To attract more business from small businesses, Bank of America Merrill Lynch announced Thursday it relaunched a retirement services platform for companies with fewer than 100 employees.

The platform, Advisor Alliance, will allow Merrill Lynch advisors to sell recordkeeping and retirement plan administration services to small business owners. Andy Sieg, the head of retirement and philanthropic services for Bank of America Merrill Lynch [BAC], said that there are opportunities to offer more to the bank’s four million small business customers.

“This is an important next step for the bank,” he said. “Look at the reach that this bank has. We think that there are a very strong set of reasons to relaunch this platform. It is designed to convey how important the role of the financial advisors is to serving smaller businesses.”

Merrill Lynch had offered services to small and mid-sized business clients through its MLConnect platform since 2001. Armed with what that platform has collected in the past nine years, Advisor Alliance opens with more than 900,000 individuals customers from more than 40,000 businesses, representing more than $23 billion in retirement plan assets.

Kevin Crain, the head of institutional client relationships at Bank of America Merrill Lynch, said that traditionally retirement plans for small businesses are “templated” and “not that flexible,” but the Charlotte-based company has created a web-based, customizable platform.

Advisor Alliance, for instance, allows advisors to take a consultative approach when working with small businesses and to implement and customize and evaluate the retirement plan that best suits their needs.

Through the newly redesigned web-based portal, advisors can also review the investment performance of retirement plan funds and generate customizable quarterly plan sponsor investment review reports for small business owners.

Through this reporting and online “dashboard” view of a retirement plan portfolio, advisors can help plan sponsors determine on an ongoing basis how funds are performing relative to their peers and, when appropriate, present alternative funds to replace poor performers.

“We thought it was critical to bring customization down market,” Crain said.

More than 8,000 of Merrill’s 15,000 advisors are working with small business owners and more than 260 advisors are currently part of its small business client referral network. Since the beginning of this year, there have been more than 1,400 small business client referrals into the Bank of America Merrill Lynch institutional retirement business from Bank of America's global commercial bank.

Sieg said that the referrals generated in the first half of this year are “well in excess” of BofA’s full-year target. “We think that this is going to grow exponentially,” Crain said. “There is just so much potential here.”

According to Cerulli data, 52% of employees working for small businesses last year did not have access to an employer-sponsored retirement savings pla.

Bruce Gsell, an Edison-based Merrill Lynch senior advisor, said he began using MLConnect in 2001. He said the platform enabled him to offer a customizable retirement solution to small business owners.

“I never want to be a ‘product pusher,’ and this platform put me ina position to offer multiple solutions from multiple providers,” he said. “This concept enabled me to go to companies and say that we can align them with the best providers.”

Gsell said he works with 15 small businesses, 10 of which bought their company’s 401(k) plan from him. “I think there is still a major opportunity,” he said. “Forty percent of clients still don’t offer a 401(k.) I think a lot of small business owners that do have 401(k)’s are stuck with proprietary funds. With the volatility in the market, a lot of people are hunkered down and waiting it out. We have a real opportunity to go after those clients.”

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