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Putnam Wholesalers Put the World in Their Palms


What's the most essential - but cumbersome - tool of a mutual fund wholesaler?

Hands down, it's that all-important laptop computer into which regional field salespeople often pour huge volumes of contact names, addresses, phone numbers and relevant data, calendar appointments, sales and marketing ideas, and even sales presentations. Essentially, a wholesaler's entire book of business rests with the information imbedded within one tough-to-lug laptop PC.

Now, fund wholesalers at Putnam Investments of Boston have just lightened their load. Advances in technology have brought the miniaturized world of Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs) and Pocket PCs will allow Putnam wholesalers to plop voluminous data into one device that tucks neatly into the palm of the hand.

Last Monday, 10 of Putnam's field wholesalers went live with a new Palm Pilot system powered by the "mWholesaler" mobile system developed by Pyxis Consulting of Wellesley, Mass. The system allows wholesalers to track and slice and dice sales activity in their territory, view and manage client contact data, and make PowerPoint slide presentations right from their PDAs, as long as they also have a miniature companion projector.

Future functionality will allow Putnam wholesalers to receive daily feeds of sales and marketing information from Putnam, and coordinate the scheduling of follow-up sales calls directly back to assistants at the home office.

The system essentially banishes paper files and supplants laptop computers when wholesalers make their rigorous rounds of field sales calls, said Tom Halloran, managing director and head of channel business development and training at Putnam. Not only is the traditional laptop cumbersome to carry around, but wholesalers need to open and boot up the computer, and it takes up clients' precious time to download or access information.

In contrast, PDA technology allows for "instant on" and immediate access to both contact data and sales and marketing material. Pyxis Consulting's system can also be adapted to BlackBerry e-mail devices and Microsoft's Pocket PC.

The transition to wireless handheld PCs essentially gives wholesalers the tool they need to do their job better, faster and easier, said Steve Miyao, senior vice president at kasina, a New York-based mutual fund e-consultancy. "I would be surprised if it wouldn't become a standard technology [for wholesalers] within the next two years."

But don't expect PDAs to make laptops extinct. The two will work in tandem. People will still use laptops for more complex writings, Miyao said. And fund companies acknowledge that handhelds' smaller memory makes the storage of extra large quantities of information or even a wholesaler's entire list of several thousand contacts in a larger territory impossible right now. Moreover, some of the more veteran and less tech-savvy wholesalers have not been as quick to adopt the new technology.

By year-end, 90 additional Palm Pilots will be purchased to equip all of Putnam's 100 field wholesalers with the high-tech gadgetry.

What made Putnam decide now was the time to transition over to PDAs? It wasn't a snap decision. Putnam had originally tested a similar system from another technology provider. But that system failed to meet expectations. Putnam decided to go with Pyxis after finding that its system met all of the firm's needs.

Rainmakers

Pyxis attracted Putnam's attention after strategically sending out close to two dozen fully-equipped PDAs to the rainmakers at several large mutual fund companies, said Chris Willis, director of marketing at Pyxis. The PDAs were tucked into boxes clad with clouds, and sat on little blue flannel pillows inside the box. The message that accompanied the PDAs asked if the executives were losing sleep because of their wholesalers' performance.

Pyxis provides only the operating system, not the handhelds themselves. It is compatible with three brands of handhelds, including Blackberry. Pyxis offers three levels of system functionality fund companies can choose from and customize as they go. Prices start at $175,000 and climb to $400,000 for a top-of-the-line enterprise system.

Putnam isn't the only fund group to lose the laptop. In June of last year, John Hancock Funds of Boston signed on with Pyxis to use its wireless system for 40 of its wholesalers, known as "business development consultants."

In an effort to save costs, six months ago Hancock took the palm PC system development task in-house, and has been adding capabilities along the way. Hancock's next generation of software will make the handheld PDAs bi-directional so that folks in the field can also report back to the home office, instead of just being able to receive information, said Art Creel, sales manager with John Hancock.