Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Muriel Siebert: Wall Street Pioneer

Siebert: A career of firsts
Many people on Wall Street who knew Muriel Siebert well called her "Mickie."  Other people who interacted with her or conducted business with her firm knew about the Chihuahua dog that always tagged along. The dog even shared her office and sometimes interrupted meetings, often scrambling around the office craving attention. Visitors wouldn't dare complain.

On the Street, everybody familiar with her knew about her long career of firsts--the first woman to become a member of the New York Stock Exchange, the first woman to become New York State's top banking regulator, one of the first to found her own brokerage firm, and arguably the first icon in the securities industry for all the women who've followed behind.

They knew, too, about her dogged, determined ways, her bold, sometimes brash manner in speaking up on behalf of women. She thrived in one of the most recalcitrant environments, where men ruled the industry as if it were a college fraternity. From the moment she decided to make a living selling stocks and bonds, she battled old-boys clubs that blatantly disregarded pleas from women and minorities who wanted to crack the core.

Siebert, who died this month at 84 in New York, rubbed Wall Street men the wrong way--not because she wanted to, but she might have felt she had to. She spoke her mind and fussed about gestures and traditions that offended women. (The story is told often about the big ado she made about getting a women's room near the New York Stock Exchange dining room.) The doors she knocked down opened slightly, but only after relentless pounding. In later years, she never hesitated to toot her horn, recount her accomplishments, and remind all within earshot that we were only at the 20-yard-line in a 100-yard dash.

(The sprint for fairness and opportunity continues. Amidst announcements of her death come reports in late August that Merrill Lynch, now part of Bank of America, is settling a long-running lawsuit with black brokers in its retail network for amounts over $150 million.)

After gaining the stock-exchange membership in 1967, she set out on her own, choosing not to tackle the manly bureaucracies at the major brokerage houses of that time (the Paine Webbers, Merrill Lynches, and E.F. Huttons), if those houses would even offer her employment opportunity. She established her own small brokerage firm, eventually reorganizing it as a "discount brokerage house," where she peddled stocks at discount commissions--not bothering to expand into other securities businesses (corporate finance and trading), preferring to stick to what she knew best.

For years, her brokerage firm Muriel Siebert & Co. (and its incarnations through the years) operated within that niche, fortunate to survive in a tough industry, going head to head with bigger, more-capitalized firms that featured, of course, armies of old-school, male brokers. Over time, she eventually took the firm public (Siebert Financial Corp.) and ventured into philanthropy to give back and support other women following her path.

Nonetheless, not many know how she clamored and pushed for progress in other ways.  Late in her career, she formed ties with Napoleon Brandford and Suzanne Shank, senior African-American bankers in municipal finance.  When she decided to expand into municipal finance in 1996, her firm invested in a new affiliate partnership, Siebert, Brandford & Shank, now one of the top minority-owned banks in municipal finance. With more capital, they could win more business and rise higher in underwriting syndicates and tables.  She exploited their connections and experiences in municipal finance, while they took advantage of new capital and the "Siebert" brand.

Siebert fought, struggled and pouted until the end--likely still perturbed by slow progress across all sectors of brokerage and banking in big banks, in hedge funds, in small regional brokerages, and at asset-management companies.

Goldman Sachs this year announced a new slate of partners and managing directors--bankers, traders, and managers at the top echelon, the ones who run business units, make decisions about strategy and expansion, and the ones who reap the most in compensation. Only 14% of the new partners (managing directors with large ownership stakes) were women; only 23% of the new managing directors (those without promised large stakes) were women.  At Morgan Stanley, only 17% of new managing directors were women.

Siebert would not have been satisfied, would have been puzzled about such numbers in 2013, and in Siebert-like fashion might have picked up a phone and scolded the CEOs of those firms or might have whispered her disappointment sternly in a corner at Wall Street charity dinner.

Over 45 years, Siebert "leaned in" and pinched a few nerves, ruffled the cuffs of many securities-industry leaders, and griped about unfair practices and unfavorable opportunities for women. Like many pioneers, she worried less about being liked, worried more about progress.

Tracy Williams

See also:

CFN:  Making Demands on Diversity, 2013
CFN:  Getting Pushed Back, While Leaning In, 2013
CFN:  MBA Diversity: A Constant Effort to Catch Up, 2012
CFN:  Making Markets in Her Home Country, 2009

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