Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Trust in Being Brave - The Merrill Lynch Story

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Like I mentioned in a previous post, I spent a decade at a Wall Street bank in a variety of different positions, most of which I viewed as nothing more than a series of jobs to pay the bills. Yes, that's how I viewed my purpose on this planet at one time. It took a major awakening in the late 80's to snap out of this sleepy way of life.

Towards the end of ten years at this bank, I was itching to make another change and move on because I knew I was capable of doing much more than what I was doing at the time. I had no idea what I would do but I put myself in an open frame of mind and prepared to seize an opportunity when it came my way. There's a saying that when you are ready, it will come.

I didn’t have to wait long. The timing was right.

Someone I knew who happened to be vice president at Merrill Lynch told me they were looking for new stockbroker trainees. After telling me about career opportunities at the company, he asked if I would be interested in going to work for them as a future stockbroker. I immediately said I would. ("Plan to say yes to opportunities!")

An appointment was set for an interview with the branch vice president at the Fifth Avenue location (New York City) where they had an opening. It was scheduled on a cold, blustery day in February 1992.

I’ll never forget walking into his office. It looked like a Ritz Carlton penthouse suite complete with plush carpeting, expensive oil paintings, a king-sized maghoney desk and a complete living room set along with countless of sales awards. I didn't see a marbled bathroom in there but wouldn't have been surprised if there was one! The place was a statement of tremendous wealth and success.

The vice president was a young, successful sales manager who was dressed to the nines for success. I liked him the moment we met. He had an air of confidence that was refreshing. The man was articulate and laughed easily. But despite his friendly manner, I was intimidated. The lofty atmosphere was not something I was used to. My time at the bank was rather drab in comparison.

We talked for a grand total of twenty minutes after which he requested that I make an appointment with twelve of his stockbrokers, all of whom had offices of their own. That meant they were bringing in a healthy six or seven figures a year. The vice president also told me to write up a marketing proposal on how I would build my clientele if he were to hire me. He shook my hand firmly and wished me luck.

The more I thought about a new career as a stockbroker, the more passionate I became. Thoughts like “financial freedom,” “act as your own boss,” “earn what you put into it” got me excited.

I should mention that shortly after my introductory interview, I was struck down with a nasty cold that threatened to put me out of commission. However, because I had an overwhelming sense of passion about making this career change and trusted that life was about to get better and better, I forced myself to make those 12 appointments and went through with it.

What followed was an unbelievable series of even more obstacles during the interviews. Not only was I feeling crappy at the beginning, but each and every one of the interviewers said that being a stockbroker was "very tough." They invariably told me that 80 percent of newcomers failed within their first year and that there was a lot of rejection to content with. Some even had the gall to tell me I was better off in my nine-to-five job at the bank!

My stomach tightened with each passing interview but my overriding faith more than made up for it. I refused to let their comments derail me. Never before was I so determined to succeed with the task at hand!

By the time I went back to the branch manager two months later for the final interview, I was exhausted. But I walked into his office with my head up high and proudly handed him my marketing proposal that I worked so hard to put together.

His reaction to the proposal was disappointing. He hardly looked at it, tossing it aside. The vice president's face was frowning probably because he had other things on his mind.

He absentmindly picked up a paper clip and started to fumble with it, not saying anything for the longest time. The silence was literally deafening. It was obvious that the vice president was struggling mightily with a decision. Although the 12 interviews went well, he seemed unsure that I had what it took to be successful.

Suddenly, without warning, I was seized with an overpowering sense that this was "my moment." My skin felt prickly, a sure sign that my inner voice was telling me to do something.

It was now or never.

I instantly knew what I had to do. Did I have the guts to do it?

My heart yammered like crazy over what I was about to do.

Pointing my shaky finger at him, I mustered the courage to speak up and forever changed the course of my life: "Sir, if you don’t hire me, you’ll never know what I can do for this firm."

Then I did the hardest thing I ever had to do. I shut my mouth and waited.

The moment I spoke, it was as if everything was slow motion like in the movies. He stopped fumbling with the paperclip, looked at me with those piercing eyes and then shocked me with a smile - his first since walking in that morning. Then he threw the badly deformed paperclip into the wastepaper basket with a resounding clunk. Two points for him.

Taking a deep breath, he said, “Okay, you got the job.”

Enormously relieved, I was halfway out of my chair and was about to shake his hand but before I had a chance, the young vice president thrusted his finger in the air and said, “on one condition.”

Slowly sinking back into my chair I said, “What’s that?”

“You must resign from your job at the bank effective two weeks from today, come to us and we’ll train you for three months on a small salary. Then you'll have to take the securities examination. It’s 250 questions long." he said.

Lowering his voice slightly, he warned, "Mr. Hopson, if you fail by one point, YOU’RE OUT!” He made a larger than life gesture with his thumb like an empire calling an OUT in a baseball game.

Despite this shocking statement, it took all of 2 seconds to reply. “Ok, I’ll take it.”

I’ll never forget the look on my boss’s face at the bank the next morning when I handed in my resignation. He raised his bushy eyebrows and sarcastically said, "What's this?" Wall Street was undergoing a major shake-up at the time. The market had bottomed out and interest rates were soaring. On the surface, it appeared it was not the "right" time to make such a drastic career move but I did it anyway.

Two weeks later, I cut the cord at the bank and left. During the following three months of training at Merrill Lynch, I studied for the exam, acted as a “gofer” (for the established brokers) and kept my nose to the grindstone, doing the best I could.

Finally, it came time to take the securities exam in April of 1992. Taking the elevator up to the 4th floor of a beautiful gleaming glass building downtown, I followed signs to the testing room. After showing identification and signing in, I took a seat in the waiting area. From where I sat, I could see rows of computers and uncomfortable looking chairs through a window that served as a wall between the reception area and the testing room. There were a handful of other applicants in the waiting room with me. It reminded me of an open casting call in Hollywood. They all appeared like nervous out of work actors, biting their fingernails and shifting their feet. I did my best to ignore them.

The exam proctor led us to our assigned computers, gave us appropriate instructions and then told us to begin.

Two and a half hours later, I pressed the enter button on the keyboard. A colorful pop-up window came up, asking if I was done and whether I wanted to review my answers. No sense in second guessing myself so I clicked “Finish.”

A flashing message followed with: “Please wait while your scores are being tabulated.

My mind immediately flashed back to the day of the final interview with the vice president's ominous warning, "If you fail by one point, you’re out!”

I swallowed hard and waited and waited. After what seemed like hours, this showed up on the screen:

“Congratulations, you passed with a score of 83! Go to the front desk and retrieve a printout of your test results. Thank you and have a good day!”

From that point on, I never looked back. In my first year as a rookie stockbroker, I earned a paltry $16,000 - people on welfare was probably making more than me! Four years later, I was bringing in $300,000. Even CNN came to interview me.

If I hadn't acted on my intuition and boldly told the vice president, Sir, if you don’t hire me, you’ll never know what I can do for this firm, I might still be tolling away at the bank, desperately waiting for retirement to arrive. Who knows?

Food for thought: When you scrounge up the courage to be brave, you find out what you're truly capable of doing, garnering handsome rewards in the process.
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