A breakaway Merrill Lynch team managing almost $200 million in client assets has joined HighTower Advisers as the RIA's first equity partner of the year.

Jim Ewing and Michael Cona brought Ewing/Cona Wealth Management to the hybrid RIA and broker-dealer in the Philadelphia area, HighTower announced this week. The Marlton, New Jersey, group has been together for a decade.

Ewing and Cona, both 43, picked the firm because of its fiduciary standards, as well as the chance to work at an “adviser-owned” and “employee-owned” firm rather than a “bank-owned” one, Ewing says. The office, which opened Friday, is HighTower’s first in South Jersey.

Ewing/Cona Wealth Management of HighTower Advisors
Jim Ewing (left) and Michael Cona (right) of Ewing/Cona Wealth Management joined HighTower in Marlton, New Jersey.

“We’re very much excited about the opportunity to market the fiduciary message,” says Ewing. “We’ve been thrilled with the responses of our clients.”

A spokeswoman for Merrill Lynch didn’t respond to a request for comment on the team’s exit.

The wirehouse announced in the fall that it would phase out commissions to comply with the Department of Labor’s fiduciary rule. The Trump administration’s efforts to delay and possibly revoke the rule prompted Merrill to tweak its plans last week.

BUSINESS LINES AND BATTLE LINES
HighTower Advisors, an RIA, added five breakaway wirehouse teams last year and 64 since 2008, according to the firm. The Chicago parent company, which has three separate channels, also acquires RIAs in M&A deals, offers outsourcing services and operates an IBD.

HighTower equity partner channel

Ewing and Cona started their team at Merrill in nearby Mt. Laurel in 2007, Ewing says. He went to the wirehouse after seven years at A.G. Edwards & Sons, while Cona spent five years at Susquehanna Capital Group prior to his time at Merrill, according to FINRA BrokerCheck.

The partners’ BrokerCheck entries list their firm as HighTower’s IBD, HighTower Securities, while their filings with the SEC state HighTower Advisors as their current employer. A spokeswoman for the company said they joined the RIA as partners and managing directors.

Ewing and Cona also took senior financial advisers Brian Buchanan and Bill Cowan and practice director Candi Weinrick over to HighTower with them. Their new parent firm now boasts more than 200 advisers in 59 offices out of 27 states, according to HighTower.

“Financial adviser teams like Ewing/Cona Wealth Management come to HighTower to accelerate the growth of their business among a community of like-minded peers in a fiduciary environment,” HighTower CEO Elliot Weissbluth said in a statement.

While the company doesn’t disclose the exact terms of its partnerships, Weissbluth has said the firm pays each team a certain amount of cash and equity. HighTower’s RIA platform, another line of business for the parent firm, has also been active recently.

Three wirehouse teams have gone indie with HighTower so far this year as the company competes for outsourcing business with Dynasty Financial Partners. HighTower’s platform has added 20 firms, compared to 41 on Dynasty’s.

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