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Muriel Siebert

Muriel Siebert

Known as the First Lady of Wall Street, stockbroker Muriel Siebert (born 1932) made history in 1967 when she became the first woman to own a seat on the New York Stock Exchange. She also owns and operates the only female-owned brokerage firm on the exchange.

Outspoken, smart, and determined, Muriel Siebert has made a career out of taking risks. The founder and president of the national discount brokerage firm that bears her name, Siebert became the first woman member of the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) in 1967. With offices in California and Florida, Muriel Siebert & Co. remains the only female-owned brokerage firm on the exchange. In all of her business dealings, Siebert continues to view risk as opportunity and chides her colleagues for not being more daring. "The men of the top of the industry and government should be more willing to risk sharing leadership with women and minority members who are not merely clones of their white male buddies, " she was quoted as saying in a press release available online at www.msiebert.com. "In these fast-changing times we need the different viewpoints and experiences, we need the enlarged talent bank. The real risk lies in continuing to do things the way they've always been done."

Siebert, the youngest daughter of dentist Irwin J. Siebert and his wife, Margaret, was born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio, where she was known to her friends as "Mickie." (She still prefers her childhood nickname to her given name of Muriel.) She enrolled at Western Reserve University (now Case Western Reserve University) in 1949 with the intention of obtaining a degree in accounting. Unfortunately, her father was diagnosed with cancer during her junior year, and the family's finances would not allow her to complete her education as planned.

Headed to New York City

Rather than follow other women of her generation down the traditional path-marriage to a man who could support her while she raised a family-Siebert opted for a different course. In 1954, at the age of 22, she drove a used Studebaker 700 miles from Cleveland to Manhattan and began knocking on doors. With only $500 in savings, she knew that she had to find a job quickly or face having to return home.

After Merrill Lynch rejected her because she lacked a college degree, Siebert decided to stretch the truth a bit. During her interview at the brokerage firm of Bache & Co. for an entry-level research analyst position, she answered "yes" when asked if she had a degree, figuring that she could eventually make up whatever credits she lacked. Siebert got the job at Bache and proceeded to learn the brokerage business from the ground up. (She never did find the time to complete her degree.) Given accounts that none of the more experienced analysts wanted, she used her knack for interpreting financial reports-quarterly and year-end earnings statements, annual reports, and balance sheets-to predict where certain industries were headed financially. Her analyses proved to be accurate, and Siebert began to rise through the ranks.

Compared to the men around her, however, Siebert felt she was on a slow track despite her undeniably savvy business sense. So she left Bache in 1957 and spent the next decade working for a variety of Wall Street firms. But it was a world where all of the other women she met were secretaries, not brokers. Banned from investment clubs because of her gender, she could not gain access to the places where the best deals were made. But Siebert was smart and ambitious. She discovered that using the initial "M" in place of "Muriel" on her resume got her in the door at many firms; her experience, intelligence, and can-do attitude then convinced prospective employers to give her a try. She worked briefly at Shields & Co. and Stearns & Co. before joining Fickle & Co. as a partner from 1962 to 1963 and Brimberg & Co. from 1965 to 1967.

Obtained Coveted Seat on the Exchange

Although she had risen to the level of partner, Siebert didn't like having to deal with a lot of red tape before she could make a financial decision. Independent by nature, she was determined to go off on her own. But such a move would involve finding a member of the New York Stock Exchange to sponsor her and persuading a bank to lend her 70 percent of the $445, 000 she needed to purchase her own seat-things that no woman had ever tried to do in the history of Wall Street.

Siebert's search for a sponsor was met with suspicion and, on one occasion, ridicule. She was rejected nine times before she found a willing backer. Obtaining financing proved to be just as difficult, but ultimately she was victorious when Chase Manhattan Bank agreed to support her. On December 29, 1967, at the age of 35, Siebert was finally elected to a seat on the New York Stock Exchange, shattering a longstanding gender barrier. A decade would pass, however, before she was joined by any other women.

Two years after gaining her seat on the exchange, Siebert founded the brokerage firm that bears her name. While this step represented another important first for a woman, it once again required her to battle sexism in the financial world. Clients used her services but were notoriously hesitant to publicize what she had been able to do for them. Still, she persevered.

As a result of her determination to succeed, Siebert was in a good position to restructure her company as a discount brokerage after the U.S. Congress granted brokers the right to charge flexible rather than fixed commissions for financial transactions and other services. The day after the federal regulations were lifted-May 1, 1975-she ran a full-page newspaper ad that showed her cutting a $100 bill in half with a pair of scissors. While the ad got the attention of potential customers, it also raised the ire of her clearing-house, which gave her 60 days to take her business elsewhere. This she managed to do, though not without some difficulty.

Entered Public Service

In 1977, Hugh Carey, the Democratic governor of New York, offered Siebert, a staunch Republican, a government position as superintendent of banking. Welcoming the challenge and appreciative of Carey's recognition of her accomplishments, Siebert took a five-year leave of absence from her firm to put the banks of the state of New York on solid financial footing during an era of double-digit inflation, double-digit interest rates, and an alarming number of bank failures.

By demolishing the inefficient bureaucratic obstacles blocking her path and relying on then-radical techniques such as salary cuts, mandatory reorganizations, and inter-bank mergers, Siebert made sure that not a single bank in the state failed. This success prompted her to compete for the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate from the State of New York in 1982. She lost in the primary, however, coming in second among the three candidates.

Returning to the private sector, Siebert spent the rest of the decade getting her brokerage firm back on track. As the tumultuous 1980s gave way to the bullish 1990s, she looked for new directions in which to grow her company. In 1996 she merged with Brooklyn-based furniture retailer J. Michaels, creating a holding company, Siebert Financial Corporation, to facilitate the transaction. Later that same year she acquired several key partners of Grigsby Brandford Co., a California firm specializing in municipal bonds. The acquisition of individuals with expertise in the sale of municipal bonds broadened the scope of business Siebert was able to draw via Muriel Siebert & Co.

Made Giving Back to the Community a Priority

In recognition of the battles yet to be waged by other fledgling organizations-especially those owned by women-Siebert has devoted a significant portion of her financial resources in recent years to various nonprofit, civic, and women's organizations. In 1990 she established the Siebert Entrepreneurial/Philanthropic Plan (SEPP), a program that donates to charity 50 percent of the net commission revenues Muriel Siebert & Co. earns on sales of new-issue equity, municipal, and government bonds. (As of 1997, total contributions from the SEPP topped five million dollars.) And when many small shopkeepers lost their businesses during the 1992 Los Angeles riots, Siebert gave money to women entrepreneurs to help them get back on their feet.

In addition to funneling money to the causes she supports, Siebert has been generous with both her time and her expertise. She was, for instance, the first female director of the Manhattan Savings Bank and the first woman to chair the annual fund drive for the local chapter of the Boy Scouts of America. She serves on the boards of the Metropolitan Museum of Art business committee, the Guild Hall Museum, New York's State Business Council, and the Boy Scouts of Metro New York. She is also active in such women-centered organizations as the National Women's Business Council, New York's Minority and Women-Owned Business Enterprise Advisory Board, the United Way of New York City, the International Women's Forum, and Deloitte & Touche's Council for the Advancement of Women. Additionally, Siebert is the founder and former president of the Women's Forum and founder of the WISH List, an organization supporting the political candidacy of pro-choice Republican women. As time permits, she continues to honor requests to serve as a director or board member for other organizations.

Many observers might be inclined to wonder how she has managed to accomplish so much in her life, particularly when she encountered such fierce resistance at nearly every turn. But as Siebert herself suggested to interviewer Ed Leefeldt in Bloomberg Personal Magazine, it's a matter of exploiting your natural talents. "Don't ask me to paint. Don't ask me to sing, " she declared. "But I know a balance sheet. I can understand cash flow and depreciation…. I'llstay until it's not fun."

Further Reading

Herera, Sue, Women of the Street: Making It on Wall Street-The World's Toughest Business, Wiley, 1997.

Bloomberg Personal Magazine, October 1994.

Fortune, October 28, 1996, p. 170.

New York Times, December 22, 1991, p. 10; February 11, 1996, p. 1.

Wall Street Journal, May 27, 1997, p. B13.

Working Woman, April 1986, p. 4; December 1992, p. 20.

Muriel Siebert & Co., Inc. Website, http://www.msiebert.com.

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