Nonbank brokers have always believed their clients are theirs, not their firms'. They feel that they have invested their sweat equity into building a business, and that should they wish to retire and leave their books of business to a child, or sell it, it's theirs to do with as they wish.

This has not been the feeling at banks, which may give their reps tremendous support in the form of marketing, advertising, or direct referrals.

But the situation is changing.

With the maturing of many bank investment programs, bank reps are being asked to go beyond the existing customer base and referral program to cultivate their own clients. Whether it's through referrals from existing customers, conducting public seminars, or cold calling, more and more bank reps are being told to build their businesses without the bank's help.

For more than 15 years, banks have been hiring professionals to sell investment products to their customers. Today it is estimated that between 30,000 and 40,000 brokers with NASD series 6 or 7 licenses work in banks either full-time or part-time. The average bank broker produced $22,850 of gross commissions in July, according to the Bank Securities Association. That's about $275,000 a year.

Clearly, we've come a long way in a short time. And not only has bank broker productivity increased, but the professionalism, expertise, and experience of many bank investment reps have grown too. Today many bank brokers sell sophisticated products, from wrap accounts to life insurance, and provide comprehensive financial and retirement planning.

Reps at wire houses, regionals, and independent broker-dealers have also been doing very well. The median annual rep production is well over $350,000.

Because of these strong numbers and the fact that many reps hired back in the retail expansion of the 1970s and 1980s are now looking at retirement, there has been a major expansion in the sale of brokers' books of business. This year several Internet firms have been launched to help investment representatives buy, sell, and merge their books of business.

Not surprisingly, much of the action has been with independent reps, but the big Wall Street firms are also beginning to provide succession and transition programs for their brokers. According to a recent article in Research Magazine, brokers' books are selling at 1.2 to two times annual gross commissions.

Many bank reps have signed noncompete agreements prohibiting them from soliciting their old clients should they move to a competing brokerage firm or bank investment program. But will those who feel they have invested their time, energy, and souls into building their books willingly walk away empty-handed?

I don't think so. It's possible that banks will soon start to see more reps deserting their programs for wire houses and independent firms, if only to establish the ownership of their books.

Clearly it's much harder for a bank rep to move his or her book, or to sell it outright, given the makeup of the book. By in large, bank reps' books don't look much like wire house or independent reps' books. Bank reps do far fewer stock trades or repeat trades with clients, and they sell far more packaged products and annuities.

And let's face it - most banks and bank reps still refer to the people they do business with as customers, not clients, reflecting the lack of personal relationships between them.

But isn't it possible that the top reps - those with experience, professionalism, and large books - may understand the true value of their business and not passively hand it over to their bank?

After all, such reps may believe what they've built really is worth more than a gold watch.

Mr. Werlin is president of Human Capital Resources Inc., a St. Petersburg, Fla., financial services recruiting and consulting firm.

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