NEW YORK – Whenever Goldman Sachs Group Inc. would report quarterly profits in recent years, the pain would be felt nearby, at the downtown headquarters of MerrillLynch & Co.
There, Merrill Chief Executive Stan O’Neal would grill his executives about why, for instance, Goldman was showing faster growth in bond-trading profits. Subordinates would scurry to analyze the Goldman earnings to get answers to Mr. O’Neal. ”It got to the point where you didn’t want to be in the office” on Goldman earnings days, one former Merrill executive recalls.
Soon it will be Mr. O’Neal’s turn to avoid the office. The 56-year-old CEO was negotiating the terms of his forced departure Sunday afternoon in the wake of a multibillion-dollar write-off he announced last week, according to a person briefed on the negotiations. Merrill’s board is expected to consider external candidates and current Merrill executives in its search for a successor. Mr. O’Neal’s resignation is expected to be announced as early as Monday.
Calls to Mr. O’Neal’s office and home weren’t returned. A Merrill spokeswoman said he wasn’t available to comment.
With Mr. O’Neal’s ouster, the global credit crunch – triggered by a steep downturn in the value of subprime mortgages to the least-credit-worthy borrowers – reaches deep into the executive suite. Damage across Wall Street has topped $23 billion, including $3.4 billion at UBS AG, a Swiss bank whose head of investment banking resigned last month. It has also cast further doubt on the future of Citigroup Inc. Chief Executive Charles Prince, whose co-head of institutional securities resigned after mortgage-related losses.
According to people familiar with the firm, a top contender to succeed Mr. O’Neal is Laurence Fink, CEO of BlackRock Inc., a money manager that is 49 percent owned by Merrill. Mr. Fink is close to Greg Fleming, Merrill’s co-president and himself a possible candidate. One scenario is a power-sharing arrangement between the two. Other contenders may include John Thain, the CEO of NYSE Euronext and himself a former president of Goldman Sachs, and Bob McCann, head of Merrill’s huge brokerage arm.
In some ways, Mr. O’Neal’s downfall seems a straightforward consequence of last week’s announcement that Merrill would write down $8.4 billion in the third quarter – $7.9 billion of that connected to its revaluation of mortgage-related assets – the largest loss in Wall Street memory. But many Wall Street executives were stunned by the speed with which the board, most of it picked by Mr. O’Neal, was willing to throw its chief overboard.
Mr. O’Neal, after all, is widely credited with boosting Merrill’s profitability and transforming it from a U.S.-focused retail broker to an international financial giant with strong footholds in important segments such as commodities, private equity, asset management and bonds.
Some former colleagues say Mr. O’Neal’s talent and steely drive came with a tragic flaw: He didn’t much engage in debate, kept his own counsel and had little use for the kind of strong-willed subordinates who might have helped him steer clear of the subprime troubles that brought him down. In the early years of his tenure, which began in 2002, Mr. O’Neal purged the firm of many of its longtime senior employees and later fired some of those considered his allies.
”He was uncomfortable around independent people (with) views which might be different than his, and whose loyalty was to the firm rather than to him personally,” said Barry Friedberg, Merrill’s longtime head of investment banking in the 1980s and 1990s, who retired in 2003.
Mr. O’Neal’s lack of support became clear in recent days. Starting in late September, Mr. O’Neal had briefed Merrill’s board of directors on the firm’s mortgage losses, a write-down he estimated would be $4.5 billion. In early October, days after the close of the third quarter, Merrill fired two top bond executives.
Mr. O’Neal named a new bond chief, David Sobotka, to clean up the mess. On Oct. 24, Mr. Sobotka’s team came up with a more conservative valuation which boosted the mortgage-related write-down by 76 percent, to $7.9 billion.
The size of the loss startled the board. Particularly concerned was Armando Codina, a Florida real-estate developer who is chairman of the board’s nominating and corporate-governance committee. Mr. Codina is a former business partner of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and served with Mr. O’Neal when both were directors of General Motors Corp. Mr. Codina expressed his surprise to Mr. O’Neal at a recent board meeting, according to a person familiar with the meeting.
”What bothered the board was that the size of the loss went up at an alarming rate,” said this person. If anything, Mr. O’Neal should have ”overcommunicated” with his board about Merrill’s problems, this person said, but Mr. O’Neal didn’t walk the board through the reasons for the write-off’s increase as much he should have.
The ”final straw” was Mr. O’Neal’s unilateral decision to ask Wachovia Corp. CEO G. Kennedy Thompson, a longtime client of the firm, whether he would be interested in buying Merrill. Mr. Thompson demurred, according to a person familiar with the situation. But those familiar with the firm say the move’s appearance of desperation – particularly since Wachovia just acquired a big St. Louis brokerage and now rivals Merrill’s brokerage in size – offended some of Merrill’s directors, brokers and some top executives who were unaware of the overture.
”If there are too many surprises, the board loses confidence in the senior management team,” says Michael P. Kelly, head of the board services practice for CTPartners, a New York executive search firm. (The firm has done some search work for Merrill.) In the aftermath of Sarbanes-Oxley, the 2002 corporate-reform law, directors ”need to be in sync with the CEO,” he says.
No one on Wall Street embodied the Horatio Alger story better than Mr. O’Neal, who through brains and doggedness became the highest-ranking African-American on Wall Street. Raised in poverty amid the cotton fields of the Deep South, he worked as a young man at General Motors. During his days in the auto business, an auto assembly-line foreman pointed out Mr. O’Neal’s strong Southern drawl. Mr. O’Neal took speech lessons that gave him perfect diction, an associate recalls.
That same determination showed after Mr. O’Neal joined Merrill in 1986, in its junk-bond division. He came to power amid growing investor impatience with the firm’s cost structure, particularly after money-losing expansion moves into Canada and Japan. He made cost cuts in Merrill’s brokerage division, and won the the top job five years ago. He reorganized the firm quickly after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and made even more draconian firmwide cuts during the 2002 stock-market slide.
With his restructuring, Mr. O’Neal was seen as rejecting the longtime culture of a company known internally as ”Mother Merrill.” For years, the brokerage giant was willing to accept lower profit margins in order to keep longtime loyal employees on the payroll, much like International Business Machines Corp. had a no-layoff policy during its 1980s heyday.
Mr. O’Neal was criticized for purging a few dozen rivals and their allies after gaining power, and later even his own former allies, such as executive vice chairman Thomas Patrick.
Merrill’s board gave him leeway because he more than doubled the firm’s profit level to an average topping $5 billion annually from 2003 to 2006. Those at the company said he was proud at cutting through the cozy corporate culture.
Many former Merrill executives, who stayed in touch with each other, were critical of his moves. Former executives say they were bothered by the firm’s lack of support for a group of its former bankers who were convicted and served jail time for allegedly helping Enron Corp. deceive investors about its earnings. The bankers’ convictions were later reversed, but some face retrials.
Such episodes showed Mr. O’Neal ”forgot what Mother Merrill stood for and just disavowed the past,” said Daniel Tully, a former broker and Merrill’s chief executive in the mid-1990s. ”We had a great thing going for us, with the so-called backslapping type of people that we are. We were tough task-masters but not mean-spirited.”
In recent days, former executives also discussed moves to launch a proxy fight if Mr. O’Neal wasn’t removed.
Mr. Tully said he and other former Merrill executives would be willing to step in to lead the firm temporarily during a one- to two-month search for a new CEO ”to right the ship and show that Mother Merrill is alive and well.” He said the losses were ”awful,” and said he and other Merrill alumni had expressed their unhappiness ”behind the scenes.”
Mr. O’Neal’s aloof management style was on display at the firm’s quarterly operations-committee meetings in the boardroom on the 33rd floor of Merrill’s lower Manhattan headquarters. Instead of fostering freewheeling interchanges, the meetings were often staged and choreographed, with formal presentations to which Mr. O’Neal would ask questions but rarely entertain discussion, a former executive says.
Also on display at such meetings was Mr. O’Neal’s open disdain for Bob McCann. The popular executive had left Merrill but returned in 2003, after an O’Neal purge had thinned the ranks at the top, and took over the firm’s core army of 16,000 brokers. If Mr. McCann made an observation at a meeting, Mr. O’Neal would often barely acknowledge it, former colleagues say.
He would sometimes roll his eyes at the mention of Mr. McCann, these people say, and a person close to Mr. O’Neal derided Mr. McCann’s abilities, his backslapping Irish-American bonhomie and his track record as head of the research arm, which isn’t a money-maker. And in May 2007, he bypassed Mr. McCann by naming two other executives co-presidents – another slap in the face of Merrill’s brokers. Since then, there have been periodic rumors Mr. McCann wanted to leave.
Mr. O’Neal could give even close allies a cold shoulder when dissatisfied. In early 2006, Merrill was negotiating an alliance with BlackRock Inc., the bond manager led by Mr. Fink. When Mr. O’Neal became dissatisfied with the way the talks were being handled by Mr. Fleming, the Merrill co-president who was then co-head of institutional securities, Mr. O’Neal sharply criticized his approach, a person familiar with the episode says. When Mr. Fleming asked to see him, Mr. O’Neal didn’t respond until Mr. Fleming showed up in his boss’s office. Mr. Fleming eventually clinched the deal for Merrill, and the purchase of the stake in BlackRock is considered one of Mr. O’Neal best accomplishments.
Throughout his tenure, Mr. O’Neal pushed his troops to match Goldman’s growth trajectory. That quest led Merrill into riskier areas such as underwriting collateralized debt obligations – pools of securities backed by assets including mortgages – without enough risk controls, Merrill alumni say. Merrill’s CDO inventory, which eventually topped $30 billion, generated catastrophic losses disclosed last Wednesday that equaled 13 percent of Merrill’s stock-market value.
Merrill’s stock price had slid a steep 21 percent since the size of the losses first began emerging on Oct. 5. It rebounded 8.5 percent Friday, to $66.09, on the reports of Mr. O’Neal’s possible departure.
Another key decision that worsened the losses, critics say, was Mr. O’Neal’s ouster in July 2006 of three seasoned bond executives led by Jeffrey Kronthal – a veteran of the Salomon Brothers’ mortgage-bond department of Lewis Ranieri, a group featured in Michael Lewis’s 1989 book ”Liar’s Poker.” The others were longtime Merrill bond executives Harry Lengsfield and Doug DeMartin.
The three were summoned upstairs, one after another, for five to 15-minute meetings with Dow Kim, then co-head of institutional securities. Mr. Kim told them there was no role for them. Only two days before, they had outlined their plans for the next year during a two-day gathering of the top 300 executives of the institutional securities business at a posh Bermuda resort hotel, the Fairmont Southampton.
In the next year, despite a gathering deterioration of the market for mortgage securities, especially subprime loans to less creditworthy buyers, Merrill was stuck with $32.1 billion of CDOs and $8.8 billion of subprime mortgage securities which had been left over from the firm’s drive to keep its No. 1 ranking in CDO underwriting.
Despite the recent write-downs, Merrill has cash to ride out the current upheaval. Though the firm’s balance sheet has ballooned – by 58 percent over the past 18 months to $1.08 trillion in assets – the firm says it has $70 billion in cash and readily salable securities.
”Everything is uncertain at this point,” says Scott Sprinzen, a managing director following financial services companies at Standard & Poor’s, which last week downgraded the company’s credit rating. ”In the wake of recent problems, there could be a disruptive change in strategic direction or more write-offs, all occurring when the credit markets remain unsettled. But MerrillLynch’s liquidity is very strong, so that is not a great concern we have right now.”
Analysts say the firm will have to rethink its commitment to structured finance, including the collateralized debt obligations that helped open it to its big losses this summer. The firm will also have to balance choosing an outsider with few ties to recent mistakes, against picking an insider who can provide continuity and limit the number of high-level departures, said David Trone, an analyst at Fox-Pitt, Kelton. The firm may have to accept reduced profits over the next few quarters, Mr. Trone says, as it keeps pay levels up to limit departures of employees in the firm’s healthy businesses such as stocks and brokerage.