Merrill Lynch Makes More Adjustments To Advisor Comp; Death By A Thousand Cuts

Across the industry, last week’s headlines seemed to downplay next year’s changes to advisor comp at Merrill Lynch. From a stand-alone viewpoint, the articles themselves weren’t wrong or misguided – Bank of America made minimal adjustments to overall comp for advisors and teams that matter.

But that’s not the full story. What’s really happening at Merrill Lynch is wealth management version of ‘death by a thousand cuts’. A nick here, a cut there, a bruise over here, all of them spaced out year over year so as to not paint the picture of a beaten prizefighter the day after a career-changing knockout.

It isn’t a stretch to claim that Morgan Stanley is now the standard in the wealth management ‘wirehouse’ game. When did that happen? Two decades ago nearly anyone that mattered started and spent the first decade of their career at Merrill Lynch. Today, they are nothing more than a line item for Bank of America.

In context, annual changes to account size payouts, new bank product sales quotas, and bifurcated ‘who owns this account’ tiers across different divisions inside the Merrill brand (a reminder that it’s just ‘Merrill’ now, not Merrill Lynch, per BofA changes).

So annual changes to comp may be small and on the edges, in totality, the comp grid itself has been revolutionized over the past decade for the now limping ‘thundering herd’.

It makes you wonder, other than retirement induced malaise, why are large teams still at the firm? Expect another year of headlines littered with Merrill departures.

Rumor – Renewed Protocol Strategy Chatter Bubbles Up Again At Merrill Lynch; To Stay Or Go

In several short conversations over the past two weeks, the specter of a Merrill Lynch/BofA protocol exit seems to have found new life.

Despite denials in early 2020 by the firm’s senior management team, that an exit wasn’t on the table short term, nothing was said about it being completely off the table long term either. It seems that omission was either strategic or possibly prophetic.

As we hear it, the continual and aggressive drain of large scale teams and billions in client assets has given management reason to take another look at the protocol exit moves made by UBS and Morgan Stanley. The decision has certainly served Morgan Stanley well and has become significantly more palatable to advisors at MS.

Merrill Lynch is weighing the pros and cons of executing the same type of strategy. While we may not know how a decision shakes out, or if it simply continues to be a potential weapon that remains on the table should a larger crisis shock the economy at some point – a protocol exit wouldn’t surprise anyone for Merrill and BofA.

In fact, it would be decidedly ‘on brand’.

Massive Merrill Team Jumps To First Republic; Phil Scott Group In Washington State Take $2.7B In AUM To New Firm

A massive move occurred in the Pacific Northwest last week. The Phil Scott Group out of Merrill Lynch made the move to First Republic. The numerics surrounding the transaction are eye-popping all around and sent shockwaves through BofA/Merrill in that part of the country.

First, Mr. Scott was a 36 year veteran of Merrill Lynch an absolute ‘thundering herd’ lifer. He joined the firm out of the Naval Academy in 1984 and seemingly never considered leaving. That all changed last week. Chatter in Seattle and the surrounding wealth management organizations was abuzz given the largess of Mr. Scott and his team.

The numbers are just are even bigger than the surprise move: $18M in annual revenue and $2.7B in client assets under management. A huge win for First Republic in the region. Doing a little napkin math – the total deal for the team given the revenue stated above will climb beyond the $60M dollar mark. Wow.

Mr. Scott is a Barron’s ‘Hall of Fame’ advisor and his Barron’s team bio reads as such:

“Phil joined Merrill Lynch in 1984 after graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy with degrees in International Relations and General Engineering. His extended tenure with Merrill Lynch is paralleled by that of his team members, many of whom have collaborated with Mr. Scott for more than 15 years. That continuity and consistency, Phil believes, allows the team to deliver an exceptional client experience.”

Pulling back to 50,000 feet – the narrative continues for Merrill Lynch, as they lose yet another huge producer and capstone in a money center city. As has been occurring for a number of years now, the largest producers are leaving the firm at a clip never before seen at Merrill. Choosing a name like First Republic is of real interest; but maybe more so is the reality that a 36 year veteran of Merrill finally decided the firm was no longer his home.


Merrill Lynch Shuffles Deck Chairs In NYC; Names New Market Head But Eliminates Another Complex

Merrill Lynch keeps shrinking. Across the US ‘real’ advisor headcount (not BofA bank branch advisors and Merrill EDGE hires) has been in decline since 2010, a decades-long run, and regions, complexes, and markets have shrunk as well. Another example of this was just announced in the financial capital of the world – New York City.

In a memo sent to advisors and staff a former UBS manager was named as the new ‘market executive’ in the firms Rockefeller Center branch; a branch known to be a bellwether for the BofA/Merrill brand. Mr. Correa was hired last year away from UBS. Mr. Correa transfers over from Merrill’s Park Ave branch and replaces the interim market executive Courtney McCarthy. The moves were announced by the Fifth Ave complex manager Matthew Grossman.

Also discussed in the memo from Mr. Grossman, besides the announcement of Mr. Correa’s arrival, was the shuttering of the Manhattan East complex that Mr. Correa had just left. That complex would be merged with the Fifth Ave complex and be redubbed Manhattan Central. Is anyone else’s head spinning??

The upshot is that Merrill Lynch is consolidating complexes, reducing manager headcount, and dealing with large-scale departures in locations that used to be the envy of every wealth management brand in the world. Now, it is nothing more than the shuffling of deck chairs to satisfy the bean counters at Bank of America. Profitability, costs, associated bank product sales, loans, and household quotas matter more than the brand and the people that work within it. Another adjustment to a flagship complex (shutting it down completely) is just more proof of that.

So to recap, the Rock Center complex was shut down, merged with Manhattan East, named Ken Correa the new ‘market executive’, but is managed by Matthew Grossman, while the former interim ‘market executive’ Courtney McCarthy is demoted to Associate Market Manager. Got it? Good.


Stifel Recruiting Rebounds

After the departure of their national recruiting head, John Pierce, Stifel recruiting took a bit of a pause. As they circled the wagons they remained engaged with advisors that had been in the pipeline before Mr. Pierce’s departure and the fruits of those efforts have finally found their way to the firm. Via On Wall Street

“The largest of Stifel’s latest recruits is an ex-Merrill Lynch team that managed $935 million. It is composed of advisors Blase Sparma, Stephen Long Jr., Brad Ripplemeyer, and Hampton Ballard. They made the move last week and will staff a new Stifel office in Venice, Florida.”

“Sparma and Long had been at Merrill Lynch since starting their careers in 2000 and 2004, respectively, according to FINRA BrokerCheck records. Ripplemeyer began his advisory career at Smith Barney in 2000, moving to Merrill in 2012. Ballard has spent the entirety of his four-year career at Merrill.”

All in all, Stifel brought in $1.5B in client assets via their recruiting haul, adding several other advisors and teams to go along with the flagship group from Merrill Lynch.

Over the past four years, Stifel has feasted on Merrill Lynch’s legacy teams and advisors. This group adds to that batch of former Merrill Lynch faculty that now call Stifel home.

Beyond Merrill Lynch, Stifel also landed a sizable grouping of Wells Fargo talent across the country. Interestingly enough Wells Fargo has a sizable presence in St. Louis alongside Stifel – so a bit of hand to hand combat on the recruiting front.

Whether or not Stifel can keep up the pace that is set in 2018 and 2019 is yet to be seen, but $1.5B in recruited assets is a great start.