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Secret trips to Raymond James? Why advisors from rival firms tour its HQ

Contemporary art celebrating the American West. Photos of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ home field, aptly named Raymond James Stadium. Corporate memorabilia showcasing growth, branch openings and charity events.

Those are among the sights that greeted the more than 650 financial advisors who toured Raymond James headquarters last fiscal year in St. Petersburg, Florida. But they didn’t come to appreciate paintings, sculpture and football. The purpose of their visit? To decide whether they should uproot careers and clients to switch firms.

The home office visit, like that offered by Raymond James, has become a key component in regional and independent firms’ aggressive campaigns to recruit top financial advisors. These efforts have pushed headcounts at these companies to new heights as they court advisors, who are seeking more control over their professional development and compensation. A home office tour, which firms hope will showcase their corporate culture and resources, can be a key factor in whether advisors choose to affiliate with one broker-dealer over another.

In recent years, Raymond James has aggressively ramped up recruiting. Understanding how and why this 57-year-old brokerage has undertaken such focused efforts illuminates a little understood corner of the investment advisory space — and helps explain how the company hit a record of 7,815 advisors last year.

A home office visit at Raymond James can cost the firm upward of $2,000 per advisor. It includes meetings with company executives, technology demonstrations and tours of various departments, all of whom take hours out of their busy days to meet with prospects. It’s worth it, they say.

“When we talk about expense savings, slowing down recruiting is not at the top of the list. We don’t want to jeopardize growth by cutting off those near-term expenses,” says Scott Curtis, president of the private client group at Raymond James.

Advisors who have joined the company say their furtive trips to its corporate campus in St. Petersburg were invaluable.

“We visited a couple of different firms. They were good in their own way. But you can tell, and I don’t mean to sound too plain, but you can tell when you are with your people,” says advisor Chip Munn who selected Raymond James over other suitors while riding in a cab to the airport with his team for their return flight home. Munn and his team moved to Raymond James’ independent broker-dealer from Hilliard Lyons in 2016.

ows_03_26_2019 Advisor headcount Raymond James and wirehouses fourth quarter 2018 earnings [updated w_ no dek].png

Raymond James isn’t alone in its efforts to improve its home office visits. Regional and independent broker-dealers, in particular, have put considerable time and money into attracting prospective hires to expand their brokerage forces. Stifel and Edward Jones get regular visitors at their headquarters in St. Louis as does RBC Wealth Management-U.S. in Minneapolis.

Firms put their best foot forward, treating advisors to golf outings or fine dining at classy restaurants. But there’s more at stake than filet mignon, insiders say. Advisor-client relationships worth millions can be jeopardized by a transition gone wrong. Does the company have competent staff to handle the move from one firm to another? Can the new employer handle all of the clients’ investments? Home office visits go a long way toward warding off mismatches.

“It’s one thing to talk over the phone. It can be completely different when you meet them in person,” says advisor Steve Dudash, adding that he wanted “to be able to meet the people who make the decisions and look them in the eye.”

A former Merrill Lynch advisor, Dudash considered joining 11 companies and visited five of their headquarters before settling on LPL Financial. On one visit, Dudash extended his trip an extra day.

“I felt that I was missing some pieces, and I needed to spend some more time and really take it in,” he says.

Such trips — which can typically last two to four days — can be taxing for advisors and firms alike. But Dudash wouldn’t have it any other way.

“It helped me weed out the ones I needed to eliminate. It made it a more manageable list. I walked out of some doors and said I am not going there,” says Dudash, who has also hired advisors into his Chicago-based practice IHT Wealth Management.

Raymond James provided this photo. It also hangs in their lobby of their headquarters in St. Petersburg, Florida.

At Raymond James, visiting advisors do more than meet executives; they see the firm’s technology operations, IT team, cybersecurity preparations, estate planning experts, muni bond desk and more.

Although the firm operates several different channels, including RIA, IBD, regional BD and its boutique Alex. Brown unit, most advisors already know which channel they want to be in, says Barry Papa, director of Advisor choice consulting at Raymond James.

Visitors get a sense of company history and culture immediately upon walking in the front door. Raymond James memorabilia decorates the hallway: news clippings, photos of the firm’s early years and founders, charity work by its employees.

Tom James, the firm’s chairman emeritus, is an avid art collector, and the company’s hallways are decorated with a slew of contemporary paintings and sculptures, giving a home office visit an art gallery vibe. (He and his wife founded The James Museum of Western & Wildlife Art in St. Petersburg in 2018.)

Meetings with the firm’s Wealth Retirement Portfolio Solutions team are intended to highlight the firm’s expertise and resources. “Our job is to connect an advisor with everything Raymond James has to offer,” says senior vice president Frank McAleer.

Have an estate planning quandary? McAleer’s group will find a solution.

It’s also possible to arrange visits for an advisors’ clients and centers of influence to the team. The firm did 355 of them in its fiscal year 2018, McAleer says.

Although each trip to St. Petersburg is customized to an advisor’s interests, every tour includes an introduction to the company’s technology platform and its “command center” which handles advisor technology issues.

“When advisors come here, one of the things we want to showcase is that room,” says Chief Information Officer Vin Campagnoli.

Raymond James, like some of its rivals, has upped its technology budget in recent years (Campagnoli says the company’s been in a period of technology investment since he arrived seven years ago). This has resulted in new goal planning software, platform updates and a large IT team operating from a command center to field advisor questions.

An adjacent cybersecurity center addresses threats to the firm, advisors and clients. A digital map of the world hangs on the wall and shows ongoing hacking attempts. During a crisis situation, the center’s glass walls frost up to block passersby from seeing sensitive or private information displayed on large screens (during a reporter’s visit the windows were not frosted).

Photo provided by firm

Advisors also meet David Lillis, director of user experience, who introduces them to the firm’s software and tech tools. The firm gets so many visitors now, that Lillis averages about 88 meetings per month, with each one running 60 to 90 minutes, he says.

One feature of these meetings are the firm’s mobile, tablet and desktop apps. “Imagine an FA runs into a client at dinner, has a quick conversation about a new promotion. The FA can, in the parking lot, use the app to verbally enter a note in the CRM [making it available on the advisor’s desktop too],” Lillis says.

The company’s efforts appear to be paying off. Advisors joining Raymond James often cite its technology, corporate culture and leadership as reasons for their career changes.

Advisors’ most frequently asked questions are client-related, Lillis says. “They want to make it easier to share things with clients, to find things for clients. A client calls, they want to be able to quickly find what they're looking for.”

Raymond James also shows off its advisor marketing team, which helps brokers with customized websites, newsletters, photos, podcasts and more (the firm has a studio on its corporate campus).

Dazzling digital displays aside, a key to any visit is facetime with company staff.

Scott Curtis Raymond James executive.jpg

“Advisors want to be able to go around and talk to people they will be dealing with on a daily basis. They want to see if they will have a connection,” says Frank LaRosa, a recruiter who has accompanied advisors on home office visits.

Paul Pagnato, a Merrill Lynch-turned-independent advisor, made multiple visits to the same home offices with his partner, David Karp, when they were planning their career move. To explain why, he points to his team’s hiring processes, which typically involve several meetings with a candidate.

“That’s because every time you meet with them you get more data. Did they show up on time for every meeting? Did they follow-up after the meetings?” says Pagnato, whose $3.7 billion RIA, PagnatoKarp, is based in Reston, Virginia.

Pagnato’s approach can be challenging, he acknowledges.

“It’s like you have a night job and a day job. You have to maintain the day-to-day operations. You have to serve your clients. That doesn’t change. And in addition to that you have to do this extra work,” he says. “We went seven days a week for quite some time to get through that process.”

LaRosa encourages advisors doing any home office tour to take the temperature of the room. “Pay attention to the other people walking in the halls. Are they getting along? What’s the vibe?”

Photo by Raymond James

For advisors who may be too far away to travel, the company has taken a version of its home office visit on the road, replete with executives and specialists to answer recruits’ questions. But for those who have made the trek to St. Petersburg, it doesn’t compare to the real thing. Plus, skipping a home office visit could send the wrong message, according to recruiters.

“You can do a lot now remotely, thanks to Webex and that kind of thing. But it might raise a red flag,” says Danny Sarch, a recruiter in White Plains, New York. “How serious are you about your career if you aren’t willing to make the trip?”

Indeed, that fact gets at another overlooked aspect of these trips. If advisors get a chance to size up the firm during a home office visit, so too does their potential new employer.

“The truth is that we are trying to get a sense of who the person is, the team is, and is this someone we’d be proud to say is affiliated with us?” says Raymond James’ Curtis.

Or, in Munn’s words, are these your people?

“This is a relationship business. You have to have the technology and the expertise, but people want to know who they are affiliating with,” he says.

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