The rumors are proving true: The larger brokerage firms, including Raymond James and Wachovia Securities, are warming to the idea of letting reps dabble in more independent-minded pursuits.

On March 1, Raymond James Financial announced its AdvisorChoice program, which lets advisors jump between any of five affiliation structures, ranging from “captive” employee to independent contractor.

Meanwhile, Wachovia, the third-largest broker/dealer, is in the process of developing a program that would allow for easier movement between its four distribution channels: bank branch, captive broker and a pair of quasi-independent channels, Profit Formula and FInet.

A Wachovia spokesman says the plan would not be in place before the integration of the Prudential acquisition is completed in 2005. Raymond James' program is the first to be actually put into effect. The idea behind it is a simple one: Reps know what structure works best for their practices.

“We are a professional support organization,” says Chet Helck, president and chief operating officer of Raymond James Financial. “Rather than dictating to [advisors] that they have to work on our terms, we add a lot of choice so that they can work on their terms.”

The AdvisorChoice program gives RJF reps five different options: “traditional employee,” “independent employee,” “independent contractor,” “fee-only firm” and “bank and credit union.”

The firm's formal process for changing channels is designed to be straightforward. An advisor requests a move from his manager, which triggers a visit by the rep to a business development unit specializing in intra-firm movement. There the rep gets schooled on the ramifications of a move, and the request is then kicked upstairs at the firm for review.

“Sometimes we'll tell them that it's just not the right fit,” says Bill McGovern, senior vice president of business development. “We want to make the process easier, but it's not automatic.”

If approved, a switch takes, on average, “a matter of a few weeks,” McGovern says. He adds that since advisors were informed of the program in late January, there have been a handful of takers.

The fact that switching channels appeals to a relatively small cross section of advisors has been a factor in Wachovia's reticence up until now to make a major issue of it. However, the combination of former Pru advisors requesting channel switches and recruiters playing up the firm's flexibility to job-seeking brokers apparently has convinced Wachovia to make more of its channel-switching capabilities.

A Wachovia spokesman says the firm is “developing a comprehensive training and orientation approach” to help advisors switch channels — but only after they have gathered all the relevant facts about such a move.

“I think you'll see more and more people” jumping between channels, says Chip Roame, managing director of San Francisco-based Tiburon Strategic Advisors.

Even though Wachovia and Raymond James are on the cutting edge of this movement, Roame thinks other wirehouses will follow their lead — particularly those with bank affiliations.

“Models like this will happen, even to the Merrills of the world,” Roame predicts.