KALISPELL, Mont.- Patti Schoener has only to gaze across the street to see what she's up against in her bid to woo brokerage clients to Norwest Corp.

Smack opposite the Norwest Bank branch where she hangs her shingle three days a week, Montana's top brokerage firm houses 10 sales representatives in a storefront.

"I hate to see someone withdraw money from the bank and take it over to D.A. Davidson," Ms. Schoener says. "But it's my job to get the message out to the customer: 'Hey, did you realize you could do the same thing over here?'"

Ms. Schoener, who gave up a high-profile post as compliance chief of Norwest Investment Services to join its army of brokers in January, isn't the first bank-based broker to feel that way.

Battling entrenched competition from regional brokerage firms is one of the biggest challenges facing banks as they push into investment services. And for expansion-minded companies like Norwest, the competitive pressures are especially intense.

Four years ago, Norwest Investment Services operated brokerage outlets at just 16 Norwest branches. Today, it has offices at 150 branches in 14 states, and employs 600 people, including 300 full-fledged stockbrokers.

John McCune, president and chief executive of Norwest Investment Services, says he is anything but discouraged by the brisk competition posed by established regional firms.

"If they're earning a living selling securities to our Norwest customers, then I should be able to move in with the right person and expose our customers to investments," Mr. McCune said.

Ms. Schoener certainly seems to fit the bill.

A gregarious North Dakota native, she fell in love with Montana's Big Sky country while attending college in Missoula. So when Norwest officials asked her to become the brokerage unit's first fulltime sales representative for northwestern Montana, "she was out there in a nanosecond," Mr. McCune said.

Part of the attraction, Ms. Schoener admits, was the Montana lifestyle. "I love to snow ski, play golf, hike, you name it. This is recreational heaven."

But more importantly, she says, the challenge of opening up a new territory for Norwest Investment Services appealed to an entrepreneurial streak in her. "In compliance, my life consisted of a lot of meetings. In sales, my life is directed by myself."

A stint fresh out of college as a broker with Dain Bosworth in Minneapolis convinced Ms. Schoener that she could make a go of it in Montana. And she wanted the hands-on experience that could help her move into a sales management position at Norwest.

"The growth for our firm is really occurring out in these areas," Ms. Schoener said. "This is where it's at."

Like brokers at many other banks, Ms. Schoener is a circuit rider. She splits her time between Kalispell, a rugged town that is the western gateway to Glacier National Park; Missoula, the home of her alma mater, the University of Montana; and the resort town of Superior.

Being spread so thin can make it tough to crack a new territory - especially in the face of formidable rivals like D.A. Davidson.

"This office owns the market," said Gregory D. Barkus, branch manager of Great Falls-based firm's Kalispell office.

"If the banks would just sit back and pay attention to the banking business, I think they'd be very happy."

"That's typical talk for a broker outside a bank," Ms. Schoener retorts. "I work for a brokerage firm just like he does - and in fact, some might argue ours is even more sophisticated than his."

Even though the bank in Kalispell has only $120 million in assets, it can tap the investment expertise of a $56 billion-asset superregional banking company, she said.

"We're involved in underwriting. We have a public finance unit. They underwrite municipal bonds, but so do we," Ms. Schoener said. "I think we have a larger product base from the fixed-income standpoint, and a larger number of traders who are experts in each of those products that we can rely on for information."

Investment services - sales of stocks, bonds, and mutual funds are an integral piece of Norwest's retail strategy, and will generate around $65 million in revenue this year, according to Mr. McCune.

Mr. McCune believes there is plenty of room to make inroads. He estimates that 50% to 70% of Norwest's customers buy brokerage products, yet only 3% to 4% have a relationship with the broker-dealer side.

As Norwest's growing cadre of brokers establishes itself in the field, Mr. McCune expects that ratio to improve dramatically. That's why the company is dispatching brokers to towns like Kalispell.

"It's much easier to make money in a big market - that's been proven," Mr. McCune said. "But we're finding it's also possible to make money in a small market."

Norwest has long owned the bank in Kalispell where Ms. Schoener spends the bulk of her time. But the Missoula and Superior banks were picked up through Norwest's recent acquisition of Montana Bank Systems. So she is building her book of business nearly from scratch.

In that regard, "she's very typical of probably 50 offices I have," said Mr. McCune. "You go into Montana, west Texas, New Mexico - those banks had no securities operations."

Investment services are a flourishing business in this corner of Montana. Walk four blocks in any direction from the Norwest Bank branch in Kalispell, and you will happen upon a brokerage office. No fewer than 14 firms, ranging from the Lutheran Brotherhood to Edward D. Jones & Co., have a presence here.

The local banks are in on the action, too. For instance, Glacier Bank, a $300 million-asset thrift, sells mutual funds and annuities through Invest Financial Services, a Tampa, Fla., company that helps banks set up and run sales programs.

John S. MacMillan, Glacier Bank's president, said demand for investment services has been fueled by the flocks of retirees and wealthy people who have moved into the region.

"People who move here are selling expensive homes, and they've got cash available for investing," he said. "Seventy percent of the money we've attracted through our investment center came from outside the bank."

A local real estate agent attests to the phenomenon.

"I just had some clients in from Boulder," said Anne Keys, who works at a Sellers Direct office in a Kalispell shopping mall. "They were buying a house for around $150,000 and were planning to invest around $200,000 in some kind of brokerage."

There's a good chance that such customers will come to Norwest for checking accounts, business loans, and other basic services. And once that happens, they're on Ms. Schoener's radar screen. So bring on the competition, she says.

To stay in the game, she is living by the "10 by 10 rule" - making 10 sales pitches by 10 o'clock every single morning.

"If customers keep hearing from you, they're going to invest with you," Ms. Schoener said.

"They may not have all their money' with you, but you will have a piece of it."

Subscribe Now

Access to authoritative analysis and perspective and our data-driven report series.

14-Day Free Trial

No credit card required. Complete access to articles, breaking news and industry data.