Merrill Lynch: The secret of Salt Lake City
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Merrill Lynch: The secret of Salt Lake City

Once branded the internet dullard, Merrill Lynch is on the offensive. More than a decade after the brokerage firm bought a bank in Utah, it’s launching a nationwide retail banking operation, based on the internet, and paying money-market rates on insured deposits. That, and its plans for a banking and investment-services joint-venture with HSBC, may take its head off the merger block. Antony Currie reports

John Bond (left) and Dave Komansky: aiming to go on-line to serve the "mass affluent"

Listening to Dave Komansky speak was a little distracting. Each time the CEO of Merrill Lynch pronounced the initials "HSBC" it was as if Benny, a character from the old US cartoon series Top Cat had jumped into his larynx. "Okay TC" was Benny's catchphrase - laced with the accent of the Bronx where Komansky grew up - whenever he agreed, as he usually did, with his feline boss. 

But Komansky is no stooge - quite the opposite - and no cartoon character, although the trials and tribulations of Merrill over the past two years might make for a great show. Back in mid-1998 Merrill Lynch was king of the hill in investment banking, but was increasingly under pressure in retail broking - its cash cow - to respond to the rise of leading discount broker Charles Schwab. Komansky and John "Launny" Steffens - until recently head of the private-client business - had both made disparaging remarks about the role of the internet that had come back to haunt them. Despite similar problems at Salomon Smith Barney and PaineWebber, it was Merrill that landed the tag of internet dullard. 

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