EXCLUSIVE: Merrill Rolls Out ‘Project Thunder’ Campaign to Soothe Broker Qualms
(Updated with additional detail from Sieg’s memo to brokers.)
Amid a growing number of departures by seasoned and high-producing brokers, Merrill Lynch Wealth Management is launching a two-month long initiative to address frustrations and pain points among the “thundering herd.”
The campaign, dubbed Project Thunder internally, is based in part on broker feedback and was rolled out to the sales force on Wednesday through a video and memo from Merrill Wealth President Andy Sieg. It focuses on four broad pillars: making it easier to do business, product and platform enhancements, success and culture, and promoting the Merrill brand, according to a statement from Sieg.
“Consistent with our history and culture, Merrill is committed to listening to our advisors, client associates and their teams,” Sieg said in the statement. “Our goals are to continue to make it easy for all Merrill employees to do business, for our advisors and their teams to grow and achieve success, and to deliver for clients through extraordinary service and capabilities.”
The program is introducing three relatively small tweaks initially, and will include a total of at least 24 changes over the eight weeks, Sieg told brokers in a memo. The first change, for example, allows some trainees to join teams directly, and other updates will follow weekly, according to another “snapshot” sent to advisors.
“Designed by the field, for the field to improve your experience!” according to the snapshot, which highlighted additional modifications to the “24 hour trading rule” and inclusion of alternative investments in a personal wealth analysis tool.
Brokers are also encouraged to provide feedback during the program through advisory councils to management, branch and market leaders as well as peer networking groups, according to a person familiar with the matter.
The campaign is kicking off less than two months after Sieg acknowledged in an internal presentation that Merrill leadership was focused on competitive attrition, which ticked up to 5% from 4% in the second quarter. (Executives at rival wirehouse Morgan Stanley have touted an attrition rate under 2%.)
“[T]here will always be areas needing focus from leadership. Right now, it’s competitive attrition–higher in this quarter than we’d like to see,” Sieg, who has led the Merrill Lynch wealth unit since 2017, said in July.
The departures have included a number of life-long Merrill brokers, large private wealth teams focused on high-end clients and top-ranked next-gen advisors who have won internal recognition for their account growth.
Bank of America’s overall advisor count, including several thousand bank-based Edge advisors and private bankers in addition to the core Merrill force, was down 5.9% year-over-year to 19,358.
“As departures increase, Andy is looking for ways to prove he is listening,” said one veteran broker familiar with the plan. “Too little too late?? Possibly. Where was this 3 years ago??”
While Wednesday’s announcement did not provide further details on expected changes, a separate outline shared with market executives and some influential advisors included additional areas of focus, such as financial advisor and client associate compensation, rules around hosting seminars, strengthening recognition clubs and training programs, and making the Merrill Lynch bull a more prominent fixture.
Whether the effort is successful may depend on how far the firm is willing to go in making changes, according to former managers and brokers. Some brokers have chafed at a 3% withholding on revenue that took effect in 2019, for example, or banking product sales goals and compliance and documentation hurdles that they say have become distracting.
“It’s a bank compliance environment,” said Andew Kahng, a lifer who moved his $2-million team to Morgan Stanley in Fort Lauderdale in June but was not familiar with the Project Thunder program. “I tell everybody that I didn’t leave Merrill. I left Bank of America.”
The campaign’s launch coincides with Merrill reopening all of its brokerage offices, which had been closed during the pandemic, over the past two months. It will allow many more vaccinated brokers to return to their desks for the first time in 18 months on September 9, according to a separate memo from Sieg on Wednesday.
“We’ve seen a great deal of energy and momentum as more employees return to the office,” said Sieg, who has been around the country to celebrate office re-openings, according to photos posted to LinkedIn by Merrill managers. “Part of our plan [is] to build upon this momentum over the next two months.”
Alongside the broker-focused Project Thunder, Merrill has also been focused on retaining customers when brokers leave. The wirehouse has put in place teams of “client experience specialists” who call on customers of brokers who leave for another firm and offer fee discounts and other lagniappes and has also pursued at least two former teams in court over solicitation of customers, particularly those who were referred from the bank.