As the industry scrambles to find new financial advisors among an ever-shrinking pool of candidates, firms and branch managers say they are seeing one promising area of growth: The sales assistants and client associates that work shoulder to shoulder with advisors, but until recently have never been considered their replacements.

The dismal results of most brokerages’ training programs have been impossible to ignore. Fewer than 20 percent of trainees survive a four-year training program, says Andre Cappon, president of New York-based CBM Group, a securities industry consultancy. Firms have tried to restructure these programs, while others have sought to cultivate professional advisors through growing academic programs. But it will take time to see exactly how these efforts pan out.

“Client and sales associates are already on the front lines of the business,” says Frank Amigo, director of Raymond James and Associates’ South Florida complex, who has two sales associates among his five current trainees. “They have a high level of understanding of an advisor’s job. And they’re constantly managing client relationships in a business which is very much about relationships.”

According to a 2011 survey by Cerulli Associates, only 2.7 percent of wirehouse advisors and 3.9 percent of advisors industry-wide listed non-sales positions in financial services firms as their previous occupation. Amigo expects that number will continue to grow steadily as firms see the potential.

At the end of 2013, RJA launched an advisor development program specifically for registered service associates. The program is aimed at bringing more women into the advisory ranks and providing potential successors for retiring advisors.

“At one of our recent Women’s Network gatherings we asked for a show of hands from advisors who had begun their careers as sales or service associates. At least 30 percent of the audience raised their hands. And of the members of our Women’s Advisory Council, that number increased to 50 percent,” says Nicole Spinelli, director of the firm’s Council of Women Advisors.

“We knew immediately we had a very deep pool of potential advisor candidates already at the firm,” she continues. “It was just a matter of developing the right curriculum, assessing the right candidates and launching a pilot program to see where that leads.”

The yearlong program involves teaming sales associates up with advisors for mentoring, as well as on-line and in-person educational programs. Two candidates from each of RJA’s five geographic divisions have been accepted into the program.

Anthony Mattera , a spokesman at Wells Fargo Advisors says that, while the firm’s Associate Financial Advisor Program wasn’t designed exclusively for registered client associates, it is attracting more of them than it had in the past. “Client associates can be excellent candidates, given their understanding of the business and experience working with clients.” 

"The job of client associate has evolved to really require focus on financial planning," says a wirehouse branch manager who asked not to be identified. "It's not enough to just answer the phone. They’re putting in orders, and making trades. So, a year or two in to their roles, it’s only natural for some look at the advisors they work for­­­, whom they see receive generous pay and bonuses, and think to themselves ‘I can do that.’”

 

Not For Everyone

Still, the majority of sales and client associates don’t want to become financial advisors. “I’d say the average client associate is a woman in her mid-40s,” adds a regional branch manager on the East Coast who requested anonymity. “Leaving something pretty secure, where you are salaried and have vacation time, and making the leap to financial advisor, where you have to run your own show, is often either unappealing or daunting to this person.”

Barbara Herman; a recruiter with Chester, N.J.-based Diamond Consultants, notes that, while associate’s relationship-building skills are usually well-honed, they also need a familiarity with the business. “Being a good advisor requires the ability to bring in new clients. Not every associate is cut out to do that, even with the proper training.”

What’s more, not all associates have college degrees, and many aren’t registered as client associates. Nor do they want to become rainmakers. Younger sales associates who are college educated and registered are typically the most likely to be interested in the job.

Another thing, Amigo notes: “We’ve found that client associates become successful advisors when they join a team after their training. Those who try to go solo from the start haven’t seen the same level of success.”