As wealth management firms grapple with the challenge of how to replenish an aging financial advisor population, Bank of America Merrill Lynch is increasingly turning to its own solution: grow your own.
Merrill Lynch’s financial advisor training program has been undergoing an overhaul during the last 18 months, with new tweaks to the hiring process, content, training, mentorship and local leadership. The results, the firm says, should help push the rate of trainees who successfully get licenses and then graduate from the program from 41% to 50%.
“That’s something that hasn’t been done in the industry before, but we think we can,” Dwight Mathis, head of new advisor strategy at Merrill Lynch, says. “Hope isn’t our strategy. We’re doing some very specific things that have led to numbers that are higher than that in complexes around the country.”
The efforts come as the bulk of wirehouse advisors, or 60% head for retirement, according to recent data put out by Cerulli Associates. Of those advisors, 33% fall between ages 50 to 59; 20% are anywhere from 60 to 69 and 7% are 70 and above. Wirehouse advisors approaching retirement total 13,237, according to Cerulli, and account for $1.25 trillion of the assets in transition.
Merrill Lynch has long had a training program, dating as far back as the 1940s. But its new efforts come as competition for top advisory talent remains high, leading financial advisors to jump to other wirehouses or regional or independent firms as they search for the best deals.
Merrill Lynch plans to selectively compete for established advisory talent that fits the firm, while continuing to emphasize hiring new trainees and giving existing Merrill Lynch advisors additional training, according to Tom Fickinger, head of advisor growth and development for Merrill Lynch. Currently, almost 80% of Merrill Lynch’s business is generated by advisors who began their careers at the firm.
Merrill Lynch is on pace to continue to grow its trainee force this year, targeting 2,500 hires by the end of the year, as Reuters reported earlier this week. Reaching that total will keep the firm on pace with its trainee class last year.
The renewed emphasis on training harkens back to a time when Merrill Lynch was well known for its program for rookies. However, Fickinger says, gone are the days when trainees gathered at a central training facility in the New York area, passed tests and dispersed to various branches. The new changes aim to take a more local emphasis that started ten years ago to a new level.
“It’s something that we’re committed to, and it’s a proud part of our legacy, hiring and training our own,” Mathis says. “We’ve put all these changes in and made significant investment over the last year and a half to make sure that that strategy is even more successful.”
Those changes include expanding the candidate pool so that there is more talent to choose from, and looping internal recruiters into those efforts. The firm also now uses third-party technology to pick out high achievers among possible candidates, Mathis says.
Merrill Lynch has expanded the leadership for the advisor training program, putting one executive who is exclusively focused on the program in each market. The firm has also established a formal mentorship program for the trainees. Each mentor is compensated and recognized for the success that the trainees achieve.
Other changes focus on the sequence and content of the training program. That includes refining the initial exam process to make sure more candidates progress from that stage where the most attrition occurs, Mathis says. It also includes putting in place course content emphasizing consultative sales skills, executive coaching sales skills and formalized training for the certified financial planner (CFP) exam.
Merrill Lynch’s new strategy comes after observing that some complexes were seeing more success with their training efforts than others. The changes aim to standardize the best practices of the successful complexes across the firm, Mathis says.
One thing that has not changed is the kind of candidates the firm seeks. They are typically 36-years-old and have some record of prior success, such as being a top MBA student or a military professional. More and more, Fickinger says, Merrill Lynch’s trainees are using their specific sets of skills to fill out existing advisory teams with a specific need.
“We want to really truly grow the industry, and I think it’s important for the industry to continue to grow as the number of clients out there, the assets that they handle, are growing,” Fickinger says.