Merrill Lynch & Co., currently a bit player in the personal trust business, is hoping to step into a starring role.

The giant brokerage house is in the midst of a nationwide campaign to lure wealthy individuals.

Merrill's strategy: Set lower minimum account levels than banks usually offer, and flog the product through its unparalleled network of brokers.

"We would like to be a national trust company," said Rodney Woods, president and chief executive officer of Merrill Lynch's trust subsidiary.

Room to Grow

The five-year-old unit. based in New Jersey, has $11 billion of assets under management or custody, which would place it way down the ranks of bank players. What's more, threequarters of that total represents assets from institutions. not individuals.

Still, bankers are viewing Merrill's new drive to energize its slow-blooming trust business with competitive concern.

"You never discount someone the size of Merrill Lynch." said Thomas Curtin, president of Princeton Bank and Trust Co., a New Jersey subsidiary of Chemical Banking Corp.

The brokerage giant has lost some lucrative business from customers who fled when they learned they could not obtain trust services, bankers said.

With its trust service, Mr. Curtin noted, "Merrill Lynch doesn't have to give up those assets to [a] Princeton Bank."

Eager to Expand

Merrill's trust business operates in 27 states and Washington, D.C., and Mr. Woods said the company is eagerly pursuing licensing in most of the remaining states.

Merrill sees a big opportunity in tapping its vast network of almost 12,000 retail brokers in 520 offices to bring in wealth from their clients. The brokers have access to many well-heeled customers, including small-business owners and entrepreneurs, who have never considered a trust, Mr. Woods said.

Most Minimums at $500,000

In setting the account floor at $100,000 of assets under management, Merrill also is pursuing a relatively untapped market. Most commercial banks set their minimums at around $500,000.

Merrill is offering only off-the-shelf management services, such as mutual funds, to customers at the lower end of the net-worth base. To qualify for individually tailored portfolio management, a customer has to have $300,000 of assets.

Mr. Woods, who was formerly director of marketing at U.S. Trust Corp., offers no apologies for setting his sights lower than commercial bankers. "We like to think we're broadening the total market," he said. Merrill has for some years actively sought to bring assets in-house by offering brokers high commissions for selling mutual funds. But it has not made similar efforts to hold assets in trust.

One possible drawback: There is no guarantee that Merrill brokers, faced with a broad array of products being pitched by various parts of the firm, will aggressively push the trust line.

Mr. Woods was quick to note that Merrill has no plans to compete for the carriage-trade wealth that has long been wooed by the likes of J. P. Morgan & Co. and U.S. Trust.

"A lot of our clients are in fact new clients for trust services," he said.

Trust companies in Colorado have formed a trade group to look out for their interests in the mountain state.

The Association of Colorado Trust Companies was formed last month to lobby the state government to maintain the right of trust companies to branch within Colorado, its founders say. The group also is trying to protect its members from new regulations that they assert would stymie their profitability.

The only capital requirements currently required for Colorado-chartered trust companies is a net capital base of $ 100,000.

The group is composed of eight companies, which it says represents 98% of all assets held by state-chartered trust firms.

Members, who pay between $500 and $20,000 in annual fees, are: First Trust Corp., Gemisys, Investment Trust Co., Invesco Trust Co., Lincoln Trust Co., Resources Trust Co., Heritage Trust Co., and Sentinel Trust.

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