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Eric Winn, left, and Justin Heller

Former Merrill Lynch VP Launches Florida RIA

University of Miami basketball brought Justin Heller and his partner together at the wirehouse; now they've launched their own firm with an assist from Rapport Financial's Aaron Hattenbach.

Two young Merrill Lynch advisors have left the wirehouse and opened an independent registered investment advisory firm in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

Thirty-one-year-old founder Justin Heller spent seven years at Merrill before breaking away to launch Heller Private Wealth with Eric Winn, another former Merrill advisor. Their departure was effective Friday, and the official launch was announced Wednesday morning.

A young prodigy at Merrill, Heller earned the firm’s Executive Club designation—granted to advisors who meet certain production and tenure requirements—as soon as he met the tenure requirement. He made vice president at the age of 30 and was named again to the recognition club in 2022.  

After being recruited by other firms during pandemic lockdowns, which also freed up a considerable amount of time, Heller started looking at his career options. He said he decided to make the move when he realized that the technology and support platforms available in the independent space are comparable to, if not better than, what he had assumed he could find only in a large wirehouse setting.

“I was pretty happy at Merrill,” he said. “But I started doing some research and uncovering what the independent channel looks like.”

He said he came to see that business investments in the independent channel, including technology, had made “pretty much all the solutions” available.

“Once I saw that, I was even more intrigued by being able to own my own business and grow it in a way that I think is best for my clients,” he said. He elected to form a pure RIA to “make sure I was on the same side of the table as my clients—no commissions, strictly fee-based.”

Brandon Kawal of Advisor Growth Strategies said it's not uncommon for young advisors to graduate from school directly into the wirehouses, largely unaware of the opportunities available in other channels. 

"Wealth management is not necessarily on the radar for college students as much as it should be," Kawal said, noting that it's a pool for talent acquisition left untapped by many RIAs. "They generally don't have a central HR or talent acquisition function that's going out to these universities and educating. So, the larger institutions do still have a bit of an edge."

That said, Kawal added that it's also not uncommon for "some sort of catalyst" to drive those wirehouse advisors to do what Heller did. "And they realize that, wow, a lot of the things that they want to offer are already available in independence and they can put it together in their own way."

Heller oversaw approximately $65 million in client assets at Merrill for wealthy individuals and families, business owners, executives, divorcees and sports professionals—and hopes to bring the bulk of those clients with him.

“I anticipate bringing as much as I can,” Heller said. “I’m hoping to bring all of it, but we’ll see how it unfolds.”

Heller and Winn met through the basketball program at their mutual alma mater, the University of Miami, selected as the No. 5 seed in the Midwest Region in the 2023 NCAA Tournament starting this week.

When they met, Winn was still in school and managing the team; Heller was an alumnus and former player who was still supporting the program.  

“He was trying to figure out what career path he wanted to go into,” Heller said of Winn, who was scouting and doing analytics for the Miami Hurricanes at the time. “One of the assistant coaches I played under connected us and we found it to be a good fit. He joined me in the wealth management business at Merrill Lynch around a year ago, and now he's coming with me to Heller Private Wealth.”

Heller launched his firm with the help of Aaron Hattenbach, a CFP he found online who founded his own RIA—Rapport Financial in San Francisco—and consults for other startups, with a focus on financial technology.

“He was really helpful, teaching me about the space and telling me about the different technologies that are out there,” said Heller. “With his guidance, I was able to go through the process and meet with the right people and make the decision that I made.”

Heller elected to custody with Schwab to take advantage of the open architecture platform and “massive” range of investment opportunities, and because it’s a large, publicly traded firm with significant assets behind it.  

“They also give you the ability to add things to their platform, which I thought was unique,” he said. “And having the ability to just get out there and find what is the best fit for the client versus being limited to whatever the firm you work for provides; I just felt like it was really good for my clients.”

In the near term, Heller said he is simply looking forward to getting everything up and running and transitioning as many clients as possible. Looking farther out, he expects to grow in much the same way he did at Merrill.

“I like to do a lot of events,” he said. “I like to spend time with current clients and maybe get them out of the office to do something fun—like dinner or bowling or top golf—and pair that with some knowledgeable guest speaker.

“And then of course, if they're able to bring friends or family and they recommend or they share their good experience with me, that's a way that I've had success in the past.”

Heller said another reason he chose to get into the independent space are the opportunities in the sector’s active mergers and acquisitions market—but that it’s too early to say whether he would be buying, selling or merging.

“I don't think I would be selling anytime soon,” he said. “So, yeah, we'll see what happens.”

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