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Merrill Ramps Up Wealth Unit as Rich Clients Flock to Florida

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What You Need to Know

  • Merrill added more than 9,300 new clients in Florida during the past four years.
  • It plans to double the number of teams serving investors in the state with more than $10 million.
  • Low taxes, warm weather and the ease of working remotely are prompting financial pros and others to move.

Bank of America Corp.’s wealthiest clients are flying south to Florida. It’s meeting them there.

Merrill Lynch Wealth Management President Andy Sieg said the unit was intensifying its focus on the Sunshine State.

The firm has 20 teams that cater to ultra-high-net-worth individuals there, and plans to double that over the next few years, to serve investors with more than $10 million to invest. The move reflects a broader expansion: Merrill added more than 9,300 new clients in Florida during the past four years, accounting for about 10% of net new household growth nationwide. Bank of America Private Bank added 123 households last year, a 60% jump from 2017.

“The economy is broad-based and attracting a lot of talent to the state that is in its prime earning years,” Sieg said. “There is a pandemic-driven element — just as there are increased opportunities and acceptance of remote work. We do think more individuals will chose to live in Florida.”

While the state has long been popular among tourists and retirees, it’s recently seen an influx of high earners from the financial industry. Several prominent Wall Street companies are considering moving some business there, or are relocating outright. And in these days of working from home, Florida’s low taxes, year-round warm weather and emerald golf links are already luring some bankers and money managers down from New York.

“We’ve had a tremendous inflow in the last year,” said Don Plaus, the head of Merrill Private Wealth Management, who has firsthand experience as a Miami transplant.

The New York native was initially reluctant to relocate to Florida when he was asked in 2015, but said he has since been won over by its outdoor activities, restaurants and general quality of life. Plaus runs a group that serves ultra-wealthy clients, providing advice on a range of financial services from investment management, mortgages, art and yacht lending to tax and estate planning.

While high-end client events and family meetings organized by wealth managers have been put on hold for now, Merrill’s virtual events featuring chefs, sommeliers and other guest speakers have proven surprisingly popular even at a time when professionals are feeling overburdened by conference calls.

More than a thousand Florida clients called in to a session on thematic investing, and a recent webinar on taxes under the Biden administration attracted 600 attendees online, said Josh Moody, a regional managing director in the private-wealth group and market executive for Miami. In Tampa, a team led by Michael Valdes brought in almost 30 new wealthy households last year even as the pandemic raged.

Merrill Lynch Wealth Management has about 1,300 financial advisors in Florida. Of Bank of America’s 213,000 employees, more than 18,000 are based in the state, where it has 500 branches, 52 Merrill offices and 13 private-bank locations.

The boom in Florida may be part of a longer-term shift comparable to the growth in Silicon Valley or the heyday of Michigan’s auto industry, Sieg said.

“There’s nothing more powerful in wealth management than demographics,” he said. “This is a long-cycle business.”

Pictured: Downtown Tampa, Florida. (Photo: Shutterstock)

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