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Tuesday, December 06, 2005

America's Most Powerful Black Executive

Stanley O'Neal RANK: 1 Age: 50
One of the first black students to integrate Atlanta's West Fulton High School, O'Neal has risen to what's arguably the most powerful position at the quintessential Wall Street firmAs president of Merrill’s U.S. Private Client Group, O’Neal oversees sixteen thousand brokers — or financial advisors, as he calls them — in eight hundred branch offices. Also an EVP and a member of the Merrill Lynch Executive Management Committee, O’Neal is one of the firm’s top officers and is frequently mentioned as being on the shortlist to be the next chairman of the 150-year-old firm.

“My father told me I wasn’t cut out for farm work,” says O’Neal, whose easy smile and relaxed demeanor almost belie his stature in the pinstriped, power-brokering world of Wall Street. “I never took it as an insult.” Seated in a conference room with an expansive view of the Hudson River, O’Neal recalls that work was hard to come by in Wedowee, population 750, and the options, particularly if you were poor and black, were limited. O’Neal’s mother worked as a “domestic,” cleaning houses, and when he wasn’t harvesting crops with his three younger siblings, he sold and delivered newspapers.

As it turned out, his father wasn’t cut out for farming either, and when O’Neal was 12, his family moved to a housing project in Atlanta, where his father eventually landed a job at a General Motors factory in Doraville. Stan O’Neal attended the General Motors Institute (which later became Kettering University), a co-op program where he alternated between studying engineering and industrial administration and working in the Doraville plant. O’Neal, the first in his family to finish college, says of his undergraduate days, “I really didn’t have an understanding of the world or any role models, but I had a strong desire to learn, and I think that is what pulled me through.” After graduating in the top 20 percent of his class, O’Neal returned to Doraville, working as a supervisor at the GM facility. When he was accepted at HBS, GM gave him a no-strings-attached scholarship.
“I was naive, but I was also undaunted,” says O’Neal of his arrival at Soldiers Field — his first trip to Boston. “I had never had a set of peers like that. They were an extremely sophisticated group who knew about the world, and they really motivated me.” One of only a few African Americans in his class, O’Neal says simply: “Not a lot of people looked like me.”
That was also the case in the treasurer’s office at GM in New York, which he joined after graduating with honors from HBS. After eight years with GM — including a stint as treasurer of GM España in Madrid — O’Neal had cultivated an “appetite for the deals business.” So when Merrill Lynch came knocking, he gladly opened the door, accepting a position as VP of the firm’s high-yield business. “I knew it was a great fit for me,” he says.
During the fifteen years he has worked at Merrill, O’Neal has proved himself again and again, moving from various positions in different divisions of the firm — financial services, global capital markets, investor strategies, corporate and institutional clients, and corporate services. In 1998, Merrill chairman and CEO David H. Komansky (107th AMP) asked him if he’d consider being CFO. “This was an opportunity to see the whole firm comprehensively,” observes O’Neal, who accepted the offer despite never having looked at Merrill’s balance sheet and knowing that insiders considered the CFO position a thankless assignment. “I’m a sucker for learning opportunities,” he adds, “and this was one I couldn’t pass up.”

Merrill Lynch Website

Merrill Lynch Career Site


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