Merrill Unveils a Glidepath for Client Associates to Become Advisors
Merrill Lynch Wealth Management is introducing new roles, titles and training in an attempt to raise the profile of its client support staff and help some become advisors at a time when it has retreated from recruiting.
Few client associates historically advance to become advisors, although around 60% of them have Series 7 regulatory licenses that enable them to directly sell most investments. The new position moves the sales associates beyond administrative tasks by involving them in product selection, risk monitoring and participation in client meetings, and will help a few to advance into a full-time advisory position, Towey said.
To be eligible for the higher-paying position, client associates must be Finra-registered, complete a nine-to-12-month training program and have been with the firm for three years.
Merrill has been attempting to clarify the role of associates for two years amid its push for larger teams and cross-marketing of bank products to clients. The new role aims to professionalize the process for “CAs ready to take their careers to the next level,” according to a memo sent to advisors on Tuesday by Towey, Merrill Wealth Chief Operating Officer Kirstin Hill and Teaming and Practice Management Executive Nilesh Parikh.
In a broader attempt to provide “clearer role definition” to all support staff, Merrill in August also will modify the title of all client associates to “client support associates,” according to the memo.
It did not elaborate on the connotations of the new title, but all associates will take a four-week program at Bank of America’s “Academy.” Client associates are partially compensated by advisors, a model that creates a challenge for Merrill and other bank-owned firms that encourage staffers to promote credit cards and other banking services while supporting advisors’ core investment sales.
“Based on their range of responsibilities today and in the future, we’ve updated their titles to reflect the critical role they play on our teams and at the same time provided clarity on the various career progression opportunities,” Towey said.
The memo also introduced a new practice management and career development program for the firm’s 14,000 brokers and their staff.
Branded “Elite Growth Practice,” the program includes a “diagnostic tool” and “action plan” to spur the account and asset growth incentives and demerits that Merrill introduced two years ago, and “learning notebooks” to help team members develop particularized skills in areas such as sales and financial planning.
The program’s official launch on Tuesday had been delayed by work-at-home restrictions imposed by the coronavirus pandemic, the memo said.
In a further modification, Merrill in June will begin working with field leadership and advisors to better define the roles of “investment analysts” and “investment associates” on their teams who help with portfolio construction, according to the memo.
The changes come as Merrill’s 43-month training program has been temporarily stalled by the pandemic, and as it strives to develop a next generation of advisors with more diverse backgrounds than the brokerage industry’s traditional cohort of white, male advisors. Merrill Wealth President Andy Sieg has said he is sticking with the firm’s retreat from the expensive practice of hiring veteran advisors from competitors, focusing instead on developing in-house talent.
In a presentation to bank investors at a Deutsche Bank conference earlier this week, Sieg said Merrill is “modernizing the profile of the talent in this business,” with a specific focus on developing “diversity” candidates who “align wealth management with the communities where we’re servicing clients.”
In addition to the training program, which usually includes about 3,000 advisor candidates, Merrill has been integrating some advisors from BofA’s Merrill Edge brokerage unit for “self-directed” and mass-affluent customers into its branches and has attempted to recruit novice brokers from smaller firms.
To make the jump to advisor, client associates must enroll in the training program but can qualify for accelerated advance through it, he said.
—Jed Horowitz contributed to this story.