Merrill Lynch taps new head to expand training

Racquel Oden promoted to help ramp up practice management program

Feb 11, 2014 @ 9:35 am

By Mason Braswell

+ Zoom
(Bloomberg)

On the hunt for the next generation of financial advisers, Bank of America Merrill Lynch has promoted Racquel Oden to head its practice management and development training program.

Taking over at a crucial point in the program's history, Ms. Oden, who was a managing director in charge of business development, will focus on improving retention as the firm looks to head off an oncoming retirement crisis by focusing on building its head count organically, according to Tom Fickinger, head of adviser growth and development.

“The way we really want to build our adviser census is through hiring and developing our own people,” he said. “It takes more capital and it is hard, but if you consider the average adviser is 48 years old, trading people back and forth isn't a long-term strategy that can win.”

First established in 1946, the three-year training program languished after the financial crisis in 2008 when hiring was put on pause, but Merrill Lynch has since been rebuilding the program under Ms. Oden's predecessor, Dwight Mathis.

Mr. Mathis had a three-year agreement to update the program and will now return to the field as a managing director for the Western Pennsylvania complex in Pittsburgh, according to Susan Atran, a spokeswoman for the firm.

“We've really restructured our training program and now that all that great work is done, it's Racquel's job to take it to the next level,” Mr. Fickinger said. “In 2014, we expect to graduate the largest number that we have in a long time.”

Last year, the firm brought in around 1,000 recruits into its training program and had a graduation rate of about 30% for the advisers who made it past the first seven months, one of the highest success rates in the program's history, Mr. Fickinger said.

The firm is planning to bring on around 1,700 trainees this year and the hope is that it can increase the graduation rate to around 50% under Ms. Oden, he said.

That will be the biggest test, as many firms struggle to hold onto new talent, said Alois Pirker, a research director at Aite Group's wealth management unit.

“That's the golden goose right now,” he said. “It's how can you have the effort you spend on training pay off with a high survival rate and have the investment in those people pay off in the long run rather than end with them dropping off or not making the cut.”

Ms. Oden said that, in addition to making more selective hires, she will increase the focus on teaming and try to place trainees with groups of veteran advisers as soon as they are hired.

Moreover, she will work to better integrate trainees with Bank of America's bank branches as the firm looks to bring brokerage and banking operations closer together in coming years, she said.

For example, Ms. Oden will build on the One Team program where trainees are assigned to a bank branch and work with a personal banker, small business banker and mortgage loan officer to provide additional products and services to wealth management clients.

“What better way to connect the bank with Merrill Lynch than our advisers sitting in those branches?” Ms. Oden said. “That's one current example of bringing the enterprise together.”

This year, the firm will implement a number of changes that were agreed to as part of its $160 million settlement with several hundred current and former African-American brokers in December. The plaintiffs claimed that retention was especially low for black trainees in Merrill Lynch's program.

In response, Merrill Lynch said it would change the way it distributes accounts and judges trainee performance. It would also provide coaches for its black trainees and establish a leadership counsel to oversee their development and retention in the program.

“It goes back to the core principle of what the program is about, which is hiring the next generation of advisers,” Ms. Oden said.

Ms. Oden will still retain her original role as managing director and head of business development where she oversees the implementation of the firm's goals-based wealth management, which helps provide financial planning services for clients.

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