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Helping "Shape Merrill for the Future"

Robert J. McCann has returned to Merrill, this time as vice-chairman (see BW Online, 8/13/03, "Another Turn on the Merrill-Go-Round"). Within hours of the announcement on Aug. 12, McCann chatted with BusinessWeek Investment Banking Editor Emily Thornton about his decision. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation:

Q: So you're back. How did this happen?

A: It's an opportunity at a very senior level to be one of the people who helps to shape Merrill Lynch for the future, and that's exciting. Outside of 25 working days at AXA Financial, Merrill Lynch is where I've spent my entire adult working life. I care about the company. I've always cared about the company.

[Merrill CEO] Stan [O'Neal] called me in the middle of last week, and we had dinner last Thursday night. He said he was considering some changes in the management structure that would create a role that I could make a difference in. We shook hands. I told him I would think about it over the next few days. I called him on Sunday evening and accepted.

We've known each other over 10 years, and we've stayed in touch during the time that I wasn't at Merrill Lynch. I considered being the chairman and CEO of NASDAQ, and when I went through that process, Stan was one of the people I reached out to for advice.

Q: There's a great deal of speculation that if this job goes well, you could become Merrill's next president. Was there any discussion of this?

A: None. Stan has been very open and direct on the fact that he's going to be president as well as chairman and CEO. That will allow him to stay close to the businesses. I don't expect that to change any time soon. My focus is on my new challenge and clients. Frankly, I think this speculation distracts people from business and clients, and that's what I want to focus on.

Q: Why did you leave Merrill Lynch in March?

A: I had been working very hard and had a number of senior positions. At the time I left, I didn't feel there was a position at Merrill Lynch that would allow me to impact the firm at a senior level in a broad way. Since we were reaching a settlement with [New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer], it was a logical time to take some time for myself and my family, and to think of areas and challenges in financial services for the next 20 years.

Stan discussed with me the fact that he wants to build a team that operates as partners. He thought that I could play a role in that. I'm comfortable with that.

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