NNPA – E. Stanley O’Neal, the African-American chairman and CEO of the world’s largest brokerage firm, Merrill Lynch, was forced to resign last week after his company, which had invested heavily in the collapsed sub prime real estate market, recorded more than eight billion dollars in losses, the biggest in Wall Street history.
He gave an exclusive interview to the Baltimore-based Afro-American Newspapers shortly before his resignation.
O’Neal, 56, was one of five African- Americans to head a Fortune 500 company and the first to become a chief executive of a Wall Street investment bank. He joined Merrill Lynch in 1984 after several years at GM and rose quickly through Merrill’s ranks.
Since speculation began in October that O’Neal would be forced out, he has refused to talk to the media. But a few weeks ago, before it was clear just how much money Merrill had lost, O’Neal gave a rare interview in which he spoke frankly about what it meant to be a Black man in the overwhelmingly White world of big business and high finance.
“I can honestly say that since I’ve been at Merrill I don’t think I’ve ever been impeded. I’ve had extraordinary opportunities to do a lot of different things,” said O’Neal, who grew up in the segregated South in the 1950s on the small farm of his grandfather—a former slave—picking cotton and living in a shack without running water or inside toilets.
“I have had some clients where I think prejudices were obvious. In most instances you are able to overcome them. In a few they become impediments and you have to decide what you’re going to do.”
O’Neal has had very few impediments in the business world. He is a graduate of Harvard Business School, a member of several exclusive country clubs and earned as much as $48 million a year as head of Merrill. He is good friends with President George W. Bush. He has a framed birthday letter from the president on the walls of his Wall Street offices.
O’Neal said he believes that it’s a question of merit, not color that determines success, but he recognizes that race can be a factor in his field.
“You can reduce most anything to dollars and cents and that’s what we do,” O’Neal explains. “Do people of color face additional challenges in this industry? I think the answer has to be yes.”
Though a conservative, O’Neal made sure to extend opportunities to African-Americans by offering Merrill Lynch internships not just to students from Ivy League universities like Princeton and Columbia but also to students from historically Black colleges and universities, like Howard and Morgan universities.
O’Neal, a National Urban League board member, also hosted an annual dinner for students of color while chief of Merrill Lynch.
At the turn of the century, O’Neal made Merrill the most profitable bank in the country, by laying off 24,000 people, by firing 19 top executives and by getting rid of perks like gourmet meals and chauffeured cars.
He has few friends on Wall Street, because, some say, he’s cagey and aloof. As he sat in a leather chair in a 32nd floor conference room overlooking the Hudson River and the Statue of Liberty, he appeared relaxed, confident and self assured.
The turnaround in O’Neal’s fate came quickly. In August, there was no hint that he might be in trouble. For that quarter, Merrill Lynch’s earnings had been very high. In fact, just two months ago, O’Neal boasted in a company-wide e-mail that though the markets were behaving unpredictably, he was sure his strategy for Merrill would prove to be the correct one.
“We go about managing risk and market activity every day at this company,” he said in the email. “It’s what our clients pay us to do, and, as you all know, we’re pretty good at it.”
When asked what he would be remembered for, O’Neal paused, and then said: “Well look, I’ve done everything that I think is right. I made some mistakes for sure. I had to make some difficult decisions. I think that all comes with responsibility and leadership. Others will have to judge what they think of all that. I’m reasonably comfortable that I have done my best.”
Either way, O’Neal leaves Merrill Lynch much better off than when he arrived. He’s expected to receive more than 150 million dollars in retirement and other benefits.