Merrill Fires $3.5-Million Virginia Broker Over Non-Client Issues
Merrill Lynch dismissed a top-ranked broker in Norfolk, Virginia, last week in the aftermath of his dressing-down a member of the $1.3-billion-asset team that he led, according to several sources.
Merrill spokesman William Halldin confirmed that Bartok was “no longer with the company,” but declined to comment on the circumstances. Merrill as of Monday afternoon had not filed its U-5 termination notice for Bartok, who spent his 25-plus-year brokerage career with the firm, according to his BrokerCheck record.
Michael Taaffe, Bartok’s lawyer, said his client was terminated for violating corporate policies unrelated to clients or securities sales. He said he was eager to see the particular violations the firm plans to cite.
Bartok was described by two people who have worked with him as a self-made and somewhat gruff, but likable, advisor who worked his way up to his Forbes Best in State ranking.
He had in recent months complained to a manager about policy, compensation and customer segmentation changes that Merrill parent Bank of America has been imposing on the once famously advisor-centric firm, but his problem arose after he allegedly told an associate at a recent meeting to “shut up,” according to one of the sources.
Bartok, whose LinkedIn profile said he began working at Merrill in 1991 before graduating from the University of Toledo, was lead partner on a team of about 12 that produced $9.88 million for the firm in the last 12 months, the sources said. Forbes ranked him #6 among southern Virginia brokers this year, the only Merrill broker in the regional listing.
The website of the team, now Bartok-foreshortened as the Campbell, Earl and Johnson Group, includes a photo of a fourth advisor whose phone message indicates that he also works as a Merrill Edge broker at a nearby financial center in Virginia Beach. Some Merrill veterans have complained that the increasing prominence of Edge brokers signals Bank of America’s ultimate plan to move traditional advisors from a grid-based compensation plan to the typically lower-paying salary-plus-bonus model at Merrill Edge, though it could not be determined if that was an irritant to Bartok. (Edge can be a training ground for new advisors and a client referral source, Merrill executives have responded, but will not replace the traditional retail brokerage model.)
Merrill’s response to Bartok’s reported outburst, however, is indicative of large brokerage firms’ changing tolerance toward issues that would likely have attracted a simple warning letter in the past, especially for a top producer. They have become increasingly sensitive to complaints that could turn into more damaging reputational or supervisory failure allegations from regulators, according to lawyers representing both firms and their employees.
UBS earlier this year terminated a $6.5 million Ohio-based broker who allegedly allowed a client associate to sign his name to a required continuing education attestation and who had expense paperwork issues.
Bartok’s BrokerCheck history includes four customer complaints from 2005 and earlier. Three were denied by Merrill, or closed by the customer without action. A fourth customer who alleged an unsuitable annuity sale received $77,263 in damages, according to BrokerCheck.