BofA Merrill Introduces Retirement Plan Adviser Designation

Bank of America Merrill Lynch is rolling out internal designation programs for financial advisers specializing in the sales and servicing of corporate defined contribution plans.

The Designated Defined Contribution FA is an adviser that has been designated to work with new clients that have defined contribution plan assets of $50 million or greater. At launch, there are about 80 to 100 advisers that will qualify for this program, noted Kevin Crain, head of institutional relationships, though he hopes that number will grow over time as the program develops.

Criteria for the designation include:

  1. Experience working with mid-sized to large corporate clients
  2. A minimum of five years relevant retirement services industry experience within Merrill Lynch Global Wealth Management (MLGWM) or relationship management. For those advisers who have not been with BofA Merrill Lynch for a minimum of five years, Crain said that the company can credit an adviser that has been elsewhere and has a book of business that shows experience in that area.
  3. Industry engagement, which to BofA Merrill Lynch is a track record of attending industry conferences or forums annually (such as those from PLANSPONSOR, ASPPA, SPARK, etc.). Advisers must attend a minimum of one per year. “We want the advisers to be visible,” Crain said, “and to continue to grow and develop.”
  4. An adviser must hold the PLANSPONSOR Retirement Professional (PRP) certification or Chartered Retirement Plans Specialist (CRPS) certification and either the Certified Investment Management Analyst (CIMA) Certification or Certified Financial Planner (CFP) designation. As the service model evolves, this list will likely continue to change, as the company evaluates what designations are valuable for advisers and their clients, said Crain.
  5. Successful completion of the relevant panel assessment including key leaders from Retirement & Philanthropic Services (RPS) and MLGWM. Although Crain said he doesn’t want this part of the process to take away from the quantitative measures, this element of the criteria is to ensure than advisers are thinking about their future of the business and how they will continue to grow their practices. The only way to evaluate that is through committee, he noted.


Advisers included in the designation program are required to meet specific criteria each year to maintain their designation status including, but not limited to, continuing education and certifications.

Advisers in this group will receive referrals from the Bank of America Global Commercial Bank (GCB) and the Bank of America Global Corporate Investment Bank (GCIB) for retirement plans with $10 million or greater in plan assets. Designated FAs will lead partnerships with non-designated FAs who refer clients with retirement plans greater than $50 million. Speaking to the opportunity this might have for the advisers, the company noted that, as of the end of November, the Global Wealth & Investment Management (GWIM) division has referred 3,000 clients to the Bank of America GCB business, while receiving approximately 1,000 such institutional referrals from that business.

“I think this has been a long time coming,” said Crain, noting that much of what is included in the designation program has already existed but this just puts a process around it.

However, unlike some similar programs from other wirehouses, this does not allow the adviser to sign on or act as a fiduciary to a retirement plan. Though this is “not an absolute answer,” Crain admitted, the stance of the company has not yet changed. 

For those advisers that do not meet these qualifications, Crain said there will be opportunities to partner with designated advisers. Those FAs lacking a required product designation will be required to partner on new prospects, including existing clients where the FA of record lacks the appropriate designation. On the flip side, designated FAs are required to provide mentorship for non-designated FAs in regards to client service and relationship management.

Also for those advisers in the retirement plan space that do not yet have the expertise or experience to be part of the designated group, Bank of America Merrill Lynch is also introducing the Retirement Plan Referral Network, a group of about 250 to 300 financial advisers who have experience and expertise serving retirement plan clients with $10 million or less in plan assets. The advisers will serve new and existing Bank of America Merrill Lynch institutional clients with DC plans with less than $10 million in total plan assets. The advisers will be able to continue to source new business with plans from start-ups up to $50 million in assets, Crain said. If they bring in business larger than that, it will be channeled to the designated DC advisers, Crain said.

BofA Merrill Lynch is also creating a group of Designated Equity Compensation FAs, which is a separate group of qualified advisers who have been designated as able to work with work with new equity plan clients. That group of advisers will also receive referrals of clients who have expressed a need for equity plan services and will lead partnerships with non-designated advisers who refer equity plan clients.

The company said there are plans to implement similar programs across other retirement plan business segments throughout 2010, including defined benefit and philanthropic solutions.