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October 17, 2007
By Maria Trombly

A few years ago, it would have been hard to imagine Wall Street firms turning over key customer data to an Internet start-up. But in May 2005, announced a major customer win: 5,000 Merrill Lynch & Co. financial advisers would use the Web-based service to track their customers.

After a one-year pilot project, Merrill Lynch moved another 20,000 advisers onto the platform. Currently, San Francisco-based has 100,000 individual users at over 1,600 financial services companies including ABN Amro, Mizuho, E-Trade Financial Corp., Citigroup, Morgan Stanley and TD Ameritrade.

Due in part to its relatively low pricing scheme--no start-up expenses, and a flat per-user fee that starts at $65 per month--smaller firms have also been signing on.

That Merrill is a customer has made it easier for some to adopt the platform. "It was a nice validation because we knew they would do a lot of on-site due diligence," said Gary Roth, COO and CFO of United Capital Financial Advisers in Newport Beach, Calif. "I'm very comfortable with their infrastructure. I'm very comfortable that they're doing everything they can to have the most advanced technological infrastructure."

Roth said he had no qualms about putting his customer data online. "Everything is out there already," he said. "Our custodian systems, we have to access online. Our broker-dealer system is online."

United Capital has 14 offices in the U.S., with about 100 employees, 60 of whom use The firm has been acquiring wealth management practices, and had a variety of customer relationship management (CRM) systems in place--including FrontRange Solutions' Goldmine, Sage Software's ACT and SalesLogix--before switching to

For United Capital's needs, there were no alternatives, Roth said. "For a company our size, an enterprise CRM system that would be deployed internally wouldn't make sense," he said. "And there was no one who really competed with Salesforce directly."

After testing and integration early this year, United Capital switched its advisers to over two months, said Roth. The platform works well with the firm's back-office systems, he said, which include Charles Schwab Corp.'s PortfolioCenter and an accounting system from Microsoft Corp. already had a connection in place to Microsoft Dynamics, Roth added.

Roth called a key operating tool for his firm. "We manage the client appointment schedule, all the activities and outcomes of client meetings," he said. "That helps us at a corporate level to look at our organization top-down and lets us see how we're doing at field offices around the country. It lets our advisers have 360 degree views of their clients." was founded in 1999 by a former Oracle Corp. executive, Mark Benioff, who still runs the company (Oracle CEO Larry Ellison was an early investor). At the time, CRM software ran on a company's computers. Small firms installed products like ACT or Microsoft Dynamics CRM on user desktops, while larger companies bought enterprise-class systems from SAP, PeopleSoft, JD Edwards--which was acquired in 2003 by PeopleSoft, which in turn was purchased by Oracle in 2005--or Seibel (also taken over by Oracle in 2005) that ran on mainframe databases.