Shooting Straight And Striking It Rich

When John D. Olson, 40, joined Merrill Lynch & Co., the tall, boyish former accountant from Price Waterhouse started at the bottom, making cold calls to get people to open up brokerage accounts. But he soon realized he didn't like pushing customers in order to produce the maximum volume of commissions. He preferred a more time-consuming but productive approach: sitting down with clients, discussing their finances and goals, and coming up with an informal financial profile. This way, he could suggest appropriate investment strategies and build long-term relationships.

When Merrill in 1993 initiated a campaign to gradually transform the firm's commission-driven brokers into financial planners who earn a flat percentage of client's assets under management, Olson eagerly signed on. He now can give clients elaborate 80-page plans. "It's a whole different mentality and mind-set. I'm not

dialing for dollars or just writing a ticket," he says.

Olson's sharp focus on customers has paid off: He has $325 million in customer assets. Olson--and Merrill--are a long way from phasing out commissions. Olson, whose wife is also a Merrill broker, still gets 75% of his compensation from commissions vs. 25% from a variety of flat fees based on assets under management. But the broker may be the wave of Merrill's future. "If I had 12,500 like him, our stock would be 300," says John L. Steffens, Merrill Lynch & Co.'s retail brokerage chief. Now, if Merrill could just figure out how to clone him.

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