Merrill Lynch and Smith Barney—both set to close their respective acquisitions of Advest and Legg Mason on Dec. 1—continue to see the booty they bought walk out the door. The purchases would have added hundreds of regional brokers to their retail brokerage units, but many of these departing brokers have decided they don’t want to work for a big firm and are finding sweet recruiting deals at smaller shops.
Roughly 80 advisors had left Advest up until this past weekend, according to recruiters. That number is now closer to 120. Another 40 reportedly decamped for other firms over the weekend, from offices in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida, Long Island and Manhattan, says one recruiter who wishes to remain nameless. And 12 were fired because they were under heightened supervision, a policy some firms apply to reps with more than three marks on their U4, he says. That amounts to 23 percent of the 515 total advisors at Advest. While it’s difficult to gauge the total revenue production that has been lost with the departed reps, many of them are million-plus producers, recruiters say.
Legg Mason reps are uniquely encumbered by the fact that many of their clients hold Legg Mason’s proprietary funds (including the venerable Bill Miller’s), and these can’t be transferred to any firm other than Smith Barney under the terms of the deal. And yet, Legg Mason reps have still left in sizable numbers. “To date, roughly 150 Legg reps have left, most of them in the south—in Florida and Texas—where fewer of them bought into Bill Miller’s funds,” says recruiter Rick Peterson, of Rick Peterson & Associates in Houston. That represents roughly 10 percent of Legg Mason’s advisor force.
No Miller-like handcuffs are keeping Advest brokers at Merrill Lynch. And yet Merrill is offering what recruiters say are huge bonuses to top reps, as well as a superior platform of services and product offerings versus Advest. Still, these reps aren’t convinced. Recruiters and brokers unanimously agreed that culture clash is the primary reason for jumping ship.
“It’s a huge issue—there we were pretty much left to run our business,” says one recently departed rep. “That is not going to continue at Merrill,” he says. “It was a very ambitious plan—it’s a difficult sell at any level convincing reps that they’ll fit in, even with the superior services that Merrill has for clients,” adds Peterson. “Then there’s the fact that most of these reps left wirehouses to come to Advest,” he says.
Some say Merrill also mismanaged execution of the Advest acquisition, which was announced in September. “When the deal was announced, Merrill managers were assured that the firm wanted to keep most of [the Advest brokers] and that [Merrill managers] would be honchoing the effort to help that,” says one recruiter speaking anonymously. “Unfortunately, they also did their reorg at the same time, and all those [Merrill managers] were switched around—that doesn’t exactly give a familial vibe to Advest guys who are already wary of Merrill,” he says.
Additionally, Merrill did little in the way of communicating with Advest reps for two weeks after the deal was announced, either “out of respect or bad planning,” says another recruiter. The effect, however, was that the hearts and minds of reps were allowed to wander—giving other firms and recruiters the perfect opportunity to swoop in and make proposals. “A lot of big producers were left wondering,” says Danny Sarch, a recruiter with Leitner Sarch in White Plains, N.Y. By contrast, Smith Barney’s top management got together with Legg’s top brokers in Baltimore to explain how things would go forward immediately following the acquisition.
With little over a week left before the deals close, reps who have been on the fence may rush for the exits. Legg reps had to sign agreements that they would stay on at Smith Barney by last Friday in order to receive the fat retention bonuses, but these agreements are nonbinding, so even those who have signed may still decamp in the New Year. “Reps want to be able to give clients their year-end statements, and those don’t come out ‘till the first or second week of January,” says Peterson. “A lot of them will wait for those, and then there’s the long weekend for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day—I don’t think we’ll really find out the true success of these deals until after that.”