Putnam Investments likes to attribute its considerable success to teamwork. For better or worse, the company's fortunes do not rest disproportionately in the hands of any single employee.

But bankers and those in and around the mutual fund business say Putnam, the dominant seller of funds through banks, is going to have a heck of a time replacing Bill Shiebler.

William N. Shiebler, the president of Putnam's retail mutual fund business since 1990 and a major reason Putnam is the top fund distributor through banks, plans to begin training a successor soon to pave the way for his retirement in two to three years.

"Bill Shiebler will leave an immense footprint for somebody else to fill," said Louis Harvey, president of Dalbar Inc., a Boston-based consulting firm. "It's entirely possible you might need to have more than one person, and a change in structure."

The person or persons who succeed Mr. Shiebler, 55, will manage a business that accounts for $176 billion of Putnam's $226 billion of assets, overseeing sales through banks, brokers, and financial planners.

Mr. Shiebler's talents are manifold. His predictive abilities led him to see several years ago that banks would become an important fund distribution channel. Putnam expects bank sales to total $10 billion this year-more than a quarter of its retail sales total.

Later, he saw that fund companies would have to distinguish themselves by providing training to bank sales reps rather than just pushing products.

He is equally comfortable talking brass tacks with investment reps and putting his skills as a consummate salesman to work in bank boardrooms. He is known to bend over backward for key accounts, building priceless goodwill.

And Mr. Shiebler provides a thoughtful, charismatic presence, sets the tone for the executives beneath him, and instills confidence in distributors.

Mr. Shiebler was not available to interview for this article. But Putnam officials insist that he is not hurrying into retirement and will help to make the transition a smooth one.

"We're mapping out a succession plan and we'll have time to implement it," said Putnam spokesman Matthew Keenan. "By the time Bill steps aside we'll have the people and a structure in place to continue to carry on the good work he's done over the years."

Boston-based Putnam will need that preparation, mutual fund executives say.

Paul J. Hondros, the former Fidelity Investments executive who built bank and broker distribution during his tenure there, gives Mr. Shiebler high marks for his performance.

"I really respected him," said Mr. Hondros, who left Fidelity in September to run Pilgrim Baxter & Associates, a fund company in Philadelphia. "I thought he was the best guy we competed against."

Bank brokerage executives speak in similarly glowing terms.

"Bill really combines the best of a strategic thinker about the business as a whole and the ability to be a salesman at the same time," said Karl Keller, vice president at First Chicago NBD Investment Services Inc.

Mr. Shiebler also understands the "peculiar nature of the bank channel," where banks sell products that compete directly with outside fund companies' wares, said Mr. Keller.

Putnam and First Chicago worked to integrate Putnam's funds into the bank's proprietary variable annuities, and Putnam is involved in First Chicago's 401(k) distribution effort.

"They've created a model for partnership," said Mr. Keller.

Since winning a big chunk of the bank market back in 1990, Putnam under Mr. Shiebler has done what it takes to maintain and build that position.

"He was one of the first guys that started to talk about what's right for the client and about service," said Robert Flowers, a bank brokerage veteran who is now an executive in Transamerica's insurance business. "He tried to transition his wholesaler force away from just product sales to providing training that would be beneficial to bank reps."

Said Allen Croessmann, managing director, investment products and services at BankBoston: "Bill and the people who work with him have done a phenomenal job of keeping Putnam uppermost in the minds of bank programs."

Support services and training have been the keys: A monument to that approach is Putnam Institute, a school Mr. Shiebler helped set up to train bank reps and other retail brokers.

Mr. Croessmann said he is not worried about what will happen when Mr. Shiebler departs because he will leave behind a strong team and strong relationships with banks. But others say that the departure could be felt later on.

Mr. Flowers, who has known Mr. Shiebler since his days heading the brokerage unit of First Union Corp., said Mr. Shiebler's vision may be missed when the stock market eventually takes a downturn.

Fund companies may have to shift to selling wealth transfer products, for instance, and they will have to act fast to beat insurance companies to the market, he said.

"This is a business where the waterfront changes rather rapidly, and you have to change your colors in order to be a participant in the process," said Mr. Flowers. "The question is will the guy in Shiebler's shoes be sensible enough to spot that change and reposition his wholesalers to take advantage of that."

Certainly Mr. Shiebler's departure need not spell serious trouble for the company, observers say. It is big and strong and loaded with talent.

Putnam president and chief executive Lawrence Lasser "has got two other weapons," said Burton Greenwald, a mutual fund consultant in Philadelphia: a 401(k) business that has emerged over the last five years as a major player in the industry, and the beginnings of a strong offshore distribution network that will open huge markets over the next decade in Asia and Europe.

Still, the company has its work cut out for it as it looks to fill Mr. Shiebler's shoes.

"Odds are they won't get another Bill Shielbler," Mr. Greenwald said.

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