At most community banks, a single investment adviser stationed in the lobby is enough to qualify as a brokerage unit.
But not at $100 million-asset Bank Center First. The Bismarck, N.D. bank has only two branches. But it boasts five investment advisers, and it's looking for another.
"I have banking friends that come to me that think I made a mistake putting in the first broker," said Myron Pfeifle, president of Bank Center First. "But we've proven them wrong."
The five brokers were responsible for 10% of Bank Center's net income last year, Mr. Pfeifle said, while his peers get only 1% to 2% of profits from their brokers.
What's different about Mr. Pfeifle's effort? For one thing, his brokers work on the third floor of the bank in an area designed to create a brokerage-firm aura. Mahogany desks and plush chairs set the tone.
"It's very, very rich looking," Mr. Pfeifle said. "When you walk in, it's striking and elegant compared to what you would see in the real estate lending office."
But as impressive as their offices are, Mr. Pfeifle said, brokers at Bank Center are not encouraged to sit in them all day. Instead, they are expected to get out into the community to lead investment seminars and help corporate clients set up retirement plans.
"If my customer walks down the street to a brokerage firm, he's gone forever," Mr. Pfeifle said.
As a small bank in the state capital, Mr. Pfeifle is surrounded by brokerage firms. And some are starting to take note of his effort.
"They compete stride for stride with us for mutual fund sales, but that's where the rivalry ends," said Don Hawkinson, a Smith Barney financial consultant in Bismarck. Because of its in-house analysis, Smith Barney can offer more comprehensive stock selection advice than the bank does, he said.
Mr. Pfeifle started his brokerage unit with the help of Investment Centers of America, a Bismarck-based company that plants brokers in small- town banks. The bank president supervises the brokers, but they are employees of Investment Centers.
"Back in 1985, I saw several hundred thousand dollars a month - sometimes as high as $600,000 - roll out" of Bank Center and "into brokerage houses," said Thomas Gunderson, Investment Centers' founder. He said he convinced Mr. Pfeifle to take on his first broker in 1987. The bank shares in revenue from the brokers' activities by charging ICA rent based on transaction volumes.
Though Mr. Pfeifle insists he's committed to the business, a recent move by Investment Centers has given him pause.
The company announced plans last month to be acquired by First American Corp., a $7.7 billion-asset bank company in Nashville.
Mr. Gunderson has assured Mr. Pfeifle the move is benign because the Tennessee bank plans a hands-off approach. But should First American be acquired by a more aggressive bank, "my stress level would obviously go up," Mr. Pfeifle said.