William Schreyer, Who Targeted Costs as Merrill CEO, Dies at 83
William Schreyer, whose 45 years at Merrill Lynch & Co. culminated in an eight-year stint as chairman and chief executive officer, including the market crash of October 1987, has died. He was 83.
He died Jan. 22 at his home in Princeton, New Jersey, his family said in a statement.
Schreyer became president of Merrill in 1982 and served as chairman and CEO from 1985 to 1993. He helped change the firm from “primarily a retail brokerage house to an integrated global investment bank,” said Jim Wiggins, who was head of corporate communications throughout Schreyer’s tenure as CEO.
Wiggins said Schreyer “had an uncanny ability to manage people well,” a sentiment also expressed by Merrill’s chairman emeritus, Daniel Tully. “He was a generous mentor to all of us who succeeded him,” Tully said in a statement.
By most accounts, his years atop Merrill Lynch were troubled ones.
He succeeded Roger Birk as CEO, then as chairman, as part of what Time magazine called an “unexpected shake-up” fueled by a $42 million loss in the four quarter of 1983.
Schreyer had led a group, called the Schreyer Working Team, that studied the company’s problems. One of its findings, according to Time: the firm was trying to serve too many different types of customers.
According to a 1990 New York Times profile, Merrill’s profit languished even as its revenue soared to $11.3 billion in 1990 from $5.7 billion in 1983. There were unanticipated expenses associated with the firm’s new headquarters at New York City’s World Financial Center. And in 1987, Merrill suffered a $377 million loss in the trading of mortgage-backed securities.
In response, Schreyer embarked on a cost-restructuring effort that he called “Merristroika.”
As Schreyer approached his retirement at age 65 in 1993, Forbes magazine wrote: “If ever a chairman deserved well of his shareholders, Schreyer does. The great bull market in stocks and in underwriting was not, of course, of his making. What he did accomplish was to bring -- and keep -- Merrill’s costs under control.”
A less expected challenge came on Oct. 19, 1987 -- what became known as Black Monday -- when global markets crashed. Schreyer and the firm won plaudits for their confident reaction to the crash, which included a rapid-response advertising campaign on television and in newspapers.
“At Merrill Lynch, we’re still bullish on America,” Schreyer said in a TV commercial that ran one day after the crash, referring to an ad slogan from the 1970s.
“Our message at Merrill Lynch through the entire crash -- in our commercials, in our communications with our clients and employees -- was to sit tight because fundamentally everything was OK,” Schreyer said in an interview for Eric Weiner’s 2005 oral-history book, “What Goes Up: The Uncensored History of Modern Wall Street as Told by the Bankers, Brokers, CEOs and Scoundrels Who Made It Happen.”
Schreyer recalled spending most of Black Monday in a conference room, watching the changing stock quotes.
“As a leader I was focused on Merrill’s long-term strategy, not the short-term stock price,” he said. “Of course, when something like this happens, strategy goes out the window.”
His schedule that day included a midday fund-raising lunch at Merrill for Penn State, with guests including the college’s popular football coach, Joe Paterno. He said one of the leaders of the fund-raising campaign asked whether the lunch should be canceled in light of the bad news roiling the markets.
Schreyer said he replied, “Nah, we’ve done all we can do. Let’s eat.”
William Allen Schreyer was born on Jan. 13, 1928, in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, according to a profile written for the Smeal College of Business at Penn State University. His father, William L. Schreyer, managed the local office of a brokerage that was acquired by Merrill Lynch, and Schreyer worked there part-time while in high school, reporting securities prices on a storefront chalkboard, according to his family.
He graduated Penn State in 1948 with a degree in commerce and finance. Accepted by Harvard Business School the school year starting in the fall of 1949, he decided instead to enroll in a new Merrill Lynch internship program, according to the Penn State profile.
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Joining the firm as a junior executive trainee, he was sent to Buffalo, New York, as an account executive, and it was there he met his future wife, Joan Legg. His work was interrupted by two years of service in the U.S. Air Force, stationed in Germany, to fulfill his Reserve Officer Training Corps obligations.
He entered management in 1963 as head of Merrill’s office in Trenton, New Jersey, and worked his way up to become New York metropolitan area regional director in 1972.
He was appointed head of Merrill Lynch Government Securities in 1973.
Schreyer played a role in creating some of Merrill’s philanthropic and educational programs, and he and his wife pledged $30 million in 1997 to endow a new honors college at Penn State. They added $25 million to the endowment in 2006. The college is named after the Schreyers.
Schreyer also served on Penn State’s board of trustees, including two terms as president.
In addition to his wife, survivors include his daughter, DrueAnne Schreyer, his son-in-law, Rodney Frazier, and two grandchildren, according to the family.
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