Thursday, January 22, 2009

Me and Thain get whacked

I started my first "real" job in late 1978.  Counting that one, I've worked for three companies in the last 30 years.  During that time, I've had vacations, but I've never been away from work for more than about two weeks at a time max.  For the vast majority of that time, the alarm clock has sounded at around 4:30am and I've been at work by 6.  Tomorrow, I'll be sleeping in.

Today John Thain and I (and a large number of my Merrill Lynch colleagues) got laid off, fired, riffed, whatever you want to call it.  Footnote:  at Bank of America, coworkers are known as associates, not colleagues.  Same as WalMart.

Of course, I'm not suggesting that there was any connection between my fate and that of Mr. Thain.  But it was an interesting coincidence.  I'm sure that he'll do well in his future endeavors.  I will too.

I entered the financial services industry in the mid 1980s with a manager trainee job at EF Hutton.  I worked as a  private client broker to learn the business while preparing for a job in sales management.  Hutton was truly a great firm back then.  I was proud to be in the business, and proud of my firm.  (another footnote:  at B of A, it's "the company", not "the firm").
I was young, and in awe of the idea of being a stockbroker.  The Dow was around 1300, and the NYSE had recently recorded its first 100 million share day.  

But even as a rookie, one thing that I clearly noticed was the grudging respect that my coworkers had for Merrill Lynch.  They would tell me how much better we were compared to firms like Paine Webber, or Kidder Peabody, or Smith Barney.  But they obviously envied ML.  Even the Merrill softball team dominated the local broker league.  And as I came to understand the industry, I could see that Merrill brokers were head and shoulders above everyone else in metrics like average production per broker.

I remember well a speech given by a former boss at my first (pre-Hutton) employer.  He said "if you don't think that you're working for the best company in the industry, you should quit your job and go to work for the best company."  Merrill Lynch was the best in the industry.  So when I had an opportunity to take a position at Merrill in 1987, I was quick to move.

I was truly very fortunate to have the chance to spend 21 years at Merrill.  It was a great job.  I worked with some outstanding people.  I grew personally and professionally.  My life was truly much richer for the experience-- in fact, it defined my life.  I enjoyed some great experiences, and I had an opportunity to do some wonderful things.

But things changed.  The economy, the stock market, the world.  The firm that was the best in the industry was destroyed by a combination of bad judgment, bad management, and bad luck.  The number one job of the CEO of any firm is to avoid blowing up the firm.  Merrill blew up.  Fortunately, the BankAmerica deal came along (although perhaps not so fortunately for the BofA shareholders).  

Lots of good people lost their jobs today.  It's a sad time.  It feels like a death in the family.  But it's not the sudden, tragic kind of death.  This one feels like the death of a long-suffering relative; we've long ago reconciled ourselves to the ultimate outcome, and when it comes it's seen as a blessing.  

How sad that on my last day I listened to some buffoon on CNBC make toilet jokes about this once-proud firm.  

This is a good thing in my life.  I'm looking forward to moving on.  I'm looking forward to spending more time with my family.  I'm looking forward to teaching my 15 year-old son to drive.  Next time you see me, I'm hoping that I'll be thinner and healthier.  Maybe even the gray hair will be a bit darker.  My golf game will be better.

Last week on MLK day, I was driving and heard on the radio a speech from Dr. King entitled "The Drum Major Instinct". In one part, Dr. King imagines his legacy: "I won't have any money to leave behind. I won't have the fine and luxurious things of life to leave behind. But I just want to leave a committed life behind."

I have often thought, as I've charged almost blindly down the path of my Merrill Lynch career, about my own legacy. Will my kids say "Dad made a lot of money, but we didn't get to spend much time with him?" Will people in the community say "He was always too busy to get involved?" Will I reach the end of my life and regret that I didn't take time to learn another language, or volunteer at a shelter, or travel to Africa, or spend more time with my parents? Now I've got the chance.

To all of my friends, best of luck.  The current dark days will pass.  My life is richer for having known you, and I hope that you'll keep in touch.  


  1. I appreciate this entry. I'm sorry that this happened to you in addition to thousands of other people, but I wish you good luck in the future and I hope that you find what you are looking for.

  2. I know how I will think of your legacy, as one of your colleagues at ML: as a great mentor, a great manager, an unselfish leader, a great student of the market, and, as a good friend. Thanks for teaching me the ropes and for your patience with my crankiness! Talk to you soon, Tic.

  3. Hey - sorry to hear ML did you like that. I guess I can't be that pissed about ECL anymore, although I'm still's not personal. I'll miss the annual outings we had, although I got stiffed on having the best long AND short for last year! I'm sure you'll be fine and best of luck in whatever you end up doing.


  4. The dignity you brought to ML can now be shared more widely with others. Lucky them. Lucky you. ~Left Behind

  5. John,
    Your words of respect for all the years you spent at Merrill are well said & I think shared by the rest of us that were fortunate to have a part of our career at Merrill. The one thing you will miss is the many good people you have worked with these past 21 years--thank god for giving you 21 wonderful years.

  6. John, you're a dinosaur. Oh, don't get me wrong, I mean that in the BEST possible way. You've left Merrill with the respect of all your clients and colleagues and sign off a class and dignity rarely seen today. Especially in our business. Soon, someone in New York or more likely, Charlotte, will be asking for a mulligan.

    I speak for everyone at CEP when I say I'll miss working with you. You were always my 'go-to' guy when I needed some critical information, or, more importantly, some good humor in these troubled times. Let's not wait to bump into one another in the western 'burbs.

    All the best to you and Angie,


  7. John

    I would like to thank you for all of your guidance and support during my years at ML. You are one of the best managers in the business, always there for your colleagues to support them in everyway. I do miss you my friend and hope that someday soon we work together again.

    Dawn K.