History is an ever-present theme at Merrill Lynch's flagship private client office in New York's World Financial Center. Photos of former branch heads line the 40th story hallway — many have gone on to more prestigious positions within the Merrill hierarchy. The windows to the east overlook a giant hole in the earth that was once the World Trade Center.
Marsha Jones is aware of the past surrounding her. In 1987, she began as a rookie broker in a Queens, N.Y., office, where CEO David Komansky had once worked the phones. Jones recalls stories told by older brokers who remember those days, when women at the firm were mostly executive assistants (a job she held at another firm before moving to Merrill).
“Whenever I would be in the meetings, you'd always have a point of contact with history because you're aware of the older people in the room,” she says.
Now, Jones is the one with the stories. And she's got a lofty perch from which to tell them. She is the new director of the 100-broker flagship private client office, still known as “S.D.,” a reminder that it was the firm's original “sales department.”
“It's considered to be one of the greatest positions in the firm,” says Phil Sieg, now a managing director at Merrill, and the man who preceded Jones.
The importance of the job isn't lost on Jones.
“Ah,” she says, casting her eyes upward. “This is one of the highlights of a director's career…when I think of the photos, they're legends in the firm, to be included among them is a tremendous honor.”
She also considers it an honor to be the first African-American director of the S.D. office. At firms with more than 1,000 reps, it's an impressive distinction considering that less than 1 percent are African-American women, according to the Securities Industry Association. “It's tremendous,” she says. “The fact that I've been able to achieve this is significant in that it's something I had set a goal to do.”
The position, which she assumed in June, has gotten a lot more difficult. The strains of the bear market and Merrill's involvement in the Wall Street conflict-of-interest scandals has made some customers angry, and made soothing customers a top priority, says Jones. The old reference to brokers as “customers' men,” emphasizing the importance of communication between reps and their clients, disappeared a while back. “It changed as more individuals got into the market,” she says. “There were FAs who had more and more assets. It was a question of quality vs. quantity coming into play.”
In her corner of the world, she is intent on going the opposite direction. The key to good relations, Jones says, is to maintain dialogues with clients — however furious — even if “you have to hold the phone out to here,” she says, raising her hand about a foot from her face.
She wants her charges to burnish their own relationship with their clients. “We will come out of this…but it's what you do as an FA in this market that demonstrates that you're adding value,” she says. “You can't put your head in the sand.”
She supports the firm's concentration on higher-net-worth accounts, allowing advisors to focus on fewer accounts. Ideally, brokers in her office will focus on 125 to 150 accounts with more than $1 million in investable assets. Industrywide, the average number of active clients per broker is about 550, according to the SIA.
Jones came to the brokerage business after starting her career as a New York City teacher. How different is keeping order over hungry brokers from supervising schoolchildren? “Not much,” she laughs. She says she did learn something important about management as a teacher. As with children, it is important to encourage all brokers to find their own niches and exploit their strengths — something she supports in her brokers at Merrill.
Jones started as an executive assistant at another broker/dealer before joining Merrill to advance her career. Being a woman was tough in the boys' culture of Wall Street, and it was hard to rise above the glass ceiling.
“The only way women increased their responsibilities was to move from one firm to another,” she says. “If you didn't, you remained an executive secretary. You were tracked — you had to go to another firm.”
Switch she did, going to Merrill in September 1981. She spent 16 years in production before moving to management, most recently as national sales manager in the firm's advisory division.
Now, she's dealing more with brokers — and wants to deal with more brokers: “I'm hoping that within the next 18 to 24 months we will be back to the levels we were at” before September 11.
Jones hopes to add another 70 or 80 reps, with a goal of being the branch at the firm with the greatest number of million-dollar producers. This goal has been made clear to them. “They know,” she says, still smiling.