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Can Jeff Peek ride his elephant to Merrill’s top job?

Merrill Lynch Investment Managers has been turned around from a poorly organized, underperforming, insular group overly focused on value investing and distribution to US retail. Now its performance looks strong, and it has a better balance of customers and investment styles. Even its acquisition of the troubled Mercury Asset Management seems finally to be paying dividends. Much of the credit goes to Jeff Peek, who took over in December 1997, bringing a breath of fresh air and a slew of judicious hires. He’s done so well that he’s in the running to head Merrill Lynch one day.

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Jeff Peek appears confident and relaxed. It may have something to do with his recent holiday to Florence and Rome - one of his daughters is at school in Italy - but it's the day before Merrill Lynch's first quarter results, which usually leaves executives looking rather distracted. And it's been a rotten few months for every part of the financial services industry, even supposedly stable asset management, which Peek heads at Merrill Lynch.

But Peek is looking forward to the results. True the volatility in the markets may have led to a drop in assets under management, and a consequent drop in income in the last quarter, but nothing significantly worse than endured by any of its peers. Even the announcement in March that joint chief operating officers Carol Galley and Stephen Zimmerman - formerly the co-heads of Mercury Asset Management before Merrill bought it in 1997 - are to retire this year hardly caused a stir, whereas 18 months earlier that would have been regarded as a disaster.

Peek is about to announce the sixth consecutive quarter of net asset inflows, and the second quarter of net asset inflows in all regions.

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