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For Raymond James executive, experience is educational

The new president and chief operating officer of Raymond James Financial doesn't have a Harvard MBA like many leaders there, including CEO Thomas James, but that hasn't slowed him.

By HELEN HUNTLEY, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times
published April 28, 2002

ST. PETERSBURG -- When Chester "Chet" Helck was named president and chief operating officer of Raymond James Financial Inc. in February, he became the leading candidate to replace chief executive Thomas James -- whenever James, who turns 60 in May, gets ready to let go of the reins.

The move came as a surprise to many at the St. Petersburg company because James is a Harvard Business School graduate with a well-known proclivity for recruiting and promoting Harvard MBAs for the brokerage firm founded by his father. Helck, 49, earned a bachelor's degree in management from West Virginia University Institute of Technology.

What Helck brings to the position is a strong background in management, recruitment of brokers and development of technology initiatives. He joined Raymond James in 1989 in Atlanta, where he became executive vice president and chief recruiter for the company's independent contractor subsidiary, now known as Raymond James Financial Services. James said he has been impressed by Helck's intellect, common sense, work ethic and problem-solving abilities.

The soft-spoken Helck's primary focus will be Raymond James' retail brokerage business, with its 4,900 financial advisers in 2,100 locations. He also is charged with overseeing Raymond James' technology initiatives and development of alternative investments for clients.

For the next year Helck expects to commute between Raymond James' St. Petersburg headquarters and Atlanta, where his wife, Abby, a former kindergarten teacher, and their son, Greg, 17, are living until Greg finishes high school. In an interview with the St. Petersburg Times last week, Helck talked about his background and his new role. Here are excerpts:

Q. What did you do after college?

A. When I got out of school I felt that my role in the world was to be an interface between technology and business. The firm I found that was looking for that exact role was John Deere. I started with them in their factory out in Illinois, right out of college. My role was to help take new products off the drawing board and introduce them to the marketing organization. I loved doing that.

Q. It was kind of a leap from there into the brokerage business, wasn't it?

A. I started as a client. Through the company stock purchase plan, most of my net worth as a young twentysomething was in Deere stock. Intuitively I knew that having everything in one stock didn't make sense. I sought the counsel of an investment representative with Edward Jones, became a client and diversified my portfolio into quality mutual funds that performed quite well. He recommended that I quit my job and get into the securities business, and I liked the idea. It was more of a fit for me than I thought equipment manufacturing was.

Q. Did you start out as a broker?

A. I opened a Jones office in 1983 in Milledgeville, Ga. Then I was offered the opportunity after a few years to become what they call a regional leader for Georgia, Florida and part of Alabama. That meant I was helping other financial advisers coming through the training program get started.

Q. How did you end up at Raymond James?

A. I had read an article about Tom and the firm and I was intrigued with it. At the same time one of my colleagues at Jones had recently left to work for (Raymond James' independent contractor operation) and I tried to talk him out of it. In retrospect, he was a better recruiter than I was. I wrote a letter to Tom James expressing my interest in the firm, and I ended up getting an invitation to come to Atlanta to interview. It turns out to be a very good fit. We immediately saw eye to eye on a lot of values-oriented issues, and to me that's the most important element.

Q. What was it about Raymond James' independent contractor operation that attracted you?

A. It was a much smaller company at the time and I felt like it was a great ground-floor opportunity. To me being a recruiter was never about numbers. I always saw this as building a firm one person at a time. That means finding people that are a fit philosophically, ethically, competency-wise, people that you would be proud to recommend to your neighbors and your family as financial advisers.

Q. How many people have you recruited to Raymond James?

A. I was keeping a list in my pocket until it got over 110 offices. Most of those offices had multiple people. I remember having a little celebration when I'd opened my 100th office, but it wasn't long after that when I got to the point where I had to focus my energy on managing and doing less direct recruiting. In the year I joined (the contracting operation) did about $38-million in revenues. This past year that number was well over $600-million.

Q. How do you see the downturn in the economy and the stock market affecting the growth of Raymond James?

A. The last six months to a year has been among the most robust growth periods for recruiting (brokers). It's during this kind of time that people who may be predisposed to make a change for whatever reason are most inspired to do it. A lot of cost cutting is going on in our industry and cost-cutting measures are never comfortable for anybody. Their commissions could be changed, their support staff could be reduced or their marketing budget. When people are put in a situation where they're uncomfortable, they often consider other alternatives.

Q. Do you have a specific growth objective?

A. We want to grow 20 percent a year. We expect half that growth to come from productivity increases. That means developing products and services and tools to help our existing financial advisers and clients. The other half comes from external growth, from recruiting and training.

Q. How can a relatively small firm like Raymond James survive and thrive in this environment of consolidation in the brokerage industry?

A. Through good management. The reason a lot of firms are compelled to be acquired is that their management hasn't provided for the key ingredients necessary to remain competitive. Raymond James has been out in front. Raymond James was very early in adopting a commitment to the asset management business and to a fee-based approach to clients, long before most firms even considered it an attractive business model. Technology is another area where we've excelled, and we haven't used a lot of debt to do that. We have no pressure to sell out. We can compete very nicely here.

Q. Do you see Raymond James making any acquisitions?

A. We're always open to the opportunity. We would only acquire a firm if we feel like the quality of the people, the values and the way they do business are a good fit. We certainly have the capital to be able to do that, but we're not trying to force a deal just to meet some arbitrary growth objective.

Q. How do you see technology changing the way Raymond James does business over the next few years?

A. We're working on a lot of projects designed to make Raymond James easier to do business with. We're testing systems to allow new account forms to be scanned into our system at branch offices instead of being mailed in. Eventually our objective would be to put virtually all forms electronically in the system rather than having to mail them in.

Another exciting technology that we're about to introduce on a wide scale is what we're calling e-learning. You can't have training schools and meetings every week of the year or nobody would ever get anything done. We've got technology that lets us have virtual classrooms (for staff) via our communications network. People all over the country will be able to participate simultaneously from their desks, be able to see and hear the instructor. We'll have two-way conversations and video. We already have done some of it on a trial basis and we'll be using it this summer on a wider scale.

Q. Another area that falls in your territory is alternative investments. Is there any change of approach in that area?

A. This area includes private partnerships, hedge funds, exchange funds, real estate, tax-managed investments and other alternatives for high-net worth clients to be able to get additional diversification opportunities. It is our objective to expand what we can offer there. We just hired a new analyst in that area.

Q. Will there be additional international expansion?

A. The Raymond James (independent contractor) model is one that is exportable. We're doing that in London, and it's starting to show some signs of life. Our model doesn't exist in other firms so we have to teach people first of all what is it that we do. We're also about to launch the independent contractor model in Canada as part of Raymond James Ltd. I would guess that if we can make it work in those two places there will be other places where it can work. There has to be enough regulatory support, and there has to be a consumer that's receptive to having one-on-one personal advice available to them.

Q. Coming here from Atlanta, taking on the president's job, what do you see as the biggest challenge for you personally?

A. The learning. This is a major company with a lot of intricate, complex workings. Tom James is just incredible in his ability to know and understand virtually every aspect of that. It's one of the reasons this firm has done as well as it has. I feel like it's incumbent on me to also learn all of those businesses.

Q. Is it a little bit intimidating to have him here looking over your shoulder?

A. No. It's very comforting to have Tom here. It is intimidating to be held to the kind of standards that Tom James has set. It's also exciting. I would think that I may be the luckiest guy in the world to have the chance to do this. This is a manager's dream come true. It's also a manager's biggest challenge. If you were stepping into an opportunity where things were not going well, where there had been all sorts of problems, then there's nowhere to go but up. But here the standards are incredibly high and you have to make sure that you don't miss a beat.

Q. Were you surprised that you were given this opportunity since you don't have a Harvard MBA?

A. Yes. There were a number of other very competent and qualified candidates both inside and the firm. It made me feel honored that I would be considered. Frankly, because of Tom's proclivity for Harvard MBAs, I thought that probably would be a limiting factor for me. It turns out it wasn't. I had considered graduate school. In fact I took some graduate courses along the way and even considered going to Harvard at one point. I always wondered what would have been different had I done that, but I chose to try and stick with the experience (route to success) and it has worked out.

Q. How are you handling the commute with your wife and son in Atlanta?

A. My son is a junior in high school, and we would like to give him the opportunity to graduate with his friends. He's on the varsity rowing team and doing well in school and we'd like to keep that intact.

In the next year we'll have a home there and a home here. Hopefully during the summer, during breaks and on some weekends they can be here. I'll be there a lot as well. I still have an office in Atlanta so I can work there. I can plug my computer in at either place and be right on the Raymond James network. We rented a nice little house at Redington Beach on the intracoastal. We've got a dock in the back with a boat out there. We really enjoy being outside. But this (commuting) lifestyle has made it difficult to get involved in the community the way I'd like to be.

-- Helen Huntley can be reached at or (727)893-8230.

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