Merrill, Charles Edward
MERRILL, CHARLES EDWARD
As cofounder of Merrill, Lynch stockbrokerage firm in 1914, Charles E. Merrill (1885–1956) launched a Wall Street dynasty that would long outlive him. Building on the slogan "Bring Wall Street to Main Street" he designed his business around middle-class investors, not stock exchange insiders. By the time of his death in 1956 his firm had offices in 106 cities across North America; the firm has continued to grow ever since.
Charles E. Merrill was born on October 19, 1885, in Green Cove Springs, Florida, the son of Dr. Charles and Octavia Wilson Merrill. His father, a local physician, also owned a drug store where Merrill worked as a boy in addition to having a paper route. Merrill attended a preparatory school affiliated with Stetson University and was later sent on a partial athletic scholarship to Worcester Academy in Massachusetts. He attended Amherst College in Massachusetts from 1904 to 1906. He left Amherst without graduating and returned to Florida where he dabbled in newspaper journalism at West Palm Beach's Tropical Sun. Later in life he commented that the job provided him with "the best training I ever had; I learned human nature."
After one year of law school at the University of Michigan Merrill abandoned plans for a legal career and went to Mississippi to play baseball for a minor league team during the summer of 1907. When the season ended he moved to New York City to look for work and his first job was in the office of the Patchogue Plymouth Mills in Patchogue, New York. Here what Merrill acquired "turned out to be the equivalent of a university course in general and credit finance, cost accounting, and administration, in particular." This training would be invaluable to his future success.
The skills Merrill learned at his early jobs enabled him to become one of the most innovative leaders in the field of financial services. With a sound understanding of business practices, which he obtained during his two years with Patchogue Mills, he went on to a job on Wall Street. Merrill joined George H. Burr and Company in 1909. The company's owner had heard of Merrill's abilities and he wanted the young man to take charge of Burr's newly created bond department. Merrill promptly hired Edmund Lynch, a Johns Hopkins University graduate whom he had met at the 23rd Street YMCA, to handle sales.
Merrill's strategy for attracting new customers was to use direct mail solicitations. He concentrated on informative and accurate information rather than the exaggerated claims and misleading statements that were the norm at the time. This emphasis on honesty was to remain one of Merrill's chief concerns throughout his career. Clear, honest information appealed to a broad customer base, he reasoned, and "having thousands of customers scattered throughout the United States is infinitely preferable to being dependent upon the fluctuating buying power of a smaller and perhaps on the whole wealthier group of investors in any one section."
Under Merrill's leadership Burr's bond department quickly became a success. The company soon expanded into underwriting (guaranteeing) equities. In 1912 the company sponsored a $2 million stock offering in the Kresge chain stores. Chain stores were a new concept at the time, and this project began Merrill's career-long involvement with this retail innovation.
In 1913 Merrill left Burr to become sales manager at Eastman, Dillon and Company and a year later he founded his own small securities firm, Charles E. Merrill and Company. Within six months he had taken on Edmund Lynch as a partner: Merrill, Lynch was born. The partners began by underwriting two chain stores, McCrory Stores and Kresge, the latter being an account Merrill lured away from Burr. With the public receptive to buying stock in this emerging business, Merrill soon made his first fortune. He accepted stock warrants as part of his fee and sold these when they increased in value.
World War I (1914–1918) had began by this time, and Merrill joined the U.S. Army as a first lieutenant in the air corps. After the war Merrill returned to his firm to oversee its period of greatest expansion. The U.S. economy was booming in the 1920s. Many Americans had bought war bonds, familiarizing them with investing; they were now ready to expand to corporate ventures. Merrill's emphasis on straight advice for a broad range of middle-class customers was well-suited to this new business climate. Merrill, Lynch grew rapidly. In 1919 Merrill hired the first bond saleswoman on Wall Street, Annie Grimes, and in 1924 he expanded the company's office hours, opening early and closing late, to better serve customers.
Merrill, Lynch continued to focus on the expanding chain store industry. About half of the company's underwritings in the 1920s were retailers such as J.C. Penney, National Tea, Kresge, and McCrory. In 1921 the company entered the movie business when it took over a studio, Path Exchange. Merrill, Lynch later sold the studio to Cecil B. deMille and Joseph Kennedy (father of the future president). With the profit from the sale of Path Exchange the company acquired the southern California food chain Safeway Stores. Merrill subsequently built up and expanded Safeway, merging it with another western chain. Merrill next founded Family Circle magazine, the first magazine distributed through supermarkets.
As the American economy continued to boom through the 1920s, Merrill grew increasingly concerned. In 1928, over a year before the infamous stock market crash that sent the country into the Great Depression, he sent a letter to customers recommending they get out of debt. He persuaded his partner to reduce the company's vulnerability in the event of a sharp decline. When the stock market crashed in October 1929 Merrill, Lynch survived. Merrill became highly respected for his ability to foresee market trends.
In January 1930 Merrill, Lynch left the brokerage business and turned over its accounts to E. A. Pierce and Company. The firm then focused on underwriting and individual banking, specializing in chain stores. By 1931 Merrill had built Safeway up to the third largest food chain in the country; he was also its largest stockholder. The firm's growth continued through the decade, but then, on a vacation trip in 1938, Edmund Lynch died unexpectedly. Without his partner Merrill had to reexamine his business focus and in 1940 he went back into the brokerage business and merged Merrill, Lynch with E. A. Pierce and Company. The next year another merger created Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner, and Beane, the world's largest brokerage house.
New Deal legislation also affected the public perception of Wall Street. During the 1930s the federal government created the Securities and Exchange Commission to monitor the stock brokerage industry. New laws imposed fines and jail terms on those convicted of financial fraud. Merrill wholeheartedly supported these reforms and he was instrumental in influencing other brokerage houses to adopt his firm's direct practices.
During the 1940s Merrill was at the forefront of change in the investment industry. He coined the phrase "Bring Wall Street to Main Street" in 1941 to attract small investors to the stock market. He printed ads and pamphlets that contained his characteristically honest information and he insisted on professionalism among his own employees. He provided business education for his employees and paid them a straight salary rather than one based on commissions. These strategies boosted public confidence in the company and enabled Merrill, Lynch to continue its astronomical growth.
After suffering a heart attack in 1944 Merrill withdrew from active management of the firm, but he continued to direct strategy and long-term planning for the company. With partner Win Smith, Merrill instituted additional changes by recruiting younger, bettereducated brokers and providing them with training in accounting and commercial banking. He also published the booklets "Hedging: Insurance Policy or Lottery Ticket" and "How to Read a Financial Report," and he ran informative ads in the country's leading newspapers.
In 1954 the New York Stock Exchange launched a new plan for moderate-income individuals who wished to make small, regular investments in the stock market. Merrill, Lynch became the largest institutional supporter of this Monthly Investment Plan (MIP). After one year Merrill, Lynch had almost half of all MIP accounts, and within a few years the firm maintained the vast majority of MIP accounts. By the time Merrill died in 1956 his firm had 107 partners in 106 cities, and it employed over 4,600 people and handled almost 300,000 active customer accounts. The firm then became Merrill, Lynch, Pierce, Fenner and Smith; in the late 1990s it continued to be the world's biggest brokerage.
Merrill's innovations in the field of financial services led to far-reaching changes both in the way Americans invested and in the way they spent money. Before Merrill established his brokerage firm, stock market investments were only for the elite or the unscrupulous. Average Americans had no idea of how the stock market worked and they distrusted Wall Street—for a good reason. Many brokerage houses kept the "best" information only for their wealthiest customers and they tried to lure others with exaggerated claims and deceptive promises of profits. Merrill, however, provided accurate figures and honest information tailored to the needs of average Americans. One of his first acts when he reentered the brokerage field in the 1940s was to issue a pamphlet that stated "The interests of our customers MUST come first."
Merrill, Lynch became a leader in the dissemination of investment information. The company published a bi-weekly magazine, Investor's Reader, and it was the first to make full public disclosures of its operations and holdings, as well as the investments of its partners. As Martin Mayer wrote in Wall Street: Men and Money, "Merrill brought in the public [to Wall Street] not as lambs to be fleeced but as partners in the benefits."
The rapid growth of chain stores, in which Merrill was also instrumental, profoundly affected the U.S. economy. Before the introduction of these giant chains most Americans shopped at small, mom-and-pop style stores that operated with a small volume and charged higher prices. Because chains could operate on an economy of scale they could offer a greater selection of goods at lower prices. The growth of chains became such a threat to smaller retailers that the California legislature passed a tax on chain stores, which would have absorbed about 20 percent of Safeway's net income. Confident that consumers wanted the better prices and selection that chains could offer, Safeway management urged that the issue be put to a popular vote. In a 1936 statewide referendum voters in California repealed the tax. The message was clear: consumers wanted chain stores. Merrill later remarked, "If ever I get to heaven, it will be because I helped lower the price of milk by a penny a quart in Los Angeles."
Merrill used a substantial part of his wealth to further the principles by which he had made his fortune. In 1945 he created the Merrill Foundation for the Advancement of Investment Knowledge, which awarded grants to institutions such as Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Brookings Institute, and the Wharton School of Finance. He donated 95 percent of his $25 million estate to churches, hospitals, and colleges. A large portion of this estate supported colleges and universities in the South that served African American populations. In 1951 he donated his 16-acre estate in Southampton, Long Island, to Amherst College which became the Merrill Center of Economics. In 1953 Merrill endowed a chair of medicine at Harvard University in honor of heart specialist Dr. Samuel A. Levine, who had treated Merrill for his heart condition.
In 1947 Merrill was named as the only representative from the securities industry in a poll of 50 outstanding business leaders. He received an honorary M.A. degree from Amherst College in 1933 among other honorary degrees from the University of Michigan in 1945, John B. Stetson University in 1946, Amherst College in 1948, Kenyon College in 1949, and a degree from New York University in 1950.
Charles Merrill married three times: first to Eliza Church in 1912, with whom he had a son and a daughter; to Helen Ingram in 1925, with whom he had a son, (they divorced in 1937); and to Kenta Des More (their marriage lasted from 1939 to their divorce in 1952). Merrill spent his last years at his home on Merrill's Landing in Palm Beach, Florida where he died on October 6, 1956.
See also: Chain Stores, Dow Jones Industrial Average, Stock Market, Stock Market Crash of 1929
Ingham, John. Biographical Dictionary of American Business Leaders. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1983, s.v. "Merrill, Charles."
Merrill, Charles E., Jr. The Checkbook: The Politics and Ethics of Foundation Philanthropy. Boston: Oelgeschlager, Gunn and Hain, 1986.
Perkins, Edwin. Wall Street to Main Street: Charles Merrill and Middle Class Investors. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.
Regan, Donald. The Merrill Lynch Story. New York: Newcomer Society, 1981.
Schweikart, Larry, ed. Encyclopedia of American Business History and Biography, New York: Facts on File, 1990, s.v. "Banking and Finance, 1913–1989."
[h]aving thousands of customers scattered throughout the united states is infinitely preferable to being dependent upon the fluctuating buying power of a smaller and perhaps on the whole wealthier group of investors in any one section.
Charles E. Merrill
Charles E. Merrill
Charles E. Merrill (1885-1956) was the founder of Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner and Smith, the world's largest brokerage firm. A brilliant market analyst and salesman, he reorganized the investment industry to attract small investors into the stock market.
Charles E. Merrill was born in Green Cove Springs, Florida, on October 19, 1885. The son of a physician and drugstore owner, Merrill was educated at the preparatory school of John B. Stetson University in Deland, Florida, and at Amherst College. After leaving college Merrill tried his hand at newspaper work, law school, and semiprofessional baseball before finding his niche in the business world. In 1907 Merrill took a position as office boy in the New York City branch of a textile firm. Within two years he had become a director of the company. In 1909 Merrill joined a commercial paper company, where he created and managed a bond department. After his resignation in 1913 he became a sales manager for Eastman, Dillon and Company, an established Wall Street firm.
In January 1914 Merrill decided to start his own investment banking firm and founded Charles E. Merrill and Co. in office space sublet from Eastman, Dillon. Six months later, when Merrill took on a partner named Edmund Lynch, the firm became Merrill Lynch and Company. After Merrill's successful underwriting of the McCrory Stores the firm gained a reputation as an underwriter of chain stores and grew large and profitable. Because Merrill took stock warrants as part of his commissions and later sold his shares when their value rose, he also amassed a personal fortune. Merrill's biggest success as an underwriter was his organization in 1926 of Safeway Stores, Inc., in which he was the largest shareholder. At the time of Merrill's death in 1956, Safeway was the second largest food retailer in the country.
In 1928 Merrill became convinced that the stock market was overpriced and advised his customers to sell their holdings; those who took his advice (the president, Calvin Coolidge, ignored his warning) were spared the ravages of the great crash of October 1929. Sure that the depression would be longlived, Merrill got out of the brokerage business in 1930, turning over $5 million of his firm's capital to E. A. Pierce and Co. and limiting his involvement to handling the equity securities of his growing list of chain stores, which by this time included First National Stores, S. S. Kresge Company, and Western Auto Supply. In addition, in 1932 he helped to found Family Circle, the first magazine distributed by grocery stores. For Merrill this was semi-retirement, and he spent much of the 1930s enjoying the fruits of his labor in his elegant homes in Southampton, New York, and Palm Beach, Florida.
In 1940 Merrill reentered the brokerage business, bringing about a merger of Merrill Lynch (Lynch had in the meantime died) with E. A. Pierce and Company. Another merger in 1941 created Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner, and Beane—the largest brokerage house in the world, with offices in 93 cities.
In the 1940s Merrill was responsible for making vast changes in the way the investment industry operated. Adapting retailing concepts to stockbrokering, Merrill became determined to attract large numbers of small investors to the market. In 1941, using the slogan "Bring Wall Street to Main Street," Merrill started a campaign both to educate the general public about the stock market and to make changes in the structure of the business that would appeal to small investors. He accomplished the first goal by printing large advertisements and pamphlets in newspapers and magazines (and sending reprints to all who requested them) which described the workings of the investment business in simple language and by setting up a research department that would do stock analysis reports intended for, and freely distributed to, laymen.
In addition, Merrill reorganized his firm to assuage the public fear that stockbrokers were out to bilk the consumer. He insisted that his employees pass a training program so they would be at least minimally educated in the business, and he paid them on salary rather than on commission, relying on profit-sharing and bonuses as incentives. He cancelled service charges and kept commissions low. He instituted an annual report and sent it out to all his customers to assure them that their money was secure with Merrill Lynch.
Merrill's marketing strategy was extraordinarily successful; small investors responded in droves and remained loyal to the company. Although the firm's innovations were widely imitated on Wall Street, Merrill Lynch consolidated its position as the largest brokerage firm in the world. By the time of Merrill's death in 1956 the firm had 115 offices in the United States, more than 100 partners and 570 employees, and on any given day handled more than 10 percent of all the transactions on the New York Stock Exchange. In the 1980s Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner and Smith (the name was changed after Merrill's death to credit a longterm partner) remained the biggest brokerage house in the world.
Merrill was not only one of the most successful stockbrokers in American history, but probably the most innovative and influential in terms of setting the course for investment brokerage. He created a conservative image for Wall Street that would attract the small investor toward acquiring shares in the country's economy and thereby made investing commonplace among the middle-class.
A firm believer in the free capital market, Merrill bequeathed his share of the limited partnership of Merrill Lynch (worth $5.5 million) to the Merrill Foundation for the Advancement of Investment Knowledge, which he had created in 1945 to give grants to institutions to study free enterprise. He donated 95 percent of his $25 million estate to colleges, churches, and hospitals. Charles E. Merrill was married and divorced three times; he had three children. He died on October 6, 1956.
There is no biography of Charles E. Merrill. His role in American brokerage is discussed in Martin Mayer, Wall Street: Men and Money (1955); Edwin Hoyt, The Supersalesmen (1962); and Robert Sobel, The Big Board: A History of the New York Stock Market (1965) and Inside Wall Street (1977). □