To fuel expansion in its new retail brokerage unit, Huntington Investment Co. in Columbus, Ohio, plans to recruit veteran brokers from national and regional firms, only not with promises of big signing bonuses.

Instead, the Huntington Bancshares Inc. unit will offer them decent payouts in a setting where the broker, not the firm, owns the client relationships.

"Many big-firm advisers are struggling," said Stan Evans, director of Huntington's wealth advisers group. "They might have started in a regional that's been taken over, and now they're dealing with pay cuts and — what's maybe worse — the feeling that no one's listening to them."

Huntington's brokerage unit has been speaking with "hundreds of top-notch advisers" in Ohio and western Pennsylvania, where it plans to have about 15 brokers by yearend, Evans said.

With a handful of brokers already on staff, Huntington will open brokerage offices in the Columbus-area communities of Dublin and New Albany early next month. Before 2010 is out it plans to open one or two locations in Cincinnati, one or two more in Cleveland and another in or near Pittsburgh.

Huntington will start with at least a couple of brokers per location, but each office will have room and infrastructure for five to seven advisers.

Brokers, especially those at wire houses, are responding favorably to Huntington's small-firm model, Evans said. "We're not trying to be the biggest firm in the world," he said. "We can't be. But we're going to put marketing dollars to work for them, and we want to be very thorough about on-boarding brokers who will own their books and never have to sign a non-compete."

Despite owning their books, Huntington brokers are employees of the firm, not independents.

Instead of Wall Street-size signing bonuses, Huntington can offer a 50% payout and a work environment in which "you know the person who runs operations and [can] be on a first-name basis with the person who handles new accounts," Evans said.

Such an appeal may not resonate with hard-chargers, but it can be attractive to smaller-book practitioners with loyal clients who are feeling cold-shouldered by big-name employers. "Those are the guys and women we're looking for," Evans said. "I'll take a good, solid third- or fourth-quintile producer."

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