Brokers started streaming from wire houses a couple of years ago, and judging from the experience of Columbia State Bank in Tacoma, there are plenty still interested in leaving.

Columbia's brokerage unit has hired three wire-house veterans over the past six months, and the $5 billion-asset bank may not be done.

"I'm getting more inquiries," said Dean McSweeney, manager of the bank's investment unit, which is a PrimeVest Financial Services program. "We're talking with two additional candidates right now, both of them dissatisfied wire-house brokers."

For Columbia State Bank, a unit of Columbia Banking System Inc., nabbing such talent may allow its brokerage unit to boost revenues significantly this year. The business is looking to do $3.5 million this year, a big jump from the approximately $2 million it tallied last year, McSweeney said.

CB Financial Services, as the bank's brokerage unit is private-labeled, had $525 million of assets under management at end- March.

Columbia's mini hiring spree, which has helped bring its financial-consultant total to 13, took place amid some signs of a slowdown in wire-house defections. In January, for instance, Bank of America Global Wealth President Sallie Krawcheck announced that the business, part of Bank of America Corp.'s Merrill Lynch unit, had "historically" low broker attrition in the fourth quarter and that it planned to add advisers.

But a report from Aite Group LLC found that just 15% of advisers within wire houses were not considering leaving those firms.

Columbia's latest brokerage hires came from Morgan Stanley Smith Barney and from Bank of America Corp.'s Merrill Lynch & Co., according to McSweeney. The most recent, Brooke Johnson, joined the bank about three months ago from Morgan Stanley Smith Barney.

Columbia hired the wire-house brokers in order to expand and also because it saw a chance to improve its program, McSweeney said. "It was an opportunity for us, candidly, to upgrade some of the existing financial consultants that we had."

In discussions with McSweeney, wire-house veterans have painted a picture of institutions impatient with lower-end producers and uninterested in smaller clients. "People are now finding that maybe there is no longer a cultural fit, or they don't care for the leadership that's now in place or the practices they are being asked to do," he said.

Producers with between five and 10 years of experience and gross annual revenue in the $250,000 to $300,000 range are "really being put in the penalty box by these large organizations."

While the big brokerages don't want to deal with clients of more modest wealth, small banks like Columbia have a much different approach, he said. "Our philosophy is that in a community bank, we don't turn people away."

Over the past couple of years, wire-house brokers have left in waves, in part because of changing performance expectations and in part because of the turmoil caused by mergers and integrations.

The roll call of mergers included Bank of America buying Merrill Lynch, and Citigroup's sale of 51% of its retail brokerage unit Smith Barney to Morgan Stanley.

Columbia's financial-consultant ranks have grown through scooping up refugees from those mergers, and thanks to its own acquisition. Early this year, Columbia bought a similarly named institution, Columbia River Bank in The Dalles, Ore., as part of a government-assisted transaction.

The four financial consultants at the acquired bank, along with a new hire, Bank of America alumna Kimberly Superneau, give Columbia State Bank a brokerage presence in Oregon.

The bank did not need to empty its coffers to make the new hires because it didn't buy the new brokers' books of business, McSweeney said. "I usually structure a transition compensation structure until they get their book built," he said. "It provides more base salary at first and is then phased to a full commission basis over time."

Once the financial consultants gather about $25 million of assets under management, the fees on those assets allow the bank to break even on its up-front salary, McSweeney said.

"It's a commitment to servicing our clientele, making sure we have full-service offerings available in all the geographic areas we service," he said.

In fact, with the recent hires and possible additional hires, Columbia has been discussing breaking its territories into smaller regions, McSweeney said.

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