The market crisis that began several years prompted a frantic game of musical chairs as firms and advisors sought their most competitive matches. However, with market conditions improving and an economy that continues to recover, albeit slowly, the question becomes: Will the music soon stop?

"I don't think 2011 will be the lowest level of migration. It's still heightened," says Alois Pirker, director of research for Boston-based Aite Group. "The interesting thing as we leave this crisis is what the post-crisis world will look like, and what's the new normal, what's the new landscape?"

That new landscape is indeed shifting as firms from the top wirehouses to the smallest regionals, as well as the boutiques in between, are looking to add new blood and new markets. The result could be a continued strategy shift as firms seek more profitable models.

St. Louis-based Wells Fargo Advisors, for example, is seeking a stronger position in wealth management and potential acquisitions, chief executive John Stumpf said at a conference at the end of last year. A Wells Fargo spokeswoman confirms those comments, but did not elaborate.

At the same time, some boutiques are looking to build up. Goldman Sachs confirmed its plans to add 200 new advisors to bring its 600-member staff to 800 in the next couple of years. The additions will focus on North America, but could also include emerging markets.

And Citigroup made news last year with plans to expand its wealth management staff; possibly doubling its number of North American private bankers to about 260 by 2012, a spokesman confirmed. Those plans would come under Citi Private Bank.

Even as firms are looking to add talent, the threshold for getting into those firms may be higher now. Reports in December said that Merrill Lynch plans to cut ties with advisors bringing in less than $250,000 in production. Morgan Stanley Smith Barney, for its part, is looking to maintain its current advisor headcount at between 17,000 and 18,000, says firm spokeswoman, Christy Pollak.

Scott Smith, associate director at Boston-based Cerulli Associates, says: "We see the wirehouses still having 300% deals and exchanging advisors back and forth." He notes that there will "probably be a little bit of slowing at the lower end of the market, where those advisors were thinking of making moves and maybe did so in the past two years."

As for the regional shops, a number of them are planning to add to their head counts. Los Angeles-based Wedbush Securities, for example, plans to pursue its most aggressive growth plan in recent years, bulking up its advisor force to about 600 from 350 brokers, a 70% increase. Wes Long, senior vice president and division manager at the private client services division at Wedbush, confirmed the plans, which were first reported by Reuters. The plans also include the addition of about 15 new offices to its current 100 locations. Despite a tougher hiring climate, Wedbush plans to pursue advisors with assets under management from $40 million to $50 million and up who are looking for a change. "There are still a large number of advisors out there, particularly at larger firms, particularly bank-owned firms, that are just not happy with the culture," Long says. "We happen to believe we provide that kind of culture."

Wedbush's expansion could also come from acquisitions, which the firm is currently evaluating, Long says. Wedbush plans to fill in its existing private-client business from its existing locations in the western half of the U.S. The firm will target Texas after opening a Dallas office last year, and may look at Austin, Fort Worth, Houston and San Antonio next. Wedbush is also looking at international acquisitions and could take on new advisors there, too, Long said.

St. Petersburg, Fla.-based Raymond James & Associates has cut its annual advisor hiring target to less than 100, down from a target of about 150 in previous years, says RJA president, Dennis Zank. The new goal, set for the firms' fiscal year ending in September, comes after it fell short of its 150 goal last year, Zank says. The firm maintained that 150-per-year pace from 2005 to 2008. But more recently, fear has eased and retention bonuses have not yet expired. "Times are just better," with both fee-based assets and commissions up, Zank says. "So it's a more comfortable time, if you will, which slows down a desire to move from point A to point B."

Raymond James plans to continue to train new advisors in 2011 at the same 50-per-year pace that it has done in previous years, Zank says. The firm will also seek to grow through more acquisitions in the next two years, after entering into a definitive agreement to acquire Howe Barnes Hoefer & Arnett in late December. That purchase will expand Raymond James' private client business in Chicago and San Francisco, Zank says. The firm also hopes to add another six to eight locations this year. Areas of interest include Santa Fe, N.M., where the firm just opened an office, and a new location in North Carolina.

Hilliard Lyons, based in Louisville, Ky., will also selectively hunt for new talent in the coming year, says Darryl K. Metzger, executive vice president and director of the private client group. Hilliard, which hired roughly 50 new professionals in the last 18 months, will continue hiring at a more selective pace going forward, Metzger says. To increase its profitability, Hilliard plans to equally emphasize three strategies: driving up profits from existing employees, recruiting new employees and training new financial professionals, including advisors and branch managers.

Morgan Keegan, meanwhile, plans to increase its current 1,100 advisor staff by 10%, or by 110, in the coming year, says Richard S. Ferguson, executive managing director and president of the private client group at Morgan Keegan. The firm also plans to continue geographic expansion into the Cincinnati, Ohio and Washington, D.C. areas, as well as into Texas. "Our goal is to drive our existing advisors to increase their productivity and then to continue to hire a certain number of trainees and then to recruit a certain amount of production," Ferguson says. "You tie all three together and it makes for a great story."

It all makes for a competitive environment for the advisor with a successful record, says recruiter, Danny Sarch, president of White Plains, N.Y.-based Leitner Sarch Consultants. "If you're an advisor seeking other opportunities, you're only limited by your own imagination in terms of both the model, the type of financial package and the type of firm you want to join," Sarch says. "The street-smart advisors out there are always keeping their eyes open."

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