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.