the time he started high school, the family had moved to a federal housing project in Atlanta. A top student, he had little time for extracurricular activities thanks to chores and a series of after-school jobs he began at the age of 13. However, O’Neal-whose first career ambition was to be a writer-developed a voracious appetite for books, reading anything he could get his hands on. To this day, he consumes biographies of U.S. presidents, civil rights leaders, and other successful notables.
Told by a high school English teacher that he had “a wonderfully organized mind,” O’Neal put it to more practical use after graduation when he entered the General Motors Institute (GMI), an accredited, cooperative college owned by the car manufacturer (which has since been renamed Kettering University). He worked and studied in six-week intervals. His sponsoring unit was an assembly plant near his family’s home in Georgia. “It was a great learning experience, but working in the body shop-manipulating large welding machines with all of the dust, smoke, noise, and sparks-was not my idea of a great time,” he recollects with a smile.
Because of his “subpar” elementary school education, he had always had to play catch-up. But applying his “mettle to the pedal,” he made the dean’s list his last five semesters at GMI and graduated in the top 20% of his class. After a two-year stint as a supervisor on the assembly line at the plant, he attended Harvard Business School and earned his M.B.A. in finance in 1978.
He was hired as an analyst for the General Motors
treasurer’s office in New York straight out of B-school. Within two years, he became a director with responsibilities in such areas as cash management, profit analysis, budgeting, and international funding. In 1982, he was transferred to Madrid, Spain, as treasurer of GM’s Spanish division, and was named an assistant treasurer after returning to New York in 1984. After eight years with GM, O’Neal felt stifled and resigned.
He decided to transfer his skills to a tougher and more lucrative arena: Wall Street. Says O’Neal, “I’ve always tried to look for opportunities to expand my own personal capital-my skills set, what I understand about the world, the breadth of my vision-and just assumed that possibilities would be presented to me.”
Man on the Street
O’Neal’s pinstriped prayers were answered when Merrill hired him, in 1986, at the age of 35. From the moment he joined the firm’s investment banking group as a vice president, he was pegged as an up-and-comer.
But his star really began to rise after he took over the high-yield finance group in 1991. Under his leadership, Merrill reigned supreme in the $9 billion high-yield finance market. The firm served as lead manager on more deals-about $3.9 billion worth-than any other major investment bank, including such powerhouses as Goldman Sachs & Co. and Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette Inc.
By 1996, he had vaulted to the top of the Capital Markets Group, working with clients worldwide on new debt and equity issues. The next