Jim Jessee, former co-head of global distribution at MFS Investment Management and former president of MFS Fund Distributors, will receive Fund Action’s Lifetime Achievement Award at the 25th Annual Mutual Fund Industry Awards.

The ceremony kicks off on April 12 at Cipriani’s 42nd Street in New York.

Jessee joined MFS in 1987, and he worked his way up from external regional wholesaler to ultimately overseeing MFS’ global retail business. He stepped back from this role in December but remains with the firm in an advisory capacity until he retires later this year.

MFS and analysts attribute much of the firm’s ability to maintain positive annual net flows as an actively managed shop to Jessee’s push into the retirement space and a wholesaler compensation program that fostered long-term portfolio success.

Early years

After a nearly seven-year gig at Minnesota Life as a group representative right out of college, Jessee landed a regional wholesaler position at MFS, covering wirehouses and regional broker-dealers in the Southeastern US – North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia. He held this role for almost 15 years.

“He was our top-performing sales person year after year after year,” said Carol Geremia, head of global distribution at MFS. Geremia served as co-head of global distribution with Jessee from Oct 2011 through Dec 2017.

“He built a lot of trust in his territory in his early days,” she added. “Very early on, he was an expert around the product, the industry, around numbers, and he could just get into the more technical side of the business while also building very strong relationships with his clients.”

Fifteen years in the field not only gave Jessee invaluable experience and client relationships, it also made him ready to take on some managerial positions. He became the national sales manager in 2001 and quickly moved to director of dealer relations a year later.

Jessee had the foresight to understand that the 401(k) business was going to be hugely important to mutual fund companies, so he got behind that very early in his career, Geremia added.

By 2004, MFS appointed Jessee president of MFS Fund Distributors.

In this role, the one thing that stood out was Jessee’s ability to connect with clients, Ryan Mullen, co-head of MFS International, told FA.

“He’s always been very client-centered and client-focused,” Mullen said. “As he stepped into the leadership role, he was equally as engaged.”

Strong force

MFS, just like any actively managed shop, had to battle investor flight to passive. But MFS held its ground, maintaining nine consecutive years of pos­itive net mutual fund flows since 2009, data from Morningstar Direct shows. MFS is one of the four firms in the US fund industry to achieve this positive streak, according to Morningstar.

MFS credits much of this success with Jessee’s leadership, and notably, the innovative compensation program he created.

More than 10 years ago, in 2007, MFS started compensating wholesalers for selling a broader range of funds to advisers, according to the firm, which noted it continues to compensate on gross sales, but net sales are also considered.

The goal was to ensure that its sales force didn’t just push the latest product trends or the hottest short-term product features, but sold funds that fit into a broader asset allocation strategy that was sustainable, Geremia explained.

This method allowed MFS to develop closer relationships with advisers because they were using multiple MFS products, Bridget Hughes, director of parent and global manager research at Morningstar, told FA.

“A lot of firms would go in and say this is the top-performing [fund],” she said. “What he tried to do at MFS is extend the panicles of the firm to each relationship so that it wasn’t just based on one top performer at any given time.”

MFS’ success also has a lot to do with the diversity of its sales channels, Mullen added.

“We are one of the earlier entrants to the DCIO business,” he said. “We are not too reliant on any one client as well if you think about intermediary relationships.”

The firm also delved into practice management to help advisers add value to their businesses, Mullen explained.

“Jim has been innovative when it comes to ways we connect with clients and how we support and service our clients,” he said.

Moreover, Jessee developed great relationships with his colleagues, Geremia said.

“As a partner, as a colleague, there’s no better person than Jim Jessee,” she said. “If you wanted a partner you could trust, a partner that had your back, Jim Jessee is the guy.”