offer headqaurters visits, some actually encourage them — and those that do take them pretty seriously. In the event that you are invited to visit a firm's home base, you should take advantage of the opportunity. In fact, you should insist upon such a visit. Going to the firm's home office may be the only chance you get to see the firm from top to bottom.

Consider Elizabeth, a $1.2 million wirehouse producer who, after a 24-year career with one firm, decided that the firm's “draconian” compliance requirements, inaccessible management and lack of support were significant enough reason to explore the rest of the industry landscape. Over a period of several months, she met multiple times with local, complex and district management from competing wirehouses, regionals and banks, narrowing the field to three choices. Elizabeth plans to make her move in the third quarter of this year. Although all three contenders encouraged her to visit headquarters, Elizabeth initially felt these excursions would merely be perfunctory and “take her out of business.”

But upon the advice of her recruiter, as well as that of trusted colleagues who had switched firms, she chose to keep an open mind and make the recommended visits. She says she's glad she did. “Having the opportunity to meet the heads of alternative investments, structured products and talk with the head of the private client group was an amazing experience.” She also believes that when pen is taken to paper and the deals are crafted, the impression she made on management during the visit will have a very positive impact on the offer they make.

Birds' Eye View

Certain brokerage firms actually insist that all advisor candidates make an HOV trip before an offer is extended. Raymond James, for instance, will pick up the tab to have an advisor travel to their headquarters in St. Petersburg, Fla., very early in the recruiting process. “We encourage advisors to do home-office visits as early in their due-diligence process as possible, as it gives them great insight into the culture and support the firm provides and helps immediately rule a firm in or out,” says Tash Elwyn, regional director, Atlantic Region of Raymond James & Associates. “Plus, there's no substitute for seeing the unscripted smiles on the faces of home-office associates in the halls.”

Morgan Stanley lets local branch and district management decide whether a visit to headquarters would be worth it for a particular candidate. But for advisors who have production in excess of $500,000 or who have a nontraditional business mix and want to ask specific questions about certain product offerings, Morgan says it always recommends a visit to its Purchase, N.Y., complex. Bear Stearns, in contrast, believes that more can be gained from such a visit after a new recruit has been with the firm for a little while. But the firm lets candidates decide when the visit should take place. Some opt to make the visit during the recruiting process while others wait until they have been with the firm for more than four months before they make the trek.

What actually occurs on an headquarters tour? Generally, it will last an entire day. During that time the advisor will meet firm representatives from all relevant product areas, marketing folks, top management, transition-team representatives and any other players who could help support an advisor's business if he were to join the firm. It's a perfect opportunity to get all your questions answered and to experience the firm's culture firsthand. What does the research department look like? Does the firm have state-of-the-art technology that can support the broker's business? How deeply layered is the firm's management? After everything is said and done, does the firm have the look and feel of a place where you would be comfortable hanging your hat?

Firm's Eyes on You

Is the headquarters tour only about impressing the recruit? While it is important for a candidate to enjoy the day as the red carpet is rolled out, it is equally important that he make a good impression upon the firm's hierarchy and upon those who control the purse strings. While the structure of any transition package being offered to a prospective advisor is primarily based upon assets under management and trailing 12-month production, there are often subjective criteria that come into play. Demonstrating how committed, engaged and articulate you are, and how well you might fit in with the firm's culture, will influence not only the magnitude of a deal, but also whether, in fact, an offer will be extended. Recruiters say that the most aggressive packages are offered to those advisors exhibiting the greatest “wow” factor.

So, be on your best behavior while on your visit. Act as if you are being interviewed for the position (because you are). You want to be able to look back upon the experience and say that you put your best foot forward. Come prepared with an excellent list of compelling questions that will help you to differentiate the firm from others you may be looking at and make a great impact upon those you meet. Everyone that you meet during the day will have input as to how the firm views you; even the person that walks you from office to office can put in his or her two cents.

What should you take away from your visit? By the time you leave the firm you should be that much closer to making an informed and prudent decision about where you will eventually land. If you haven't taken notes during the visit, take the time soon afterwards to jot down your thoughts, opinions, open items and general impressions. The most important takeaway should be your own gut feeling about the firm, the people that work there and its culture. When exploring the landscape of the industry, how many trips should you commit to completing? A short list of two to three is more than enough. But take them seriously. You are about to make one of the most important decisions of your career.


Writer's BIO: Mindy Diamond founded Chester, N.J.-based Diamond Consultants, which specializes in retail brokerage and banking recruiting www.diamondrecruiter.com