When a group of Citigroup Inc. managers left the company last month, Citi joined a growing list of big banks and broker-dealers that have lost wealth advisers in recent months.
Others on the list include Merrill Lynch & Co. Inc. and Morgan Stanley. Experts say the people who advise wealthy clients have been abandoning large national banks and broker-dealers to join independent shops or start them. Some want to make more money, while others are finding that the big, established companies do not have the cachet they once had.
"The frequency of the departures has remained pretty steady over the years," said Brian Hamburger, the founder of MarketCounsel, an Englewood, N.J., firm that provides services for registered investment advisers. "What's changed is the profile of the guys that are leaving."
The Citi wealth managers left for the Rockville, Md., multifamily office Convergent Wealth Advisors. When a group of wealth management partners at Merrill Lynch decided to leave Merrill in May to start their own investment advisory firm in California, Luminous Capital, they took their 20-person team with them.
"It went incredibly smoothly," said Kim Ip, a founding partner of Luminous, which has offices in Los Angeles and Menlo Park.
The founding partners offered an equity stake to its employees.
Bank executives say the adviser movement is not an exodus. Citi's adviser head count slipped only 4%, to 14,983, in the second quarter compared with a year earlier.
"I don't think that's drastic," said Alexander Samuelson, a spokesman for the banking company.
For the advisers leaving the bigger outfits, Mr. Hamburger said, "the good will and reputation of the firm … isn't there anymore."
He said that when one of his independent adviser clients started his career at a major financial services firm, he always met people with his business card in hand.
Recently, though, this adviser noticed he was keeping the card in his back pocket, only pulling it out after establishing a rapport with people first. He realized that the brand was no longer helping him generate new clients, and he decided it was time to leave.
Analysts said large financial services companies have troubles right now that wealth managers don't want to be associated with.
Scott Smith, a senior analyst at the research firm Cerulli Associates in Boston, said negative publicity from events such as the subprime credit crisis can damage advisers' client relationships.
"A lot" of financial services firms "are continuing to bleed advisers into independent channels," Mr. Smith said. "It's not going to jeopardize the firms in the short term, but some advisers will continue to have the increased desire for independence."
Cerulli said in 2007 around 6% of registered investment advisers were once wire house employees. But the RIA industry has grown — there were 14,451 registered investment advisory firms managing around $1.4 trillion in 2007, versus 11,745 managing $950 billion in 2005, according to Cerulli.
Some of those who leave brokerages are taking serious money with them. After a few months at Luminous, the former Merrill team had snared the vast majority of the clients it had advised while at Merrill. Luminous says it is now managing assets of about $3 billion to $3.5 billion.
A spokesman for Merrill did not return phone calls.
When Paul Tramontano and Sam Katzman left Citi's Smith Barney in April 2007, they were managing around $3 billion of assets. The New York firm they started last year, Constellation Wealth Advisors, is already managing around $3.5 billion.
Mr. Tramontano said he had to give up seven figures in deferred compensation to leave Smith Barney, but "it was never about the money. Money certainly enters into it, and I'm proud of making a good living, but I do what's in my clients' best interest. That's what I prefer to hang my hat on." At Constellation, he said, he can offer clients a wider range of investments.
Others say they are getting compensated better as independent advisers. When John Benedetto advised clients at Morgan Stanley, he earned around 40% of the hundreds of thousands in revenue he produced each year for the New York firm.
Mr. Benedetto left Morgan Stanley in October 2007 to become president of Falcon Wealth Management Inc. in Northborough, Mass. He now brings home most of what he makes. He said that if he had gone to another wire house, he could have gotten an up-front payment of $1.3 million, but he did not want to commit to several more years at a company that would be more or less the same as the one he had left.
"I think it's an easy transition to go from a wire house," Mr. Benedetto said. "You just have to understand that you'll wear more hats" as an independent adviser.
It remains to be seen if major financial firms will lose more advisers in the future. "We are at historic lows in terms of departures of million-dollar producers," said Christy Pollak, a Morgan Stanley spokeswoman. The firm declined further comment.
Most experts say they expect the trend to continue. Robert Casey, a senior managing director for research at the consultant Family Wealth Alliance in Wheaton, Ill., said the independent advisory industry has been on the rise in recent years with wire houses struggling to compete.
"If anything, you'll see" the departures "ratchet up," he said.