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Merrill Lynch's Billion Dollar Bet

Merrill Lynch's Billion Dollar Bet

Even though many companies have put the kibosh on big technology investments these past few years some have sucked in their corporate stomachs and taken the plunge in the quest for competitive advantage.

Merrill Lynch is rolling out a new $US1 billion platform built by an all-star team of vendors and one general contractor with an unusual role. If successful, how Merrill managed it all may point the way to the future of IT outsourcing.

Reader ROI

  • Why Merrill Lynch decided to outsource its new workstation platform
  • How Merrill, its general contractor and the subcontractors shared project responsibilities
  • Why the integration is Web services based

Even though many companies have put the kibosh on big technology investments these past few years, some, like financial services giant Merrill Lynch, have sucked in their corporate stomachs and taken the plunge in the quest for competitive advantage. For the past nine months or so, more than 400 people from Merrill's Global Private Client (GPC) and Global Technology and Services groups, Thomson Financial, and a number of other vendors have been working feverishly on Merrill's biggest outsourcing initiative ever, a highly complex $US1 billion makeover of its wealth management workstation platform designed to improve the efficiency of Merrill's financial advisers (FAs). In the lingua franca of financial services, that means Merrill's FAs are getting new, more powerful desktops geared towards capturing more of the assets of their high-net-worth customers.

The new platform also represents a major shift in the way Merrill approaches IT initiatives. In the 1990s, Merrill developed its previous platform, Trusted Global Advisor (TGA), as it did any other major system: in-house. The thought of outsourcing a critical business system to a vendor would have been deemed madness by any financial services organisation and perhaps a confession that its IT department was not up to snuff. But last year, Merrill inked a contract that outsources much of the responsibility for its new platform to Thomson Financial, a large market data vendor with no previous experience managing an integration project of this size.

In this hybrid outsourcing model, Thomson, which serves as general contractor, is responsible for the desktop and is managing a number of subcontractors - a veritable who's who of vendor all-stars including AT&T, Cap Gemini Ernst & Young, Dell, HP, IBM and Microsoft. Merrill retains control of the integration layer, which connects its proprietary databases, and manages Siebel, the platform's CRM component.

Merrill and Thomson are working in a tight partnership, the bedrock of which is a voluminous contract containing lots of service-level agreements spelling out bonuses and penalties. And Merrill has not only outsourced much of the project, it has also shed itself of the responsibility of dealing with the subcontractors. "Thomson is on the hook for some SLAs, so it's in their interests that the subcontractors are successful," says Byron Vielehr, co-head and CTO for the GPC.

Although the use of a general contractor and subcontractors is not uncommon in large outsourcing deals, what gives this one a different twist is Thomson's role. "I'd say it's unusual in a deal of that size for the supplier of a proprietary system to be general contractor for the rollout," says Michael Murphy, a partner in the technology group at the legal firm Shaw Pittman who specialises in IT outsourcing deals. (Shaw Pittman worked on the Merrill-Thomson deal and could not comment on the contract's specifics.) "More common would be using more of a generalist outsourcer, such as IBM, EDS or CSC, that focuses on managing implementation projects from an infrastructure perspective," Murphy says.

So far, according to Merrill, the rollout, which begins this month, is right on schedule. If it's successful, Thomson won't be shy about hawking its general contracting services to the rest of Wall Street, and Merrill will likely continue marching down the outsourcing path, complementing its in-house expertise with best-of-breed providers. "There's no stigma attached to being really good integrators of commercially available products and building where you need to," says John Cummings, senior vice president and chief information and services officer of Merrill Lynch. "We'll look back and probably say this project was one of the turning points for that."

Dennis Ceru, director of retail brokerage and investing at research and advisory company TowerGroup, notes that "just the fact Merrill is outsourcing such a critical system at all is being watched closely by the financial services industry. It's huge," he says. "It's a major Wall Street firm with the largest number of registered brokers making a decision to partner with external providers to create its lifeblood system."

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