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Merrill Opens More Boutique Branches For Ultra Wealthy; Now Recruiting Private Bankers

Merrill Lynch launched on Wednesday a new “wealth management center” in New York, as part of a larger effort to capture market share in the ultra high-net-worth advice business. The move is consistent with what is happening across the retail brokerage space, where the wirehouse firms are pushing lower-end clients to call centers and focusing their marketing efforts on the small but incredibly lucrative ultra high-net-worth demographic.

The opening of the Midtown Manhattan office marks its eighth wealth management center nationwide joining the flagship Downtown Manhattan office as well as hubs in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Dallas, Atlanta and Greenwich, Conn. Merrill plans to open a Boston office in January 2007. The Midtown branch will house three broker teams totaling 15 private wealth advisors. Revenues for the New York Metropolitan region totaled $110 million last year.

The new branches are expected to “better serve our clients [and] bring all of the Merrill Lynch Private Banking resources together under one roof,” says Steven Schroko, resident director of the firm’s new Fifth Avenue wealth management center.

In order to build out this business segment, Merrill is grooming top talent from its retail brokerage division and recruiting private bankers and top financial advisors from rival firms. The breakdown between recruits and homegrown FAs is about a 50/50 split, the company says. As brokerage firms continue to migrate toward fee-based advice, they’re recruiting more private bankers to become brokers.

Schroko says that the firm has already been successful wooing advisors from Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan, Bear Stearns and Thomas Weisel Partners. Schroko says that the concept of these wealth management centers is to create a “boutique feel” that is supported by a “powerhouse” full-service platform.

The focus of the private banking unit is built on the premise that ultra-high-net-worth clients have different needs than those of the slightly less affluent, say those with only $1 million to $10 million. The accredited investors it serves – $10 million or more in investable assets excluding primary residence – are wealthier clients whom are typically more concerned with the implications of tax treatment on their estates and tend to be committed to making their mark through philanthropic endeavors.

Jennifer Povlitz, director of Merrill’s private banking and investment group, says the private banking unit hopes to attract big-ticket clients through a combination of referrals, partnering and prospecting. Currently, the private banking unit has $450 billion in assets under management.

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