Investment firm Piper, Jaffray & Hopwood is a relatively new kid on the block in Salt Lake City, having hung out its shingle here in August 1986.

But the Minneapolis-based firm has, from day one, made itself perhaps the most visible stockbroker in town with a marketing tool so simple it's surprising no one else thought of it.Piper's "McGuffin" as film director Alfred Hitchcock termed such gimmicks, is a lighted sign outside the door of its 200 South and State Street office that continually updates motorists and pedestrians on the state of the world, or at least the state of Wall Street, which to investors amounts to the same thing.

The sign documents the daily peregrinations of the Dow Jones Average of 30 Industrial Stocks, an index that, rightly or wrongly, has become the most widely watched barometer of the New York Stock Exchange and, by implication, the national and world economies.

No one, capitalist or communist, rich or poor, mover/shaker or street person, can pass through the intersection without glancing up at Piper's sign to see how the "Big Board" on Wall Street is doing. For those whose fortunes - or even their small IRA or 401K retirement account - is in stocks, their spirits soar or plummet depending on whether the numbers on the sign are preceded by a + or a -.

On those dreaded days such as Black Monday in October 1987 and again in the October 1989 "minicrash," when the board read "-99" . . . well, it was not a pretty sight. Ironically, the -99 told only a small part of the disastrous story on those days: When the sign was built, Piper never dreamed the firm would need one capable of reporting triple digit market moves in a single day.

And it's not only civilians who watch the Piper sign. Salt Lake branch manager Don J. Larkin said a sizable number of his competitors from other firms have sheepishly confessed to going out of their way to pass the sign so they'll know whether to smile or frown when they walk in their own offices.

Piper, Jaffray & Hopwood may be a new player in Utah, but its roots run deep. Founded in 1895 in Minneapolis, it is one of the nation's oldest and, with 63 offices in 16 states, largest full-service (as opposed to discount) securities broker/dealers in the nation.

Piper, said Larkin, caters to the Midwest, Northwest and Mountain West, following a slow-growth philosophy that has served it well. Last year, however, was a difficult year for all brokerage firms and PJH was no exception.

While it logged a 4 percent increase in total revenues of $203.76 million (a company record), net income was down 12 percent to $10.30 million and net income per share was down 14 percent to $2.52. However dividends per share, at $1.00, were up 54 percent over 1989's 65 cents (dividends are paid based on earnings for the previous fiscal year. The 1990 amount excludes a special $4 per share dividend paid in January)

Stockholders' equity was down 8 percent to $71.26 million; return on average stockholders' equity was down from 16.1 percent to 13.8 percent and stockholders' equity per share was down 11 percent to $17.24.

The marketplace had to deal with a spate of unsettling news during 1990, said chairman and chief executive Addison L. Piper in his letter to PJH shareholders in the company's annual report. The savings and loan crisis, growing budget deficit and the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq all contributed to investor uncertainty and caution.

But Piper Jaffray has weathered many such periods and will do so again. Larkin said the company is looking to expand in coming years into Arizona and possibly Nevada and New Mexico.

When PJH opened in Salt Lake City, it had six brokers and two support staff; today it has 23 brokers and 11 support staff. In 1987, it opened a second Utah office in Provo with nine brokers and three support staff - not bad in an era of two major market crashes, extreme volatility, the demise of many longtime Wall Street firms and the loss of thousands of broker jobs.

Larkin said the PJH home office has told him the company has never opened an office that has produced the revenues and profitability that the Salt Lake office has in less than five years. He credits the high caliber of employees the firm has attracted for that record performance.

"With Utah being among the top states for job creation, Piper, Jaffray & Hopwood believes we are in the right place at the right time here," he said.

The current bull market, flirting with last July's all time Dow high of near 3,000, may or may not be for real, but Larkin believes the long-term prospects of investment firms are good as the baby boomers move away from being voracious consumers to circumspect savers, intent on ensuring their children's college educations and their own retirement years.

"Confidence is coming back," said Larkin. "Phones are ringing with a lot more incoming calls than we've seen in the past. Piper economists feel that we ought to see interest rates move down some more and that should be good for bonds and equities."

Larkin said changes in the tax code have changed from "enticing people to spend" to encouraging them to save. Also, interest rates for savers are down making equities a more attractive investment. "People who have seen the rates on their certificates of deposit drop call us every day asking for the alternatives. We see a lot of them putting some of their money to work in stocks, utilities and bonds."