November 9, 2014 / 1:07 PM / in 3 years

The master who teaches the Merrill herd to graze on wheatgrass and chia

A Merrill Lynch building is shown in downtown San Diego, California March 18, 2014. REUTERS/Mike Blake

NEW YORK (Reuters) - At a retreat for Merrill Lynch financial advisers in a luxury Orlando hotel last month, a group of several dozen men and women in business attire swung their arms back and forth over their heads to Kid Rock’s “All Summer Long” to get their circulation going.

The mild aerobics were part of a three-day event orchestrated by Chris Johnson, a wellness guru who has gained influence under John Thiel’s leadership of Bank of America’s Merrill Lynch wealth management business.

    At Thiel’s instruction, Johnson has for the last year been traveling the country teaching Merrill Lynch advisers how to lead healthier lives. He urges brokers - and, in some cases, their family members and clients - to include liver oil, wheatgrass, flax, chia and a type of algae called spirulina in their diets, and to take relaxing baths with Epsom salt to unwind.

    “They’re starting to go down the medication path. They have acid reflux. They don’t sleep. They feel crummy. They’re drinking too much. They gain too much weight,” Johnson said of the Merrill employees who most need his advice. With that lifestyle, he said, “they’re not going to be a good adviser. If I‘m coming to my adviser, I want them to be healthy.”

    Thiel did not respond to requests for comment. David Walker, a spokesman for Bank of America’s wealth management business, said that it was important for Merrill to focus on the health and wellness of its employees.

    “We care that our advisers are taking care of themselves so they have the energy and capacity to best serve their clients and be present for their families,” he said. “Any company that is not focused on wellness is behind. All of the most admired, most progressive companies with the most highly engaged employees are focused in this area.”

He declined to comment on Johnson’s description of health problems suffered by some members of Merrill’s workforce.

NAP TIME

    Known as the “thundering herd” because of their bull logo and their large numbers, Merrill’s army of 14,000 brokers are not the only money-management employees being urged to take better care of themselves. Firms across Wall Street have been encouraging employees to eat right, sleep well and exercise. While Merrill is Johnson’s biggest client, he has also done events with advisers at Morgan Stanley, Wells Fargo & Co and Raymond James Financial Inc.

    Still, some Merrill employees have told Reuters in recent weeks that Thiel is so enthusiastic about healthy living that it has caused some hard-charging, long-time advisers to bristle.

    These employees have been annoyed to receive advice about health and wellness from Thiel when they would prefer to discuss business concerns with him, several sources said.

One Bank of America executive said brokers have complained about tofu burgers served at a retreat for top producers. Another cited a message recently sent to some advisers encouraging them to take an afternoon nap to increase productivity.

Thiel has brought in another expert, Tony Schwartz, CEO and founder of The Energy Project, who has been advising Merrill employees to take a short afternoon nap to restore their energy.

Schwartz, who started working with Merrill after meeting Thiel at a conference 14 months ago, gives that advice as part of a broader curriculum aimed at pushing Merrill advisers to get the most out of their days. He said he has not convinced Merrill to implement a nap program, but that productivity increases dramatically for those who take his advice on resting, deep breathing and eating right, among other things.

“What makes Merrill Lynch special is that John is an unusually open and interested senior leader to champion this kind of work,” said Schwartz. “When there is a leader like that, the power of the work is much higher.”

BONGO DRUMS

Complaints by Merrill employees who are irritated by Thiel’s wellness campaign come at a time when a number of high-profile brokers have left, causing some concern among top Bank of America Corp executives. Reuters found no evidence of a direct link between the focus on health and wellness and the departures.

    The health advice has gone over well with some advisers who are happy their boss is encouraging them to take better care of themselves.

    One high-producing broker who spoke on the condition of anonymity said “telling employees to stay fit mentally and physically – that’s responsible leadership” and called Thiel the best manager he has ever had in over three decades with the firm.

    In a testimonial on Johnson’s website, Scott Schropp, a vice president in Merrill’s wealth management business, wrote that his clients like being included in wellness events. “They come in with preconceived notions of what this program may be like and leave the program with excitement, determination and a fresh take on ‘healthy living’,” he wrote.

    Thiel, a former American football player at college, met Johnson at an event in Arizona some time ago. Soon after, he went to Johnson’s home in rural Michigan for a one-on-one training session. At such events, Johnson teaches corporate executives how to sleep better, shop for “super foods” and cook things like healthy chili. (Johnson declined to comment on Thiel’s culinary talent.)

    People who know Thiel say he has wholeheartedly embraced the New Age lifestyle that Johnson, Schwartz and another guru called davidji advocate. Davidji (pronounced david-gee and spelled with a lowercase “d”) describes himself as a former banker on his web site, and specializes in wellness of the mind. Davidji said he was not immediately available for an interview.

People familiar with his Merrill training sessions say they feature bongo drum playing and meditation. A video on his web site - www.davidji.com/ - shows davidji sitting on the beach with his pet dog, named peaches, whom he says he meditates with every day.

    “The next time you sit down to meditate, if your pet - your cat, your dog, your lizard, your parrot - feels like meditating with you, create a space,” he says. “Close your eyes. Drift into stillness and silence, and you’ll notice that your pet gravitates toward you.”

Johnson said Thiel’s embrace of health and wellness helps balance out his more rugged work on Wall Street.

    “He’s got a big job and wanted to have energy and stamina,” Johnson said “The corporate world beats you up.”

Reporting by Peter Rudegeair and Lauren Tara LaCapra; Editing by Paritosh Bansal and Martin Howell

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