Ameriprise's wealth management unit tuned in a strong performance in the first quarter, with pretax profits climbing 21% year-over-year and AUM growing 11%, the firm reported Monday.

CEO Jim Cracchiolo credited the firm's overall strong performance to the wealth management business — "the primary growth engine of the company," he said in a statement.

At the same time, however, the brokerage force has been steadily shrinking. Adviser headcount slid to 9,668 from 9,675 in the fourth quarter. It was also down from 9,766 in the year-ago quarter.

Advisers’ productivity rose to $529,000 from $510,000 in the year-ago period.

Though the firm may have fewer brokers, it reported having record total client assets of $498 billion, up from $451 billion a year ago. Net flows into wrap accounts surged to $3.9 billion from $3.3 billion in the prior quarter and $1 billion a year ago.

The growth in AUM mirrors a similar achievement at Merrill Lynch, which recently reported record long-term AUM flows of $29.5 billion for the quarter, up from $18.9 billion a year ago. Merrill cited clients shifting to fee-based relationships from brokerage IRAs.

Ameriprise's wealth management's performance was helped by strong revenue growth driven by higher financial advisory fees.

The wealth management unit had pretax profits of $248 million. Revenue for the unit climbed 8% to $1.295 billion. Expenses ticked up at a slower pace, increasing 5% to $1.047 billion.

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