Portfolio managers may be the most under-used asset in banks' drive to build profitable mutual fund programs, a top bank fund executive believes.

Investment advisers should step from behind the scenes and work directly with salespeople and customers, said Lucinda S. Mezey, managing director of equity investments at PNC Investment Management and Research. The company is a unit of PNC Bank Corp., Pittsburgh.

"It's very important for portfolio managers to be part of the sales process," Ms. Mezey told bankers at last week's American Bankers Association mutual fund conference.

PNC has one of the banking industry's largest mutual fund businesses, with 88 portfolio managers, analysts, economists and other staff.

Getting portfolio managers to work smoothly with sales representatives isn't always easy, Ms. Mezey said. PNC, for example, markets its investment products through three distinct sales forces focusing on retail, wholesale, and personal trust clients.

Portfolio managers can feel as if they are being pulled in different directions, because the sales groups are competitive with each other, Ms. Mezey said.

Still, Ms. Mezey said her staff strives to be accessible and -- if possible -- engaging.

"Use your Jay Lenos whenever you can," she told bankers at the conference in Washington. "They must be well-trained and articulate."

PNC's approach goes beyond the seminars that many banks use to put their portfolio managers in front of investors.

The bank's investment advisers are available to individual investors, especially those who make multi-million dollar purchases.

These investors "want to kick the tires," Ms. Mezey said. "Part of that is seeing the living, breathing portfolio manager."

Portfolio managers also spend considerable time with PNC salespeople.

Getting to Know You

The two groups really get to know each other at PNC's "Investment Management Research University," a two-day program that relies on presentations from portfolio managers.

The investment management unit also produces a monthly commentary and hosts regular conference calls to bring sales-people up to date on market conditions and popular products.

In addition, "We encourage calls by our salespeople to the managers," Ms. Mezey said.

In return, the investment unit strives to shield its portfolio managers from stiffling procedures.

"Keep bureaucracy away," Ms. Mezey said. "We kill our people with it."

Still, she cautioned, accessibility has its limits.

"Avoid overusing your portfolio managers," Ms. Mezey said. Fund performance can suffer "if they're not in the shop watching the market."

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