Sales Efforts Complicated by Layoffs, Management Turnover, Bond Losses

Claire Huang, the new chief marketing officer at American Express Financial Advisors, already faces a trio of significant hurdles -- layoffs, management turnover and huge bond losses. Since last summer, the adviser unit has been breaking in a new CEO, a new chief investment officer and a new chief marketing officer. And now with the departure of Stuart Setlacek last week after losing more than $400 million in junk bond investments, it's looking for a new chief financial officer.

And there's uncertainty elsewhere in the group. The financial adviser division is cutting approximately 800 to 1,000 positions over the next 18 months. Although it is not clear where the cuts will be taking place, a spokeswoman said most will be in customer service.

In the midst of all the retiring, firing and resigning, however, AmEx is still trying to hone and expand its business -- and it's starting by increasing its marketing services for advisers.

Last month, the unit hired Huang as its new chief marketing officer, replacing Mark Carter, who left in December.

Huang hopes to create an asset 'acquisition machine,' as well as deepen the relationships planners have with their clients. 'It's all about brand positioning,' Huang said, adding that typically when consumers think of American Express, they think of the charge and credit cards, not the financial advisers.

Planners said that it's unlikely that any run-of-the-mill marketing program will lure firms that already have established clients. However, they said, if she continues to develop client appreciation programs and other AmEx-sponsored events, advisers might take a second look at joining the group.

But what of planners who already work with the Minneapolis-based AmEx division? Some said the changes are just a function of division restructuring in order to move forward, which has no direct affect on them. 'It doesn't affect my business at all,' said Christopher Moore, a planner in Ft. Wayne, Ind., who uses American Express as his broker-dealer. 'Sometimes you have to cut and pull back to go forward.'

But other planners were not as nonchalant. One planner said that AmEx will have to make up for the high-yield investment losses, and part of that catch-up will come out of advisers' pockets in the form of higher fees on services and products. 'We'll just have to see with the new management people,' said Ken Wilmot, president of the Association of Financial Planning Professionals, an association of primarily AmEx advisers.

This story was adapted from a story appearing on Fianancial Planning Online.

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