Want to keep your spouse from taking off to Antigua with your mechanic? Need to make sure Junior doesn't ditch his SAT prep classes to follow

Britney Spears on her next tour? Ask

Citigroup

(C) - Get Report

co-chairman Sandy Weill for advice; he knows how to keep the important people at home.

For Weill, the challenge is to keep valued Citi employees -- particularly 10,000

Salomon Smith Barney

brokers -- in place to help hit the megabank's growth and earnings targets. So, Citi has recently rolled out a sweet new employee stock plan. The 2000 Stock Purchase Plan lets employees buy up to $75,000 worth of Citi shares at the July 31 closing price, but allows them to pay for it over 24 months. If on Sept. 16, 2002, the stock price is lower than the July 31, 2000 price, they can return the stock and get their money back, plus interest.

If that seems a touch, well, generous, consider the $875 million kiss

UBS

(UBS) - Get Report

gave key

PaineWebber

(PWJ)

employees when it agreed two weeks ago to acquire the U.S. brokerage firm. Wall Street firms, known for spending freely to hire the best talent available, now seem equally intent on paying to

keep

the talent they already have.

The Citigroup plan sounds like a "creative approach when there is such intense competition for professionals," says George McGough, an industry veteran who spent years as a high-ranking brokerage executive before becoming a recruiter for

Hadley Lockwood

. "It's cheaper than trying to replace the talent you may lose to competitors."

That's for sure. The cost of recruiting new brokers has skyrocketed. A producer who generates $750,000 in annual commissions for, say,

Merrill Lynch

(MER)

may get that much in an upfront bonus simply to switch to another firm. A key industry analyst is likely to get a multimillion dollar bonus guaranteed for three years.

As for the Salomon Smith Barney employees who may be coveted by Merrill Lynch, PaineWebber or

Morgan Stanley Dean Witter

(MWD)

, they seem to like the plan. One branch manager calls it the "ultimate no-brainer" and reports that the firm had set up additional "hotlines" for employees to register for the plan.

"They're making it very easy. It's a continuation of Sandy's desire to have everyone be an owner," the loyal manager says. Investors need not worry about dilution: Citigroup will be repurchasing shares to fulfill demand for the shares in the new plan.

Solly executives were not available to comment Wednesday.

"Sandy's always been at the forefront of being creative and aggressive in building these type of employee ownership plans," McGough says.

Weill has initiated aggressive employee stock ownership plans at

Primerica

, which bought Smith Barney and

Shearson

before they were acquired by

Travelers

. The insurer subsequently acquired Salomon Brothers before merging with Citibank in 1998.

All those mergers caused plenty of organizational upheaval, and Weill's theory was that employees were less likely to leave the firm if there was a pile of company stock waiting for them down the road.

Outsiders see the new Citi plan as a positive sign. "It shows that management has confidence in the stock and it aligns the interests of employees and shareholders," says Sarah Stewart, a partner at

Boardroom Consultants

, a firm specializing in corporate governance issues. "It's important to retain and reward employees."

Unlike options grants that go mostly to top-ranking company executives and are frequently criticized by corporate-governance experts for rewarding poor performance, Stewart praises Citi's broadly available program, which she says "is almost like a savings plan."

At the end of the day, however, Citi has to compete to keep employees from straying. The sheer amount of money UBS will pay to keep PaineWebber brokers from taking their clients and assets to competitors shows that retention has become an issue for top management up and down Wall Street.

"Retention is really the issue. In the securities business today, you have to manage transaction costs and manage employee turnover," recruiter McGough says. "Loyalty is tied into compensation that is multifaceted, with options, stock ownership and salary. We've gone way beyond salary-plus-bonus."