Donald “Don” Plaus, a veteran Merrill executive who led the Wall Street firm’s efforts to serve ultrahigh net worth clients and oversaw its private wealth expansion in Florida during the COVID-19 pandemic, is retiring.
Plaus will “continue in his role through March 31 and help to finalize plans for his transition,” a company spokesperson confirmed in an email.
Plaus went from delivering newspapers and working in restaurants as a young man to running a top-tier wealth shop catering to some of the world’s richest families. He spent more than 32 years at Merrill, Andy Sieg, the president of Merrill Wealth Management, said in a statement.
Merrill didn’t announce who would replace Plaus in the high-profile role but said more details would come soon. Contenders may include two long-time employees: Josh Moody, who leads the private wealth unit in Florida, and Gregory McGauley, the private wealth regional manager for the Northeast, according to unnamed sources cited by AdvisorHub. Asked to comment on those names, a Merrill spokesperson said: “regarding the successors, nothing to share.”
Plaus is the head of the Private Wealth Management (PWM), International and Institutional groups at Merrill Wealth Management. PWM serves clients who have a minimum of $10 million in assets and provides support to individuals, families and their businesses. It employs 200 private wealth advisor teams, in addition to “specialists in areas such as investment management, concentrated stock management and intergenerational wealth transfer strategies,” the spokesperson said.
Since Plaus took over the private wealth business in 2017, its total number of clients has grown over 30% and client balances have swelled 46%, the company said.
Between 2021 to 2023, which includes the pandemic years that saw an exodus of the ultra-rich and companies from high-tax states like New York to tax-free Florida, Merrill “doubled the number of private wealth advisors serving ultrahigh net worth clients in Florida from 20 to more than 40,” the spokesperson said.
“Don has made lasting contributions to the Merrill business and culture,” Sieg said in the statement. “Don has been a mentor and role model to many.”
In a 2021 online interview with Sanvi Belani, a high school student at Florida private school Lake Highland Preparatory School who runs a college and careers prep website called Choices EDU, Plaus shared thoughts on his career in wealth management and reflected on his decades with the herd at Merrill Lynch, which has since gained Bank of America as its parent company.
“I came from a pretty modest background,” Plaus said, adding that not having wealth made him interested in finance and money.
“I’ve worked since I’ve probably been around 12 years old, doing almost everything from a paper route to cutting grass to working in restaurants. I’ve always wanted to contribute at home.”
He attended college at SUNY Albany and majored in economics and business administration. Plaus got his first taste of life on Wall Street when college friends had siblings who worked there, he said.
“We went and visited one day, I think it was one of the big financial firms. And I was hooked,” Plaus said. “There was a lot of energy.”
In 1985, Plaus began his financial career straight out of school at the now-defunct Brooks Weinger Robbins & Leeds, according to his BrokerCheck profile. He then bounced among different brokerage firms including Greentree Securities Corp., J.F. Lowe & Company, the former Smith Barney Harris Upham, Merrill Lynch and Morgan Stanley, before returning to Merrill Lynch in 2006.
Plaus spent the rest of his career at Merrill, working his way up. He started as a financial advisor and was eventually promoted to Sales Manager, District Sales Manager, Regional Managing Director, and Division Executive for the Northeast and Southeast. In 2017, he was tapped to replace Sieg’s brother Phil Sieg as the head of the Private Banking & Investment Group unit. That unit was later rebranded as the PWM group, the company spokesperson said.
Plaus said he had moved many times in his career as he was asked to relocate for his new leadership roles. When he was first promoted into leadership, he had to obtain an internal management accreditation and then pass a weeklong pass-fail assessment, he said. Once he passed, he had to move his family from New York City down to Greensboro, North Carolina within a couple of months.
Since then, he’s moved to Charlotte, North Carolina; Birmingham, Alabama; and, more recently, Miami. Although Plaus reportedly wasn’t thrilled at first about the idea of moving to Florida in 2015, he came around to it after enjoying its high quality of life, food and outdoor activities. The move positioned him to help cater to the firm’s ultrarich clients with both virtual webinars and in-person events.
“I always tell people that in leadership, you have to be flexible and in many instances, be willing to move around,” Plaus said in the 2021 online interview.
Asked what he liked and disliked most about his job, he was mum on the question of what he didn’t like. But what he found most stimulating, Plaus said, was building strong teams and working with the highly successful and deep-pocketed clients — who he couldn’t name for privacy reasons, although several are likely household names.
“Forbes runs a list of the top 100 wealthiest people in the world. 25 of those are our clients within Private Wealth,” he said. “It’s an honor to serve them.”
Plaus said he had a client advisory board made up of 35 private wealth clients, who advised the firm on its activities.
“I’m always amazed that they run successful businesses and live successful lives, and yet have the time to, on a volunteer basis, really help us with our business,” he said.