Merrill Lynch won big last week in the aggressive industry-wide recruiting war for top advisors. The firm recruited away from UBS a team of three producers, and their support staff, with $2.5 billion in assets under management and $5.5 million in trailing 12-month production.

Merrill had been courting the San Francisco-based team for a full seven years, according to a recruiter, who preferred to speak anonymously, who says Merrill’s shift in culture finally convinced the reps to make the move. Mindy Diamond, a columnist for this magazine and president of Diamond Consultants, a Chester, N.J., recruiting firm, says that’s not uncommon. “Seven years is a long time. But a good manager should always stay after a promising advisor. I’d suspect they probably weren’t doing $5.5 million in product 5 years ago, so as a manager you just have to stay in the game,” she adds

“The things that make a difference for reps in this largely commoditized industry are minor issues like the quality of life,” the first recruiter adds. Merrill Lynch “has changed a lot over the last couple years. People think [Merrill] tells you what to think, how to dress, and what to eat but it’s not like that. If you haven’t taken a look at the firm in the last two years then you don’t know Merrill.”

Details about the sign-on bonuses offered to the three advisors weren’t available, but the recruiter says that Merrill’s up front offers have ranged between 120 percent and 140 percent of trailing 12 since this spring, but that the firm has “never been more flexible” about the amount spent on such deals. “Merrill’s deals are unprecedented,” she says.

Diamond agrees. If the team’s assets under management are mostly retail assets, then the firm might have offered them as much as $11 million, she says. “Up until recently, teams like that couldn’t leave because the golden hand cuffs were too right. But the deals are the biggest and best they’ve ever been.” She says the reps wouldn’t get the entirety of the money upfront, but that there’s the potential to get even more if their business grows.

UBS confirmed the reps’ departure. Merrill Lynch had not returned calls by press time.