(Dow Jones) Bank of America Corp.'s Merrill Lynch is hoping to attract more small-business-owner clients with a new retirement plan platform, which could in turn mean more client referrals for Merrill Lynch financial advisors.

Bank of America says it has relationships with about 4 million small-business owners. Its launch of a new retirement plan platform gives advisors ample opportunity for client referrals from the commercial bank and corporate and investment banking division. So far this year, there have been more than 1,400 small-business client referrals into the Merrill Lynch institutional retirement business from the commercial bank.

To handle the new business, Merrill Lynch introduced a retirement plan referral network in January, which now has more than 260 advisors and continues to grow.

The network, including advisors with expertise in working with business owners who have less than $10 million in retirement plan assets, is more based on experience than on certain certifications. But a more formal policy and process for becoming a part of this referral network will be revealed to advisors in a few weeks.

More than 8,000 of the 15,000 Merrill Lynch financial advisors work with small-business owners on their business' retirement plan needs, and could stand to benefit from the wealth of referrals flowing out of the bank. By improving its retirement plan services, Merrill Lynch can better tap in to this new prospective client base that is a result of Bank of America's acquisition of Merrill Lynch in 2008.

The new small-business retirement plan platform is hoped to help the Merrill Lynch advisors rival the likes of Fidelity Investments' and Vanguard's services. Now renamed Advisor Alliance, but originally launched in 2001 at MLConnect, it offers small and mid-sized business clients investment services and retirement plan administration services from 11 partnering plan providers.

"The merger with the bank intensified our focus on small-business clients, so it was timely and important for us to fairly dramatically enhance our retirement platform for small businesses," said Andy Sieg, head of Retirement & Philanthropic Services for Bank of America Merrill Lynch.

The new platform includes an enhanced Plan Sponsor Investment Review that offers the same review capabilities to all business owners regardless of their business' size. Prior to this launch, certain capabilities were only available to the middle and larger market clients. And the new platform's updated reporting capabilities also lets advisors customize reports and view replacement funds if a fund is underperforming.

Even if an advisor is not part of the retirement plan referral network, the services are still available to their small-business clients.

Lyle LaMothe, head of U.S. Wealth Management for Merrill Lynch, says that having advisors with expertise in this area as part of a referral network builds confidence among the bank's small-business clients for Merrill Lynch to handle their retirement plans, generating more referrals for the advisors.

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