Wells Fargo & Co. is on a hiring spree that it hopes will bring it more high-net-worth investors in markets where it has retail branches but less of a wealth management presence.

The San Francisco banking company intends to hire 350 trust officers, private bankers, and portfolio managers before the end of 2002, said David Pittman, the executive vice president of investment management and trust services. Wells currently has 1,000 such executives.

Wells has been augmenting its wealth and portfolio management capabilities in recent years. In March 2000, it bought the Seattle brokerage Ragen MacKenzie Group, and a year later, SCI Financial Group, a broker and investment manager in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. This July Wells bought Irving, Tex., asset manager H.D. Vest, the largest provider of financial services through accountants.

Dennis Mooradian, Wells' president of private client services, is calling the hiring effort "the Bakersfield project." Bakersfield, Calif., he said, is a prime example of a city where Wells has a solid retail banking business but relatively little private wealth business. Chicago and Fresno, Calif., are also high on the list of cities Wells is targeting, he said.

Wells' private client business, which includes the brokerage arm, looks for clients with $1 million to $5 million to invest. It has undergone a facelift in recent months, Mooradian said, by adopting an "open architecture" approach to fiduciary investment management.

Following a rising trend among money managers, Wells' trust department began in August to offer nonproprietary money management services from managers other than its own. Mooradian said that most money managers offer nonproprietary products and services but few trusts do. The private banking unit was retooled to more closely resemble a brokerage house, he said.

In hiring relationship managers, Wells wants to increase its market share in areas where it already has a significant banking presence but comparatively few private banking clients. Right now, 20 million households have some sort of relationship with Wells, but only one million clients have investment product relationships -- and only 200,000 of these are high-net-worth private banking clients -- Pittman said.

He said he believes that, despite the economic slowdown, the climate is right for the company to seek more wealthy clients. "We believe in the growth in this market over the long term," he said. "It's a perfect time for us to invest in the business, to increase our market share."

Shealyn McGuire, a consultant at the Boston research firm Cerulli Associates, said few banks and brokerages are hiring right now, largely because of market conditions. In general, she said, experienced relationship managers are better bought than trained.

Pittman said that the company wants to hire "experienced, seasoned" people and offer them financial incentives to bring in customers. He said he is confident that executives will be attracted by Wells' business structure, which facilitates cross-selling and helps relationship managers build their books of business. Wells pays its private bankers a base salary, with bonuses tied to the amount of new business they bring in, he added.

McGuire said this is standard operating procedure at most private banks and trusts. Trust officers in New York and Boston generally have base salaries of $150,000 to $400,000 a year, she said.

But Diana Yates, an analyst at A.G. Edwards in St. Louis, said that Wells has traditionally been more committed to cross-selling than most banking companies and, as a result, has had more success with it.

Mooradian said this will only help new relationship managers make more money.

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