The Leadership of Good Time Charlie Merrill

One might remember Charles E. Merrill as the guy who evaded the consequences of The Great Crash of 1929 by liquidating his company’s stock portfolio prior to the event.  But the founder of Merrill Lynch was also a corporate genius, and a great leader.  Coming from humble beginnings, Merrill shows an example of success through leadership initiatives that does what it believes to be right.

Merrill became famous after the October 1929 crash.  He discouraged excessive market speculation, and even “pleaded (to no avail) with President Calvin Coolidge to speak out against speculation.” (Nocera).  He advised his house clients to “take advantage of present high prices and put your financial house in order.” (http://www.ml.com).  After the event, he initiated a new revolution in the stock market – democratizing it.  During that time, stock marketing was only an endeavor exclusive to the rich class of the society.  Merrill thought otherwise.

“Merrill believed passionately that the middle class should be able to profit from quality stocks. Until then, Wall Street catered to the ultra-rich. A veteran of the bad old pre-Securities & Exchange Commission days, when the stock market was rife with promoters and con artists, he instilled a strong code of ethics at the firm, seeking a level playing field for average investors. He insisted on keeping research honest by separating it from banking and paying brokers a salary rather than commissions alone. One wonders what he would have made of today’s mutual-fund and analyst scandals.” (Vickers).

His initiative is now known as the company’s mission to bring “Wall Street to Main Street,” and “’our customers interest comes first’ became paramount.” (ml.com).  Merrill, and partner Edmund C. Lynch also underwrote “such future powerhouses as S.S. Kresge (now K Mart) and Safeway Stores. He set up one of America’s first wire houses — brokerage firms with branch offices in different cities connected to the main office by Teletype.” (Nocera). Often, their underwriting efforts end in controlling the interests of those organizations.

Merrill was an American visionary who was “marked by naive and exaggerated optimism that was unshakable, even in the face of the darker reality he saw all around him.” (Nocera).  His leadership style undeniably saved his company, and his clients, from the wreck of the Crash, and at the same time maintain the momentum of profitability, and business expansion.  His vision of opening the doors of the stock market to the middle class influenced the future of the American stock market, and the way Americans live in the present time.  Merrill was clearly a radical leader who never feared to row against the flow of the stream, and who stood immovable for what he passionately believed in.

Merrill is a leader who lets “vision, strategies, goals, and values be the guide-post for action and behaviour rather than attempting to control others.” (Predpall 1994).  This is evident when he was able to establish his own company in just two years after emerging as a leader out of working with George H. Burr & Co.  He was able to accomplish his goals using strategies that are unfamiliar during his time.  He was able to sense the downfall of the stock market, and advocated against speculation.

Richard Pascale, in his book “Managing on the Edge,” wrote that managers do things right, while leaders do the right thing (Pascale 1990).   This is true with Merrill who did the right thing.  Going back to the events that led to the Crash, it is undeniably true that doing things right does not necessarily mean doing ethically acceptable:

“During the first part of this century, after all, the Street was largely a rigged game. Insiders manipulated the market from behind the curtains, behavior that, while unseemly, was legal then. Small investors were scorned–or fleeced.” (Nocera).

Manipulating the market then was doing things right.  They are legal.  But, that does not necessarily mean that it was ethically, and morally acceptable.  What Merrill did was unprecedented, because as a good leader, he opted for the right thing to do.

Merrill was a good manager because his management style reflects how his company is one of the most successful organizations today that weathered different storms throughout many decades, including the Crash, and the war.  But more to that, he was a great leader who had his feet wet, offered an opportunity for the world to open up doors of stock marketing to the middle class, and steering the way for the company’s continued success.

“Leaders stand out by being different. They question assumption and are suspicious of tradition. They seek out the truth and make decisions based on fact, not prejudice. They have a preference for innovation.” (Fenton 1990).

Merrill stood out.  He spoke his mind out, and many thought he was nuts (Vickers).  According to William A. Cohen, in his article “Got Vision?” a vision is the overall picture of what you want an organization to look like in the future.  Cohen also wrote, “A leader’s vision can be so strong that it can continue long after the leader himself is gone.” (Cohen).  A good manager does his job exceptionally; a leader is motivated by what he envisions and takes his team on an exciting journey towards it.

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Joseph Nocera, “Charles Merrill,” Retrieved on January 23, 2006, from http://www.time.com/time/time100/builder/profile/merrill.html

“Our History,” Retrieved on January 23, 2006, from http://ml.com/index.asp?id=7695_8134_8296_14044_14066

Marcia Vickers, “Selling Stocks to the Masses,” Business Week. April 19 (3879). p 22.

Daniel. F. Predpall, “Developing Quality Improvement Processes In Consulting Engineering Firms,” Journal of Management in Engineering, May-June 1994, pp 30-31

Richard Pascale, “Managing on the Edge,” Penguin Book, 1990, pp 65

John Fenton, “101 Ways to Boost Your Business Performance,” Mandarin Business, 1990, pp 113

William A. Cohen, “Got Vision?” The Stuff of Heroes Newsletter. 12 (1) Retrieved on January 23, 2006, from http://www.stuffofheroes.com/Vol.%201,%20No.%2012.htm

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