Merrill Lynch revamps training program with an eye toward wave of baby boomer retirements


Chase Phillips, right, a financial advisor at Merrill Lynch, works with mentorTim Gillespie in their Washington, D.C. offices. (Jeffrey MacMillan/JEFFREY MACMILLAN FOR WASHINGTON POST)
September 23, 2012

At Merrill Lynch Wealth Management’s Washington office, managing director Jeff Wood said he and his team are gearing up for the “silver tsunami.”

A big wave of baby boomers is entering retirement, and Wood said this generation is facing a fresh set of financial concerns and considerations.

There are “not enough people to handle that demand in the industry right now,” Wood said.

That demographic shift, coupled with recent signs of an economic recovery, has prompted the asset management company to expand and revamp its training program for financial advisers across the country.

And Wood said the effort to add advisers is particularly important in the Washington area, since the region has not been as hard-hit by economic troubles as other parts of the nation.

Merrill Lynch’s Washington office employs 155 financial advisers that manage almost $16 billion in assets. Of those advisers, 43 are in the training program, which is about twice as many as last year.

In the updated training program, less emphasis is placed on traditional wealth management strategies that aim to grow a client’s assets. Instead, trainees are learning to structure portfolios with an eye toward “capital preservation.”

This less risky strategy might have particular appeal to investors who were walloped by the financial crisis and its aftermath and are now looking to make safer bets.

The training also focuses on tax-efficient investing strategies and assessing health care, particularly long-term care solutions. Wood said these areas were made more prominent in the training program because they consistently registering as top concerns for their pre-retirement clients.

In order to land top talent, the Washington office has been casting a wider net for recruits. Though it has long looked to local business schools such as Georgetown University and University of Maryland as pipelines for employees, now the firm is also hiring veterans, attorneys and accountants who are looking for a career change.

“The candidates that we look for really have two qualities. They have the mind of an entrepreneur. They have the heart of a social worker,” Wood said.

The training program lasts 43 months.

“For the first four months, all you are is really studying,” Wood said.

But from that point forward, the advisers are doing hands-on work with clients.

Learning takes place in a variety of ways, including through classroom sessions, Web seminars, and one-on-one training with senior employees. Merrill Lynch’s Washington office has two full-time staff members who are focused on training these advisers. And many other staffers are involved with the program as mentors, serving in what Wood called the “player-coach” role of managing portfolios while also helping to nurture new employees.

Chase Phillips entered the program in 2010 after starting with the firm in an apprentice-type role in 2008.

Phillips said he appreciates that the training program has emphasized the importance of tailoring plans for clients to reflect life transitions and changes, including retirement.

“Merrill Lynch has put in an extraordinary amount of effort to coach this way, and to teach us how to be a holistic wealth manager,” Phillips said.

Sarah Halzack is The Washington Post's national retail reporter. She has previously covered the local job market and the business of talent and hiring. She has also served as a Web producer for business and economics news.
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