When Donald T. Regan was CEO of Merrill Lynch & Co. from 1970 to 1980, the outspoken ex-Marine generated continual publicity. In contrast, William A. Schreyer has never been the subject of a major media profile during his six years as Merrill's chief executive, says a firm spokesman. Critics say that under his easygoing tutelage, Merrill lumbered along on mere inertia, with little regard for profitability. "He doesn't exude great management talent," says a longtime Merrill gadfly, First of Michigan analyst Perrin Long.
But Schreyer too often gets short shrift. Though he shares blame for some of Merrill's earlier problems, in recent years, he has honed an effective management style by promoting teamwork and delegating authority to a cadre of strong managers. "Bill Schreyer is the consensus type," says Regan, once one of Schreyer's harshest critics. "You don't need . . . a strong, dynamic leader." Adds Penn State football coach Joe Paterno, a close friend of Schreyer's: "Bill is a very dynamic guy, but in a different way. He's not filled up with himself."
CHEERLEADER. More than anything, Schreyer is an effective cheerleader for team Merrill. He started out as a retail broker in Merrill's Williamsport (Pa.) branch, where his father was branch manager. After stints in Merrill's research and trading departments, he climbed the corporate ladder at New York headquarters. But his years out in the field make him popular with the firm's retail brokers. He motivates them with his optimism, sense of humor, and innate salesmanship.
A lot of the credit for Merrill's recent success goes to Schreyer's handpicked top management team. He shares the helm with president Daniel Tully. Also a former broker, Tully plays as Mr. Inside to Schreyer's Mr. Outside. "Schreyer has very, very capable people running the major divisions," says Perrin Long. "He sits up there and pushes the buttons, and the company just keeps rolling along."
Retail head John L. Steffens is credited with setting Merrill's successful asset-gathering strategy a decade ago. Stephen L. Hammerman, a former prosecutor, established one of the toughest compliance departments on Wall Street. Arthur Zeikel built Merrill's huge mutual fund operation. "Dan's attitude is: If you want me to make every decision, what do I need you for?" says Zeikel.
Many major decisions are made by consensus. Schreyer and Tully wanted to take a look at buying ailing E. F. Hutton in 1988. But Merrill's executive committee voted the idea down. This saved Merrill the problems Hutton brought to Shearson Lehman Brothers Inc. Other times, Schreyer has had to persuade his lieutenants to take radical action, such as the $470 million restructuring charge in 1989 and a broad management reorganization last year. "I didn't agree with the realignment. But it was an ingenious move," says Hammerman.
When Schreyer steps down in 1993, as he has said he will, Tully is expected to take his job. "The board backs Tully," confirms a board member. The big question is who will replace Tully as president. Consumer chief Steffans, 50, is considered the top contender. He got some rivals when four division heads were promoted in a 1990 reshuffling.
Although there are some strong candidates, it's not clear whether any will personify, as Schreyer does, Merrill's carefully crafted public image, which relies on patriotism and bullishness. "He is the spirit of Merrill Lynch, from Wall Street to Main Street," says Charles A. Sanders, CEO of Glaxo Inc. and a Merrill director. The man who made Merrill get its act together may not be an easy act to follow.