Lightning strikes Stan O’Neal
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Lightning strikes Stan O’Neal

Catching lightning in a bottle

Catching Lightning in a Bottle is the first complete history of Merrill Lynch

Blimey. That was our first reaction when a review copy of a new 600-page book by former Merrill Lyncher Winthrop Smith Jr landed on our desks in mid-September. The book’s tagline is ‘How Merrill Lynch revolutionized the financial world’.

Merrill Lynch was founded 100 years ago. One of its founders was Winthrop Smith, the author’s father, who was CEO in the 1950s and 1960s.


That was our reaction as we started to read the book. Not from the start – much as, no doubt Smith Jr would like us to, so we could learn how the beneficent culture of Mother Merrill did indeed change the financial landscape as we know it.

No, of course we went straight to the back of the book and the final chapters about the fall of the house that Charlie Merrill built. The chapter headings tell the story as the author sees it: ‘It should have been a solid legacy (1997 to 2001)’; ‘The day my father wept (2001)’; and ‘The death of Mother Merrill (2002-2007)’.

Ouch because, although former CEO Stan O’Neal has already received a good deal of blame (and rightly so) for the fall of Merrill, these final chapters are about as sustained an attack on someone’s character as we can ever remember reading.

Smith recalls a meeting with O’Neal in 2001 when he asked the newly installed president O’Neal what he thought of the principles and values of Mother Merrill culture: “When I asked O’Neal about them, his face distorted with anger and I could see the arteries throbbing in his neck.”

Some readers will not need reminding that, under the EU’s new ‘right to be forgotten’ principles, someone – O’Neal denies it was him – asked for a disparaging story written during the financial crisis by the BBC to be removed from search engines.

We don’t have room on these pages to detail all of Smith’s allegations – many of them seemingly driven by a saccharine view of a long-forgotten world of banking – but you can go online to to see more snippets from the book, called ‘Catching lightning in a bottle’.

How long you’ll be able to find that piece through search engines is another matter entirely.

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