First Union Corp. has begun what could be the largest build-up of an investment-products staff at any bank in the business.

The Charlotte, N.C., bank will expand its sales force to more than 2,800 by the end of 1994, from 116 at present, senior executives said.

Current branch employees will provide most of the added firepower. The bank is preparing to train 2,600 of them - including all branch managers - to sell mutual funds and annuities.

In addition, First Union will hire 111 full-time stockbrokers, bringing the total to 227.

Credentials by Oct. 1

The first batch of 300 trainees is expected to have mutual-fund sales credentials by Oct. 1. The aim is to have at least two stationed in each of First Union's 1,328 branches within 18 months.

"No matter what branch you walk into, you'll be able to talk to someone who is a licensed investment specialist," said Marc Lieberman, a vice president who heads the First Union Funds group.

Chairman Edward E. Crutchfield Jr. had previously set a target of 600 mutual fund sales people by the end of 1994, mostly through new hirings. But he has scrapped that strategy in favor of the in-house training blitz.

Heat from Competition

First Union has also raised its goal for gathering mutual fund assets, a spokesman said. The bank is aiming to build First Union's family of mutual fund to $25 billion within five years. Earlier this year, Mr. Crutchfield had fixed the goal at $10 billion.

One factor that prompted First Union to press the accelerator was the plan by Nations-Bank Corp. and Dean Witter Financial Services to field upward of 1,000 mutual fund sales people in First Union's backyard.

"With what's going on in our industry,, we have to move to full asset-management services," said Richard K. Wagoner, executive vice president and head of capital management.

By mobilizing its branch personnel to sell mutual funds, First Union is adopting a strategy attempted by only a handful of big banks.

Columbus, Ohio-based Banc One Corp., for instance, this month plans to open 858 personal investment centers staffed in part by branch employees.

First Union is currently identifying the first 300 employees who will be groomed to take the National Association of Securities Dealers' Series 6 licensing exam.

A Series 6 license authorizes the holder to sell mutual funds. To be able to sell annuities, employees will take tests for state insurance sales licenses.

Beginning in July, these employees will undertake 45 hours of home study, followed by 14 days of classroom training, according to Susan Sherrill, manager for the licensing project.

Employees will receive training in staggered phases, wit 500 more beginning their course work in September, Ms. Sherrill said.

"The branches are very excited, because it's a job enhancement," she added.

ITI-Nash Inc., a Georgia-based training firm, is designing the education program for First Union and will conduct the seminars.

Upon completion of their course work, the licensed investment representatives will become dual employees of the bank and of First Union Brokerage Services, the company's investment management arm.

"About 25% of their time will be put into sales," said Mr. Wagoner. "They all have other responsibilities, either as branch managers or as customer service representatives, and that job will not go away."

The 227 full-fledged stockbrokers will be responsible for supervising the branch sales force. They will oversee trades, and coach and train workers.

In addition, they will attend to customers who need more sophisticated investment services, such as help in purchasing individual stocks and bonds.

In connection with the training initiative, First Union is developing a computer system to centralize mutual fund account information.

Ms. Sherrill said sales representatives will be able to evaluate the suitability of various asset-allocation strategies based on customers' risk profiles and investment objectives.

They will also be able to open and monitor brokerage accounts on-line.

Big Ambitions

First Union's mutual fund sales force TODAY

116 people with full

broker licenses GOAL

227 people with full

broker licenses

2,600 people with funds-only

licenses

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