Running With the Bulls

Merrill Lynch's E. Stanley O'Neal has taken a path less traveled to become one of the highest paid and most powerful blacks in corporate America

“I shall be telling this with a sigh/Somewhere ages hence and hence/Two roads diverged in a wood, and I/I took the one less traveled by,/And that has made all the difference.”
–Robert Frost, “The Road Not Taken”

It was a homecoming of bittersweet emotions. Last January, E. Stanley O’Neal drove close to 18 hours from New York City to his rural hometown of Wedowee, Alabama, to attend the “going away” of his maternal grandmother, Annie Scales, who passed away at the ripe old age of 95. “She was an extraordinary woman,” recalls O’Neal. “Strong, smart, aggressive-right to the very end. She exemplified some of the best traits of my family.”

Returning to his birthplace also provided O’Neal with an opportunity to quietly reflect on the path his life has taken over the last half-century-from the dusty roads of the small Southern hamlet to the asphalt jungle of the Big Apple. The childhood memories came flooding back. He recalled the days he spent fishing, using a sugarcane pole with a string attached to one end, hooked and baited with worms he dug up at a riverbank. He remembered the sweltering afternoons picking cotton, at a time when the going rate for 100 pounds was just $3.

O’Neal has come a long way from sleepy Wedowee. These days, he operates in the rough-and-tumble world of Wall Street. He has risen to the top, in an environment that routinely chews up and spits out many who are considered to be the best and the brightest.

Now, as president of Merrill Lynch & Co.’s U.S. Private Client Group (USPC), O’Neal, 49, sits at the helm of the nation’s largest brokerage operation. His appointment came shortly after be selected him as one of “The Top 50 African Americans in Corporate America” in our February 2000 issue.

In his role, he oversees approximately 14,200 financial consultants and more than 700 branch offices. He makes sure that the USPC-which shares the management of $1.8 trillion in assets with the International Private Client Group-accommodates nearly 6 million individuals, small businesses, and employee benefit plans through asset, liability, and transition management services.

Not only is O’Neal one of the highest ranking and highest paid African Americans on Wall Street-in 1999, his salary, bonus, and restricted stock award earned him $7.5 million, not including stock options worth $11.5 million at that time-he is also one of the most highly regarded players in the financial services industry, black or white.

“Business is simply about making money. If you can do that, no matter what color you are, you will attract attention,” says 25-year Wall Street veteran William Hayden, senior managing director and co-head of public finance at Bear Stearns. “Stan is very smart and very capable-what he’s done to get where he is takes a lot.”

Strong. Smart. Aggressive. The attributes he inherited from his grandmother have enabled him to make this incredible journey, positioning him to possibly succeed 60-year-old David H. Komansky as the next chairman and chief executive officer of the 150-year-old monolith. If chosen, his rise

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