The market's ongoing volatility is making it easier than ever for banking companies' wealth management arms to recruit and retain top brokerage talent.
PNC Investments had no trouble filling 40 financial adviser positions last year, according to Michael Mortensen, the PNC Financial Services Group Inc. unit's president.
"I've been on the bank side of the business for 20 years and have never seen a better environment for banks to recruit in," said Mr. Mortensen, whose unit has 600 advisers overall.
Executives agree that the ongoing turbulence has reversed the perception by many brokers and advisers that banks are an investment backwater. The prime reason, the executives say, is banks' built-in referral network.
"This is really a very encouraging time for the bank brokerage channel, and the reason is that you get warm referrals," said John Rhett, the chairman of SunTrust Investment Services, a unit of SunTrust Banks Inc. "Can you imaging cold-calling to get people's business in today's world?"
SunTrust added 62 financial advisers last year, raising its total to 574, and it plans to add 30 more this year. Mr. Rhett said it wants to both increase its head count and improve the staff's quality.
Evidence of the bank channel's newfound attractiveness started appearing in October. A survey that was conducted that month by Fidelity Investments' National Financial Services found satisfaction was rising among brokers and financial advisers working at banking companies and declining among those at wirehouses, independent broker-dealers, and registered investment advisory firms.
"When markets are skyrocketing, typically bank-channel brokers feel a little less upside opportunity," said Gail Graham, a Fidelity executive vice president. "But troubled markets really validate the channel for bank brokers."
In the survey, 1,200 U.S. brokers and financial advisers were asked to rank their job satisfaction on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the highest. The average score for those at banking companies rose 0.4 points from a year earlier, to 6.6.
By contrast, the average satisfaction score among brokers at independent brokerages companies fell 0.2 points, to 7.1. For advisers at registered investment advisory shops, the average fell 0.7 points, to 7.6, and among wirehouse brokers, the average fell 0.9 points, to 6.6.
"I think this is great for recruiting and retention in the bank channel," Ms. Graham said.
Small banking companies have been able to capitalize along with the big ones.
Beneficial Mutual Savings Bank in Philadelphia founded Beneficial Advisors a year and a half ago with three advisers, but in the past 13 months that number has increased to 10. And Jim Quinlan, the president of Beneficial Advisors, said it plans to add about four more as the business matures.
"I think before" the economic turmoil, "banks were seen as second-class citizens in the financial world," he said.
Beneficial Advisors' new recruits have come from a "global bank," a big insurance company, and an independent adviser shop, Mr. Quinlan said.
Catherine Bonneau, the president and chief executive officer of PrimeVest Financial Services, an ING Group NV unit, said there has been "a striking shift" in wirehouse veterans' willingness to jump to small banks. PrimeVest provides investment products and services through nearly 600 financial institutions, most of them small banking companies.
"Historically, we didn't see much wirehouse broker interest in coming to banks," she said. "That's no longer holding true."
Wirehouse alumni have been joining banking companies, instead of starting their own investment shops, in part because of the employee benefits, infrastructure, and name recognition, she said.
Mr. Mortensen agreed that many banks promise "trusted brands during a difficult time in the economy." And financial advisers who have left wirehouses for banking companies or thrifts are discovering investment and insurance product arrays, technology, and advisory support that have improved vastly over the past several years, he said.
"If I'm a wirehouse adviser, I have a whole new respect for banks," Mr. Mortensen said.
Of course, the investment business is not exactly booming these days. But according to Mr. Rhett, banking companies such as SunTrust are looking ahead as they enlarge their staffs.
"You can't always move forward in any business, but in this period you're trying to hold your ground and grow your client base for better times," he said. "You're going to see some market share shift, even though brokerages won't have great performance in 2009."
Ms. Bonneau said she expects plenty of small banks to staff up with an eye toward gaining market share.
"There is an appetite to be poised and ready," she said. "And because compensation is in large part derived by production, this is a way to grow their footprint without laying out a lot of expense."