HighTower Advisors has hired two Morgan Stanley Smith Barney veterans — an advisor, Barnaby Levin, and an executive, Michael LaMena.

The Chicago-based registered investment advisory firm has been on a hiring streak since it launched in December 2008, primarily targeting successful wirehouse reps with high-net-worth practices.

HighTower’s setup gives wirehouse advisors wanting to go independent an alternative to branching out on their own and selling their practices in 10 or 15 years, a West Coast recruiter said. It purchases wirehouse reps’ practices, paying for them in cash and granting them an ownership stake in the firm.

HighTower is relatively small in terms of advisors with 12 teams of RIAs, but they’re heavy hitters in terms of assets, weighing in at $16 billion. The West Coast recruiter said that teams must manage a minimum $250 million in assets to show up on HighTower’s radar.

Elliot Weissbluth, HighTower's chief executive officer, said that the teams have come from UBS [UBS], Merrill Lynch [BAC], Morgan Stanley [MS] and Smith Barney. Levin was a long-time Smith Barney rep before the firms combined. His three-advisor team brings $300 million to HighTower, and will serve both the San Francisco and Palo Alto, Calif., markets.

LaMena, formerly executive director of private wealth management operations in New York, joins HighTower as chief operating officer, and will split his time between HighTower’s corporate headquarters in Chicago and its offices in New York.

Weissbluth said that HighTower doesn’t target any one firm for new recruits. Its executives come from UBS, Merrill Lynch, Goldman Sachs and Charles Schwab. In its current incarnation, Morgan Stanley Smith Barney “has seen some very fine firms folded into it over the years,” making it a rich source of talent for HighTower, he said.

However, Weissbluth said that the RIA doesn’t head hunt. Rather, it waits for financial advisors to decide on their own that they want to leave their firm. HighTower’s hiring strategy is to make sure it’s on the shortlist of places to go, he said.

Advisors keep control of their own businesses, from which they earn a living, but the West Coast recruiter said that the big payola for advisors on HighTower’s roster would come when the firm is eventually sold. Weissbluth said that neither the firm nor its private-equity backers are in any hurry to do so, though. It just wouldn’t make sense to go to all the trouble of creating a small firm that allows advisors the freedom to run their businesses their way and then sell the firm to a wirehouse.

HighTower handpicked private investors who share the firm’s ethos, Weissbluth said. So far, the firm has raised $165 million, part of which it plans to use to acquire advisors’ businesses. In addition, advisors own 25% of the firm, which will eventually pay dividends and cash to its owners.

Weissbluth said that he sees HighTower as occupying a specific niche, and he doesn’t expect the wirehouses to see his business as a threat, even when he picks off their higher producers — the RIA will announce three more teams by June, he promised. However, wirehouses account for $4.5 trillion in assets against HighTower’s $16 billion.

“We’re a good place for certain types of advisor but as a market participant, we’re less than two years old and still learning to run,” he said.