Edward D. Jones & Co., the heartland brokerage with a shoe-leather philosophy about finding customers, will soon be knocking on doors throughout the Northeast.

The St. Louis-based company, which has nearly 3,600 North American offices, is opening hundreds of one-broker storefronts in places like Newburyport, Mass., Westport, Conn., and Princeton, N.J.

It's a broad push into the competitive suburbs of the some of the country's most densely populated cities. The company, which now has about 250 offices from Washington north to Maine, projects the total will skyrocket to 3,460 by early in the next century.

In a move to target sunbirds, the firm is also planning smaller expansions in Southern California (80 offices to 750 by 2003) and Florida (107 to 840).

"If you go back over the years, we've always been known in the rural and small towns," said John W. Bachmann, managing principal at Edward Jones. "The assumption was we weren't interested in urban areas" and that's not so, he said.

The firm's rapid branch growth, starting in the mid-1980s, targeted towns near St. Louis, Chicago, Dallas, Seattle and Atlanta. Today, about two-thirds of the offices are in urban or suburban areas, he said.

While the fever-pace of the Northeast beckons, Edward Jones has remained decidedly down-to-earth.

It still targets individuals of modest means, including small-business owners. The company dispenses a mix of stocks, bonds, mutual funds, certificates of deposit, and annuities. It avoids what it calls "fad" stocks and shares that trade for less than $4.

"We have a psychological (client) profile: A long-term, serious investor. A person looking for options or commodities is not going to come to us," said Mr. Bachmann, who is 58.

Traditionally, if a firm like massive Merrill Lynch & Co. was the department store of Wall Street, catering to well-heeled clients, Edward Jones was the Fuller Brush salesman, going door-to-door in search of penny savers and CD investors. It was as contrarian a view as could be found on Wall Street.

While small towns and suburbs are still Edward Jones' mainstay, its brokers are as likely to be battling Merrill, Charles Schwab & Co., and Fidelity Investments for business.

Edward Jones' traditional stronghold has been in the Midwest. Though founded in 1871, the company didn't have a branch office until 1955, when the founder's son, Ted Jones, opened one in Mexico, Mo.

Edward Jones' forte continues to be its offices; among all brokerages in 1995, it had the most branches (though it ranked just ninth in number of brokers), according to the Securities Industry Yearbook.

Its has been ranked No. 1 for customer service in Registered Representative's annual brokerage survey in each of the past four years, and also topped Money magazine's 1996 broker rating.

The knock on Edward Jones has always been the limitations of one-person offices. (Through March, the company had 3,563 offices and 3,604 brokers.)

"The problem is you're a 24-hour broker. You've got to be there all the time. If you take a vacation, you've got no one to fill in," said Robert A. Ramsay, a Bedford, N.H., broker.

But Mr. Ramsay, who competes with an Edward Jones office three miles away, acknowledges that "adapting to New England shouldn't be too hard" for the St. Louis company. "They'll recruit local people. Edward Jones is good," he said.

And the firm stands behind its system-including a rigorous broker training program.

Broker trainees are typically 40 years old and switching careers.

"We're not going to pay bounties to take brokers from other companies. We believe in training, training, training," said Mr. Bachmann.

After three months of training, recruits are sent home to make 1,000 personal calls-on doorsteps and in coffee shops, clubs, and businesses.

"It's not so much door-to-door as face-to-face calls. We want brokers to be able to look them (prospective clients) in the eye," said Mr. Bachmann.

From those contacts, and hundreds of follow-up calls, the broker is expected to draw a client base. Only then will the broker be set up with an office.

Edward Jones brokers reportedly make $130,000 a year on average. By comparison, all retail brokers had median income of $78,856 in 1995, according to the Securities Industry Association.

The firm recently named John Sloop, who oversaw West Coast brokers, to boost its sales force.

"Their training program is second to none. Their plan works," said Stephen Kitts, senior vice president of investments at Kansas City, Mo.- based Commerce Bancshares, which competes with Edward Jones offices in three Midwestern states.

"The way we perceive them is that they have the retail distribution. They do a fantastic job of setting up offices in small towns, though they're now moving into major cities. They're starting to compete (with Commerce) on the institutional side, but that hasn't been a major area for them yet."

The company's strategy for growth counters the prevailing wisdom-that mergers with other companies trim costs and build distribution.

On Wall Street, Dean Witter is set to be acquired by Morgan Stanley & Co. And in Edward Jones' home, St. Louis, Boatmen's Bancshares has been bought by NationsBank Corp.

"There's always an opportunity when a new name comes in," said Patrick McAllister, a senior resident vice president for Merrill Lynch's St. Louis operations. "We don't see anything changing (dramatically). Certainly, if (St. Louis-based) A.G. Edwards or Edward Jones had a partnership with a bank that would change things."

A year ago, there was speculation-reported on the front page of The Wall Street Journal, among other places-that Edward Jones would be acquired by Merrill Lynch.

Mr. Bachmann didn't like the talk. He has put the industry on notice: Edward Jones will grow by expansion, not absorption.

"We've always paid close attention to what's happening in the marketplace, but we have big investments in people and technology. We have a broad-based distribution network and personal service," he said, adding: "We're not for sale. We're a partnership-that's the value of being a partnership."

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