Eighteen months ago, Heather Oliver turned her back on Morgan Stanley to become a Primevest representative at the $6 billion-asset BankAtlantic in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Despite the recession, smaller clients and less-sophisticated products, her business is thriving.

Oliver, who brought no book of business with her to BankAtlantic, a subsidiary of BankAtlantic Bancorp, has gathered close to $10 million of assets and 225 clients after only a year and a half.

As of September she had already done $350,000 in revenue. She said she anticipates hitting $50 million of assets under management by the end of next year.

"It's been crazy," Oliver said. "Taking the bank path turns out to be the best decision I ever made." Oliver ranked seventh among Primevest's top producers for August and is 15th so far for the year. "My goal is to get to the top," she said.

Oliver's first job in finance was in a boiler room called Biltmore Securities, a seamy operation that NASD was investigating and that got hit with lawsuit after lawsuit.

Rattled by this experience, she moved to Waterhouse (now TD Ameritrade). Though she was a senior financial adviser, that didn't mean much at the self-directed, discount brokerage. "At the time, Waterhouse had started giving advice on asset allocation of mutual funds, so we were giving advice but we were not compensated," Oliver said. "That's part of the reason I left. I was building relationships, setting appointments, making recommendations and managing expectations — without compensation. I was doing this more often than anyone else in our region, so I was a 'senior.' "

But Oliver learned an important lesson about the value of advice from working with self-directed investors. "I saw people act out of emotion and lose a lot of money," she said. "I realized that advice is pretty necessary."

A marketing major in college, Oliver next took a job selling airtime for Comcast, but after three years she realized her true calling was working with investments. "I was always helping Comcast employees with their 401(k)s and I really missed it," she said.

In 1999 she was hired by Morgan Stanley and worked with a couple of senior advisers. "They taught me all about product matrixes and placement based on each customer's needs, and I handled their marketing campaigns," she said. Events included client parties in a Ferrari showroom and at a Neiman Marcus store with a watch designer. An adviser spoke at both events about market opportunities. Oliver picked up high-touch people skills that she would use later as a branch-based bank rep.

But she realized that as long as she stayed in Morgan Stanley's team system she would be dependent on, and doing scut work for, the senior advisers. So after eight years, in 2007, she decided to go out on her own.

It was hardly a propitious time to start building a business from scratch. But Oliver decided to try bank brokerage based on two conversations with advisers.

"Both referred me to the bank channel," she said. "They thought my personality would gel well with bank customers because I'm not aggressive at all." Oliver was offered a position at a large regional bank in the Southeast, but instead moved to BankAtlantic, the community bank where she was a customer. There she found the autonomy she was looking for and a more relaxed lifestyle. "This is my business, my boss leaves me alone and the business comes from me as a self-starter."

At BankAtlantic, "when you walk in, people say hello. It's definitely a local bank," she said. "You don't get that at a large bank, and we get a lot of feedback that clients like us for that reason alone. At big banks you're a farm animal, but at a small bank, you're like a pet who's allowed on the bed."

Oliver attributes her success primarily to working with bank staff and offering that community-bank friendliness to investors of all asset sizes.

She has bonded with the 64 bankers in her six branches. "I don't differentiate myself from bankers; I talk to them," she said. As a result, "I've seen fixed-annuity prospects walk in with money to invest, and bankers could do a similar job with different products [certificates of deposit]. Instead, they refer that business to me. It's so important to have that relationship because branch staff put food on advisers' tables."

Oliver said it helps that bank management supports the brokerage program with cross-sell training sessions, both to encourage qualified referrals and coach branch staff on how certain products help clients. "If they're not educated, they're wary of referring their customers," she said.

Employees are taught not to discuss those kinds of options with clients, but just understanding how investment products work means, "almost like magic, the referrals start pouring in," she said.

Oliver, who is 35, estimates that as much as 90% of her new business comes from branch referrals. "It's been so good, I haven't really had the chance to go outside," she said. Friends and family plus a few old Morgan Stanley clients round out the remaining 10% of clients Oliver has booked.

Oliver misses some aspects of life at a wire house including the range of products. "The exciting thing about Morgan Stanley was the size of the accounts, and it was also interesting to find out how clients, some of them celebrities, made their money," she said. "Bank people are interesting too, but humongous accounts don't come to banks."

BankAtlantic offers annuities, mutual funds, bonds, bond funds, managed money and CDs.

Oliver's clients run the gamut in age from 18 to 80, with at least $20,000 of assets. When she joined the company in 2007, 80% of her business was fixed annuities for safety hounds. But lately, she is seeing more appetite for risk and selling more mutual funds. As people get more into the market she hopes to have more managed and to focus more on $100,000-plus clients, for whom fee accounts make sense.

"Fixed annuities are one pop on revenue, then you can't touch it for six years," she said. "I'm more driven by consistent revenue."

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