Nearly 150 hand-picked and already highly successful Bank of America Merrill Lynch financial advisors next month will embark on what amounts to retirement training boot camp at The Retirement Advisor University (TRAU) in pursuit of a Certified 401(k) Professional designationpract to further their defined-contributions expertise and differentiate themselves from other DC practitioners.

TRAU, a strategic partner of the UCLA Anderson School of Management Executive Education founded in 2010, offers more than 70 courses both online and onsite at UCLA focusing on developing retirement advisors' skill sets through a combination of academic and practical coursework that takes anywhere from nine months to two years to complete.

From BofA Merrill Lynch Retirement Services' perspective, the two-fold goal of ushering these already high-flying advisors through the designation program is to differentiate the firm's DC specialists from the competition and, perhaps more important, place these advisors front and center of its growing corporate retirement planning business.

"The program is an important investment in our best advisors," said Joseph Mrozek, BofA Merrill Lynch's director of institutional retirement new business development. "They're pretty good already with each overseeing $100 million-plus in corporate retirement assets. This program is about making them as good as they can be."

The Certified 401(k) Professional designation program, also known as the C(k)P designation, starts in June when all 150 advisors report to UCLA for three days of intensive morning-to-night, in-class sessions led by behavioral finance professors and experienced veterans of the defined contribution practice.

Just to make the cut within BofA Merrill Lynch, the chosen advisors had to have first earned an in-firm defined contribution designation, worked extensively with corporate retirement plans, displayed a laser-sharp level of competency in all matters of 401(k) product and technical expertise and received a thumbs-up following an in-person interview with a panel of leaders from the firm's wealth management and retirement services group.  

"It literally took a year to get these guys designated," said Kevin Crain, head of Bank of America Merrill Lynch's institutional client relationships group. "There were numeric criteria -- longevity and current book of business -- and there were qualitative assessments such as what they were doing specifically for their clients and their ability to partner with other advisors in the firm. It was rigorously done and, in the end, it proved its point."

After completing the three-day retirement planning boot camp at UCLA, the surviving advisors will then complete the requisite battery of training and tests online and through a proprietary learning management system over the course of nine months to two years. The retail cost of the C(k)P Designation program through TRAU, which will include advisors from other firms as well as independent advisors, is $4,500.

"The real focus of this program and the designation is helping advisors improve participants' outcomes," said Fred Barstein, founder and executive director of TRAU. "It does cover the basics of DC plans and the technical requirements, but these guys already know most if not of all of this."

"It goes beyond the basics to managing their businesses and helping them understand how to assemble sales and marketing teams and techniques they need to brand themselves and use social media and other online marketing skills."

Once advisors have completed the C(k)P program and received their designation, Crain said this group will be first in line to provide advice and retirement services to the firm's top-tier corporate retirement customers.

"They're then their own entity," he said. "They'll have important opportunities in the retirement business across the company and will be front and center of the group."

In order to maintain the C(k)P designation, advisors who complete the program then must manage at least 10 plans with total assets under management of more than $30 million for three years or more to carry the designation.