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How Stan O’Neal went from the production line to the front line of investment banking

Stan O’Neal’s legacy to Merrill Lynch
Published: 29/10/2007
The Merrill CEO had to go, but the firm he leaves is much stronger than the one he inherited.                        More on Stan O'Neal

Stan O’Neal’s story is unique in investment banking. Born in Roanake, Alabama (because his home town’s hospital refused to serve African Americans), raised in Wedowee (population 750), he was educated in a schoolhouse built by his grandfather, who was born a slave. O’Neal’s father moved his family from the cotton fields to Atlanta, where he worked on a General Motors assembly line. Stan O’Neal worked there as a teenager but GM spotted his strong intellect and sent him on a scholarship to the GM Institute, where he gained a degree in industrial administration. He then took an MBA in finance at Harvard, graduating in 1978.

For the first eight years of his career he worked at General Motors, first as an analyst. Within three years he was a director in the treasury division. He joined Merrill Lynch in 1986, and again his ascent was remarkably swift. By the early 1990s, he was running Merrill’s then-dominant leveraged finance division. After spells as global head of capital markets and co-head of the corporate and institutional client group, he spent two years as CFO from 1998 to 2000 – he admits to taking up the role despite reservations and in spite of never having looked at Merrill’s balance sheet – during which time he played a prominent role in solving the firm’s exposure to Long Term Capital Management. He then briefly became president of Merrill’s US private client group, making him the first non-broker in the firm’s history to run the brokerage business, before becoming president of the firm in 2001. By 2003, he was CEO and chairman.   

Stan O'Neal timeline

  Exclusive Stan O’Neal interview: O’Neal accentuates the positives
Euromoney August 2007
Q: "How bad could the sub-prime correction become in isolation, and what are the risks that it will spread to other markets?"

Stan O'Neal:"[As of late June 2007] it is reasonably well contained, and there are no clear signs that it is spilling over to other subsets of the credit markets"

How Stan O’Neal transformed Merrill Lynch 
Euromoney July 2006
  The O’Neal era Merrill ethic
  “It’s powerful if you have an organization on the same page”

  • Stan O'Neal did the right things for Merrill at a time when the company needed him most- it's difficult to know when to exit the game when things are going so smooth.

    For CEOs, today's good performance reinforces tomorrow's hopes for even better results. However, it is not always the case.

    22 Apr 2008 18:45



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