Unless you've been hiding out in a cave for the past 12 months, you're probably aware that 2009 was a challenging year for Bank of America. Between TARP restrictions and the Ken Lewis succession saga, the Charlotte-based bank didn't always look like the most promising employer.
However, its financial advisory business has been a bright spot. Bolstered by some 15,000 advisers that came along with the purchase of Merrill Lynch, BofA revenue from investment and brokerage services surged to $8.9 billion in the first nine months of the year, up from $3.9 billion during the same period of 2008. Financial advice now comprises almost 10% of BofA revenue, up from 6.8% last year.
We sat down with Mark Benson, head of the U.S. advisory practice management development program for Merrill Lynch Wealth Management, to find out that the "thundering herd" is on the move under its new flag.
Kyle Stock: What has your hiring activity been in the past year or so?
Mark Benson: We've been recruiting all year long. We really ramped up our hiring into our training program in the middle of the summer. We've hired hundreds and hundreds of trainees in the second half of the year and look forward to continuing that in 2010.
KS: What is the mix between trainees and more experienced employees?
MB: It's a pretty equal number of recruits and trainees every year. There's basically three buckets. There are the experienced personnel. We get a fair amount of folks that are career changers; they seem to be bunched in their late 30s and 40s. And there are people that are looking at this as a second job out of college. Our No. 1 source is through referrals.
KS: And you have about 15,000 advisers now?
MB: Approximately. Bank of America had maybe a couple thousand. Merrill had 15,000 to 16,000.
KS: There's been a lot said and written about people leaving Merrill after the acquisition, can you speak to that?
MB: There was a lot of uncertainty and movement in the markets in the past year, but things have really settled down. But I think people are realizing that there's just so much more we can offer a client now that there really is a lot of strength in the two brands being together.
KS: Have you let any folks go in the past year?
MB: Experienced advisers absolutely not. There was some paring back on some of the newer folks, maybe more like a year ago.
But since the middle of the year, we're stepping on the gas and bringing people in. In the first half of 2009, we were as aggressively hiring as many experienced advisers as we'd ever had.
And, as far as the trainees, we were still hiring in the beginning of the year.
KS: Can you provide some size and scope on the hiring? For example, are we going to see 20% more advisers at this time next year?
MB: I would say our appetite is for more advisers, not less, but I don't have a specific number that I could give you.
KS: Are there any particular parts of the country or the world where you are growing more aggressively?
MB: My efforts are concentrated here in the U.S., but we are hiring everywhere, across our whole footprint globally. Obviously, we've got bigger mass in the major markets.
KS: What advice would you have for someone looking to join your team?
MB: The offices are pretty easy to find. I would pick up a phone and call a local office and ask to speak to a manager and ask about their financial-adviser training program.
It sounds simple, but that's all there is to it, to getting your foot in the door at least.
We found some traits that are pretty common in our successful folks: resilience, sales acumen, people who are very driven and goal-oriented. We're really looking for folks who can build relationships with clients.
KS: Has it been a good time to get some top producers from competitors?
MB: You bet. We've hired some very big teams and big individual producers.
KS: Can you describe your training program?
MB: One thing we are proud of is that we have the longest running [training program] in the industry -- it's been since the late-1940s here at Merrill.
In total, it's a 43-month program. In the first three or four months, you're passing your exams -- Series 7, that type of thing -- and starting to learn about products. Then you're on weekly calls and studying a very detailed curriculum. That lasts seven months. You go into production around month eight and start your life interacting with clients, bringing relationships in.
I'll tell you why it makes a lot of sense for us: 80% of the revenue at Merrill Lynch is driven from folks hired and trained here.
KS: So the "thundering herd" is still thundering?
MB: Absolutely. Coming from the legacy Bank of America business, I can tell you that it absolutely feels that way.
KS: How did the hiring of Sallie Krawcheck (a former Citigroup executive) go over?
MB: She's been great for our business. She's been very well-received by our advisers. It's definitely a draw having her involved.
KS: With all the hiring now, does the company feel that it's a good time to grab market share?
MB: We're on the offensive. We feel like there's no better time and with the two firms being together, we've got the best value proposition for clients.
KS: What's the best way for a financial adviser to really get noticed at BofA/Merrill?
MB: Do a very good job for clients and have a good quality score with your clients. Take advantage of all the programs that we provide. We're constantly providing content and training. We're not forcing people, but they're all there and they should take advantage of them. If you really want to bring your business along, introduce the full complement of solutions to the clients.
KS: I've heard that many financial advisers and wealth managers are more open now to working on a portfolio with competing firms; have you seen more of that?
MB: We're best able to serve a client if we can aggregate as much as we can here. That's the way we'd rather have it. Do we have people that spread their portfolio around among advisers? Yes. But we control a large share of wallet from the clients we have and we prefer them to do it all with us. That hasn't changed in the crisis.
KS: Anything else that you'd like to pass along?
MB: I would just say that I've been in the business 21 years and it's as exciting and fun and challenging and rewarding than it was 21 years ago when I started. I've got three daughters and I'd love to see them get out of school and come out and do this.