© 2020 Arizent. All rights reserved.

Open a new branch during coronavirus? How one firm did it

Register now

It may not seem like an auspicious time to open a new office, but Steward Partners overcame a slew of obstacles to launch its first new location since the coronavirus pandemic’s outbreak.

The independent firm quickly adapted to conditions imposed by CODID-19 to recruit two ex-Wells Fargo teams for a branch in Norfolk, Virginia. For example, in lieu of sending transition specialists to the new office to handle client onboarding, the firm relied on staffers working remotely in five locations to help send 400 packets overnight to clients.

The firm’s efforts show how wealth managers are adjusting growth strategies to a wildly different business environment in which advisors and clients alike are working from home and practicing social distancing.

Steward Partners, which has a partnership with Raymond James, may even carry on some of its remote transition practices after the pandemic abates, executives say. “I think this is the best one we’ve done,” says Jeff Gonyo, divisional president and head of recruitment.

George Nottingham, one of the hires and who has made two previous recruiting moves, says the transition to his new employer exceeded expectations.

“I opened my first account day one, and it was all done remotely,” Nottingham says.

The landscape of recruiting has changed, Gonyo says. “But I don’t think we could be better equipped thanks to the technology and experience we have. We can do this effectively and efficiently. That’s a big leg up.”

Steward Partners’ latest hires started planning their career move before the coronavirus outbreak. Thanks to the firm’s technology and staff working remotely, they’ve successfully made the transition. From left to right: George Notthingham, Karen Bittenbender, Tommy Leeman, Michelle Huffman and Susan Nottingham.

Other firms have made similar pivots. For example, RBC, Janney Montgomery Scott, and LPL Financial have gone digital with hiring strategies. Janney now offers virtual home office visits for prospective recruits.

Nottingham and Tommy Leeman, another new Steward hire, say they initiated plans to join the firm prior to the outbreak.

“First or second week of March, we had a mini-panic attack,” Notthingham says. “Is this really the thing to do?”

But the firm reassured the advisors it had the technology and capabilities to pull it off. The two teams joined Steward within a week of their originally targeted start date of April 29.

“Jeff and his team said, ‘If you guys feel comfortable, we can do this while being socially distanced,’” Leeman says, crediting the firm’s technology with making it happen. “We’re opening accounts with clients that are doing DocuSign. I’ve never had that experience.”

Together, the two teams managed more than $280 million in client assets while at Wells Fargo. On the team with Nottingham are Susan Nottingham, George’s wife, and Michelle Huffman. Leeman’s teammate is Karen Bittenbender.

More often than not, wirehouses were on the losing side of these moves.
December 30

Both advisors cited the firm’s culture, partnership structure and association with Raymond James as reasons for making the move.

Leeman, who started his career at A.G. Edwards, noted the similarities between that company and Raymond James and Steward Partners.

“We were talking back and forth a bit, and I went down to St. Petersburg [Florida] to visit Raymond James and it just reminded me of A.G. Edwards. Just the smiles on people’s faces,” Leeman says.

Pointing to Steward Partners’ support during the pandemic and willingness to open a new office in Norfolk, Leeman adds: “You knew you were making the right decision.”

Since its founding in 2013 by former wirehouse managers, the Washington, D.C.-based firm has grown to more than 100 advisors operating from 22 offices, including the Norfolk location. Executives say they’re moving ahead with their expansion plans.

“Recruiting had an obvious slowdown over the past two months,” Gonyo says. Start dates for new employees got pushed back, for example. “But things are definitely accelerating,” he adds. “And we’re seeing that come back around quite strongly.”

For reprint and licensing requests for this article, click here.