EXCLUSIVE: HighTower Fires High-Profile “Top Broker” Team in California
A once-promising attempt to merge rival wirehouse teams under the umbrella of HighTower Advisors ended Thursday when the firm abruptly fired Brian Amidei and three associates.
The team, which left Merrill Lynch in April 2011 to offer brokerage and advisory services as independent advisors in Palm Desert, Calif, was abruptly fired Thursday. They allegedly altered client account codes to obtain credit for client revenue from another team working in the same office, according to people familiar with the accusations.
Amidei said in a phone conversation from his home in nearby Indian Wells that his team was given no explanation for their dismissals and denied that they had done anything without approval from Chicago-based HighTower.
“This whole thing came came to us out of left field,” said Amidei, noting that he has been trying to negotiate an amicable exit from HighTower since late 2015.
Matthew Henneman, an attorney representing HighTower, said the firm conducted a “thorough” investigation before dismissing the team.
“These actions were blatant violations of firm policy and resulted in his termination for cause,” Henneman, an attorney with Watt Thompson & Henneman, wrote in a statement.
No client accounts were affected, he said.
The same month that Amidei joined the firm with a book of about $375 million of client assets that he hoped to bring from Merrill, HighTower hired a second team in Palm Desert from Morgan Stanley. It was led by William “Rick” Blanke and Robert Schein, had a book of about $300 million of client assets and generated about $2 million of revenue in the previous year, HighTower said at the time.
They were initially in separate offices in the southern California desert, but HighTower—founded in 2008 to help big brokerage teams establish independent advisory practices—united them and encouraged them to merge their books.
“Our intention when we first came to the firm was to do that, but we never quite got it off the ground,” said Amidei, who as a HighTower “partner” has nominal equity in the firm.
Blanke declined comment.
“Everyone’s pretty shocked,” said a member of his team, adding that all Amidei clients are being told their accounts are safe and that “everything will continue as it is.”
Amidei, who used Charles Schwab as custodian for his clients’ advisory assets, was the subject of a 2014 on the benefits of breaking away from big brokerage firms that said his team managed $590 million of client assets.
He and advisors Joseph G. Romano, Brett D’Orlando and portfolio manager Lisa Kazadjian, all of whom joined from Merrill and were let go by HighTower, were also highlighted as one of Barron’s top teams in California in 2013.