Only a year ago, 57-year-old Richard A. Grasso of the New York Stock Exchange had everything a Wall Street chief executive could ask for: a board of directors with the unconditional devotion of puppies, market dominance aided by favorable regulations, and above all, a nice salary. But as word emerged of his mind-boggling $188 million pay package, not even Grasso's supine board -- or a giveback of $48 million -- could save him. Under mounting public pressure, Grasso stepped down on Sept. 17.
Grasso was, in a sense, the ultimate victim of the NYSE's secretive corporate culture and Stone Age governance practices. If the Big Board had a less malleable board, Grasso's greed might not have been allowed to run rampant. In the end, Grasso was paid so grotesquely that he antagonized even his most faithful constituents, the traders on the NYSE floor.
Now that he's gone, the Big Board will have a tougher time than ever maintaining its strong competitive position. His interim successor, former Citigroup (C) Chairman John S. Reed, has put in place an independent board, separated NYSE regulators from the Big Board's management, selected a separate CEO, and is preparing to demand repayment of a sizeable portion of Grasso's pay package. If the governance changes work, that could mean serious reform of the floor trading system that Grasso had so effectively defended -- and a new era for the NYSE.