The goal of improved advisor productivity has been a theme at the company for more than a year, Morningstar analyst Jim Ryan said. “It’s very understandable. If you have an advisor that’s basically taking up space in the world, if you will, and he’s not producing, that’s taking the potential away from a good advisor. To the extent that they can weed out those who do not perform as well, it may give a little more market potential for those who do,” he said.

But Ameriprise says its forcing no one, says an Ameriprise spokesman. Those leaving are doing so on their own volition, having struggled with making a book of business, says Chris Reese, the firm’s spokesman.

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The number of advisors continues to drop at Ameriprise Financial, but the company is “more than making up for it” with sharply higher productivity, Chief Executive Jim Cracciolo said today during a conference call on Ameriprise’s fourth-quarter results. Its advisor population at the end of 2010 was among the biggest in the country at 11,482, although the figure was down 4.6 percent year over year. But operating total net revenues per advisor was $88,000 in the fourth quarter and $326,000 for the year, up 21 percent and 24 percent respectively.

Ameriprise has hired 800 experienced reps over the past two years to make up for the departures of others, Cracciolo said. The new reps, he added, have five times the trailing productivity of those who left. “It takes a while for new recruits to bring over assets and clients, and now we’re starting to realize the benefits of their established books of business,” he said.

Ameriprise’s three separate classes of advisors include its branded employee and franchise advisors, and its Securities America independent contractor advisors. Franchisees make up the biggest share, 65 percent of the total. The branded advisors tend to be loyal; Ryan has reported that 50 percent were with Ameriprise for more than 10 years.

It was a good quarter for Ameriprise’s Advice & Wealth Management segment. It posted total revenue of $1.03 billion, a record, up 15 percent year over year. Pre-tax operating earnings of $90 million were up 157 percent from a year earlier. Cracciolo said investor activity is improving following last summer’s doldrums. Total client assets reached $329.3 billion at year-end, up 12 percent year over year (net asset growth was not reported.)

“While clients still haven’t returned to pre-crisis activity levels, clearly confidence in the markets and the economy is improving,” Cracciolo said. “I should note our financial performance in this segment still faces the headwinds of extremely low interest rates which depresses the spread we earn on client deposits. We don’t expect rates to rise sharply anytime soon, but an increase in rates would give us nice additional earnings leverage.”

Profits at the company were up overall, but fell below expectations. Ameriprise reported fourth-quarter net income of $305 million, or $1.18 a share, on operating net revenues of $2.6 billion. For the comparable quarter a year earlier, net income was $237 million, or 90 cents a share, on operating net revenues of $2.2 billion. Investors were expecting a better performance last quarter, however, and the stock was down at one point nearly 7 percent. (See Ameriprise’s earnings announcement.)

Together, Ameriprise’s Advice & Wealth Management and Asset Management segments contributed 54 percent of operating segment earnings last quarter. But for the year, Ameriprise’s annuities and insurance businesses were more profitable, generating combined pre-tax operating earnings of more than $1 billion. But those sides of the business are more prone to volatility, Morningstar’s Ryan said, and the commoditization of those markets makes them difficult areas on which to pin hopes for long-term growth.

Cracciolo said the increased regulation emerging from the Dodd-Frank legislation was likely to affect Ameriprise less than many of its competitors because the company already applies fiduciary standards across its franchise. “We’ve already had in place all the compliance controls, procedures, supervision necessary and appropriate for that,” he said. Dodd-Frank “actually puts us on an even playing field with others.”