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Merrill Signs Ex-NFL Player to Head San Francisco Complex

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Merrill Lynch (BAC) has been pretty quiet about its new San Francisco complex director, former football player Willie Thomas who is now in charge of nearly 200 advisors in the Bay Area.

The limited publicity may be because Thomas played for the Seattle Seahawks, the current nemesis for the San Francisco 49ers and the team that handed the 49ers a 17-7 defeat on Sunday.

Still, with talk all over town about who may replace 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh (whose team has a 7-7 record so far this season), Thomas may be able to strike up some interesting conversations with lots of Merrill clients and prospects.

Sports figures can be attractive executives for wealth-management firms for a variety of reasons, says executive search consultant Mark Elzweig.

“People who were successful at professional sports are viewed by financial-service firms as hard-charging, super-motivated individuals who are also strong team players, and management is about leading a team,” said Elzweig in an interview.

Former pro-athletes also have “a certain cachet that can help them forge relationships with affluent investors,” he pointed out. Thanks to their fame and status, “people like to interact with them,” Elzweig explained.

Thomas has more than 20 years of industry experience. He cut his teeth at Merrill, which he joined in 1995.

The former-Seahawk stayed with the firm for about a decade before moving to San Francisco-based Wells Fargo for several years to manage a branch in New York that included 85 advisors. For the past four years, he was with MetLife, serving as managing director of its Pittsburgh operations.

“In addition to his success as a financial advisor, Thomas has always been recognized as an active member of his community, serving on the boards of numerous non-profits,” Merrill Lynch said in a statement. 

Thomas also has worked as a financial analyst at Ford Motor Co. and a marketing director at Chase Bank. He received a bachelor’s of science degree in finance from Pennsylvania State University, where he played football, and an MBA from the same school.

Recently, wirehouse rival Morgan Stanley (MS) started a new unit that focuses on professional athletes and entertainers. The division includes close to 70 advisors.

Athlete pay has surged in recent years, according to Bloomberg, with Miami Marlins outfielder Giancarlo Stanton getting a $325 million contract over 13 years.