First Union Corp. is about a third of the way along in its ambitious plan to license 2,400 employees to sell mutual funds, and branch managers may have special reason to cheer.

"Branch managers are some of the most overworked, underpaid employees, and this enables them to double or even triple their income" through commissions, said B. Lamar Polston, national sales manager for the North Carolina company's First Union Brokerage Services unit.

An Incentive to Stay

Nearly all of First Union's 1,328 branch managers will obtain a license to sell mutual funds under the plan, which was unveiled last summer.

Mr. Polston said the mutual fund sales program may give First Union a better shot at retaining its branch managers instead of watching them "just punch their tickets" and move on.

The plan also calls for 1,100 customer service representatives - one in nearly every branch - to be licensed.

Mr. Polston said there are advantages for these nonmanagers as well. After passing the exam, they will be promoted to sales representatives and will become dual employees of the bank and its brokerage unit.

Since the training effort was launched last summer, 850 First Union employees have obtained the Series 6 license, a mutual fund sales credential issued by the National Association of Securities Dealers.

First Union is clearly aiming high, given that only 68% of the 63,554 people who took the Series 6 exam in 1993 passed.

Randy Darden, manager of training for branch licensing in the corporate training and development division, said First Union employees have been passing the exam at a rate that is "substantially higher than the average."

Intensive Training Program

Though he declined to give specific figures, he credits an intensive training program mounted by First Union as a big plus.

Employees picked for the mutual fund sales program attend a one-day introductory course, followed by six weeks of home preparation.

Next, they take a three-day, customized crash course, taught on-site by ITI-Nash Inc. of Tucker, Ca. - the Stanley Kaplan of the securities industry.

While many banks loose their employees on customers as soon as they pass the test, First Union puts its people through three more weeks of home study followed by an intensive five-day mutual fund sales, compliance, and operations course.

Finally, they undergo a 90-day "apprenticeship" with a Series 7 teammate who serves as their mentor.

First Union has 200 employees with the Series 7 credential, a broad brokerage license that allows them to sell stocks, bonds, and other investments in addition to mutual funds.

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