Dan Sontag, head of Advisory Americas for Merrill Lynch private client, reflects on the firm's latest moves to stay on top. He spoke with Research in New York in December 2006, just as Merrill's Focus on Growth bonus program was being revamped for 2007.
Merrill's 'Focus on Growth' Awards Program
o 32% of eligible FAs qualified for '06 awards with average payouts of $20,000+
o 20007 bonuses of up to 30% of new production come on top of payouts that have averaged 40%, for a total payout of up to 70% of new production
o FAs must bring in new clients in $250,000+ households and net new annuitized assets
Can you highlight a recent development that's having a positive impact on results for the private-client group?
It is great to see that the key investments we have made over the last few years in our people, processes and technology are allowing us to differentiate our offering and platform from the competition. As an example, during the fourth quarter, we had a focused effort on repositioning client portfolios for 2007 -- engaging our financial advisors with their clients at an important time of the year...settling out 2006 tax planning as well as revisiting client goals and objectives for the year ahead.
The response was tremendous and it highlights the improvements being made to enhance the value of ML research to our financial advisors and our clients. This has been a great team effort that shows the power of our franchise when we collaborate across our platform. You will see more of this as we move into 2007 as we have a dedicated, client-focused and hard-working team of the best financial advisors in the industry supported by a world-class platform.
How about the size of the FA force?
Our worldwide FA force is about 15,750. We have been especially aggressive in our growth efforts in this area and we have grown our FA force by a little over 14 percent over the last three years based on a 4.5 percent to 5 percent annual increase. This has been accomplished through the achievement of record low turnover across all FA segments, increased hiring and development coupled with a trend of more experienced FAs within the industry not only expressing interest in the Merrill Lynch platform but actually making the decision that Merrill Lynch is the best place for them and their clients.
We have one of the best if not the best training and development program for financial advisors in the industry and we remain committed to hiring and developing 1,000 to 2,000 new FAs to the business every year. Our overall success rate continues to improve as we constantly re-assess and re-tool our programs to keep current with changes in the industry and the needs of our clients.
What broader efforts are boosting results at Merrill?
On the investment platform front we have recently rolled out the Merrill Lynch Personal Advisor (MLPA), a non-discretionary investment advisory program in which the financial advisor provides ongoing advice and guidance consistent with the client's investment objective, target asset allocation and investment guidelines, as defined in the relationship policy statement. Coming in 2007 we will be introducing the Merrill Lynch Investment Advisor, which will begin our evolution into a single platform that will allow clients to easily execute a core and satellite approach to fulfilling a client's asset allocation needs aligned to their investment objective in a single unified account structure supported by detailed investment performance reporting and relationship pricing.
On the technology front, we continue to keep investment dollars centered on increasing financial advisor and client associates' effectiveness and productivity through enhanced capabilities, workflow and training. We are making significant progress on integrating our new Cisco IP phone system with Saleforce.com and the Wealth Management Workstation's client 360 and single-client profile to create a true industry-leading client relationship management tool for our advisors and client associates. These technology enhancements are all part of our Phase II investment in our wealth management technology platform.