After arming certain financial advisors with new designations aimed at winning more 401(k) consulting business this year, Bank of America Merrill Lynch says that that bet is paying off.

The firm has reached $3 billion in new assets from those efforts this year, and plans to bring that total to $3.5 billion by the middle of 2013. At the same time, 30 financial advisors have successfully completed the new Defined Contribution Investment Consulting designation, with another 20 expected to bring the total to 50 in the next few months.

The initiative is part of Bank of America Merrill Lynch’s goal to round out its 401(k) business that already includes record keeping services. The added plan consulting business includes fiduciary level services, employee education services, investment menu plan design consulting and periodic reviews fund screening. Those features are provided on a fee for service basis.

Bank of America Merrill Lynch has won those $3 billion in new assets by targeting plans that are $25 million and more, while also including that do not necessarily have their record keeping through the firm. Since going live with the efforts in July, the firm has attracted plans with $100 million, $200 million and $400 million in assets, according to Kevin Crain, head of institutional retirement and benefit services at Bank of America Merrill Lynch.

“It’s actually gone beyond my aspirations in the first few months,” Crain said of the new assets the firm has won, which is now starting to include more middle market space plans with $50 million, $75 million or $100 million.

“There’s a great appetite from the plan sponsor for these types of services and they will pay for the value that’s given,” Crain said of the benefits the services provide including fiduciary protection.

John Cate is one Merrill Lynch advisor who says his institutional-focused practice has benefited from the new efforts. Cate’s Indianapolis-based team was the first to go through the designation process.

And while he says the initial interview process to take part in the designation program was exhaustive, with interviews with more than 20 people from the home office, the program has lived up to its promise.

That comes as Cate’s team has sealed eight new client relationships in the past two months. Cate describes those clients as large household name companies with 4,000 to 6,000 employees. Seven of those clients have more than $100 million in assets, and three of them have more than $350 million in assets.

“The wins that we’re getting in the marketplace and traction and momentum that we have, I’ve never seen the activity like we have right now,” Cate said.

Cate credits the designation and resources behind the team at the firm for helping to convince clients to sign on with them. So far, he says, the program has lived up to the promises that helped lure his team to Merrill Lynch from Morgan Stanley in June 2011.

“It’s better than what we ever anticipated, and our clients have had a great experience,” Cate said.

Cate’s team is one example of a more experienced team that has had early wins with prospective institutional clients through the program. And Crain says he expects that to see other financial advisors who have gone through the designation process start to see the same success in coming months.

“The growth has far exceeded our initial expectations,” Crain said. “When I look at the pipelines, we had more wins come in even this week. It’s been a nice early stage success.”

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