The departure of two key executives from Fidelity Investments' bank sales unit has some observers questioning the nation's largest fund company's commitment to selling its wares through banks.
The resignations, which come only one year after Fidelity unveiled a new plan designed to make its sales through banks more efficient, are causing bankers to speculate that Fidelity is favoring other sales channels, such as financial planners and 401(k) plans, over banks.
They say they are growing frustrated with Fidelity's bureaucracy, which is becoming increasingly difficult for bankers to navigate.
"Fidelity's attention is not on banks," said Louis Harvey, president of Dalbar Financial Services, a Boston-based fund research firm. "Fidelity is becoming aggressive in some fronts and less on others."
Fidelity officials insist that the company's commitment to banks has never been stronger. Since this time last year, the fund giant has sold more than $4 billion worth of its funds through 400 banks - a record for any 12-month period.
But many fund companies are reevaluating how they want to approach banks - if at all. Some fund companies have been disappointed with their sales through banks and are looking to put their resources elsewhere.
Fidelity watchers, meanwhile, point to the quick departure of two executives from its bank sales unit as evidence that its commitment to banks is on the wane.
The latest to leave was Andrew Olear, who oversaw sales through branches. Mr. Olear, 39, next week will join New England Funds, Boston, where he will oversee sales through stockbrokers and insurance agents. A replacement has not been named.
In March, Richard Tinervin, who oversaw sales through large bank trust departments, left Fidelity for Charles Schwab & Co., the San Francisco- based discount brokerage giant.
Fidelity has given some of Mr. Tinervin's duties to Kathy Lewis, a national sales manager who recently joined from Dreyfus Corp., and to Nishan Vartabedian, a senior vice president who oversees Fidelity's relationships with the nation's largest banks.
But the reshuffling has left some bankers frustrated.
"Lately, I'm not sure if they know what they want to be to banks," said Gerald Thomas, president of the brokerage at $4 billion-asset St. Paul Federal Bank for Savings, Chicago.
Bankers concede that Fidelity has much to offer, including brand-name funds, top-notch technology, and marketing support. But they feel they must walk through a labyrinth of bureaucracy to get what they want.
"It takes real diligence to make sure we're communicating across (Fidelity's) different business lines," said a brokerage chief at a large Midwest bank."I'm not always sure Fidelity is a place that even wants to do that."
But Michael Kellogg, executive vice president in charge of strategic marketing at Fidelity Investments Institutional Services Co., disagreed.
The Boston-based fund giant has increased its work force dedicated to banks by 20% this year, Mr. Kellogg said. A slew of the new hires have come from banks, he said, making Fidelity more sensitive to that market.
Two examples include Tom Fryer, formerly of Chase Manhattan Corp., and Ron Thalmeier of First Chicago Corp. Both are now Fidelity senior vice presidents responsible for serving bank brokers.
"Yes, we've lost some people," Mr. Kellogg said. "But we have added to the group too, and I think the balance is in our favor."
Others point out that what outsiders see as a major restructuring, is a minor tinkering for Fidelity.
"A place like Fidelity would have to lose a lot of money in a channel before pulling out," said A. Stewart Rose, a former Fidelity executive who is now a bank consultant in Boston. "Fidelity is big enough to look under every rock."
Mr. Kellogg acknowledged that like other fund companies, Fidelity had considered serving banks and financial planners through a single sales force. Observers say eliminating the distinction would indicate that a bank sales division had less work than executives had hoped.
"We've evaluated those options," Mr. Kellogg said. "But as of today, we have not made those changes."