Securities firms are hiring again -- conservatively


Last year, after Buzz Sheain sold his Towson dry cleaning business, he went into a field that had been taken to the cleaners for the better part of three years.

In other words, Charles S. Sheain Jr. is now a stockbroker.

After almost 18,000 brokers hung up their Quotron machines in the three years after the 1987 crash, representing about 20 percent of the industry nationwide, securities firms are hiring again.

But all the defections of brokers who couldn't make enough money on commissions and the firing of investment bankers who couldn't earn their keep have taught the firms a lesson. No 1980s-style excess here. No reprise of an industrywide bloat.

"What happened in 1988 to 1990 has had a permanent effect on the psyche of Wall Street management," said Jeffrey Schaefer, research director for the Securities Industry Association in New York. "We're talking about an industry that lost one in five people and one in five firms" after 1987.

"I think what's happening is that firms are at least stopping the cutbacks," Mr. Schaefer said. "Nobody has started a very aggressive [expansion] campaign. But it's modest expansion.

"They're not hell-bent as they were in the 1980s."

Indeed, the signs stretch from Wall Street to Calvert and Baltimore streets, where this city's two biggest investment firms are located.

Legg Mason Inc. says it will expand its sales force of 750 by 3 percent to 5 percent this year, and Alex. Brown Inc. says it would like to expand its force by 5 percent to about 420 brokers.

Nearby on Pratt Street, Rich Barbarita, manager at PaineWebber Inc.'s Baltimore office, is looking for enough office space to let his 20-broker sales force grow to 30.

Brokers "were in the toilet for three years," from 1988 through 1990, saidJames W. Brinkley, president of Legg Mason's brokerage unit, Legg Mason Wood Walker Inc. "1991 was a good year. We had our recession."

Mr. Schaefer said expanding the brokerage force, rather than the investment banking ranks, is Wall Street's way of expanding the basics of their business rather than "gimmicks" like leveraged buyouts.

And Steven Faigen, a spokesman for Shearson Lehman Bros. Inc. in New York, points out one grim upside of the late-1980s cutbacks: Many firms, like Shearson, already have the office space, support staff and equipment they need to accommodate the growth.

"We look at brokers as a source of revenue, not expense," PaineWebber's Mr. Barbarita said.

New brokers at Legg Mason, such as Mr. Sheain and Diane Nussbaum, certainly hope so. Mr. Sheain got his broker's license in July; Ms. Nussbaum, who works in the firm's Pikesville office, got hers in December 1990.

"I couldn't have gotten in at a better time," said Mr. Sheain. "I'd rather learn how to survive now. I wanted to get my foundation built properly."

Ms. Nussbaum says with the recession, potential clients who own their own businesses or also work for commissions might not be making as much as they once did. But the recession must end sometime.

In truth, it's less exceptional for a regional firm like Legg Mason to be adding brokers than it is for the New York-based firms, said Perrin Long, who follows the securities industry for First of Michigan Corp. in Detroit.

But Mr. Brinkley at Legg Mason said even regional firms like his are changing their approach. "We've always gone out and added the high-quality people we wanted to work with," Mr. Brinkley said. "The difference is that now we're more actively looking because we really think the 1990s will be a good time."

The Legg Mason executive cheerfully says that the industry passed this way early in the last decade, en route to big profits and ultimately a bracing ride over a cyclical cliff. But Mr. Brinkley thinks another downturn is a good way off.

Mr. Sheain isn't worried. "I have no fear of the future. I got in because a good broker will make money in any kind of market."

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