Merrill Lynch: Catching Lightning In A Bottle

How Merrill Lynch Revolutionized the Financial World

Founder’s Son Writes Intimate History of the Rise and Fall of an American Institution

Even though Merrill Lynch is now part of Bank of America, its U.S. private wealth business still operates under the Merrill Lynch brand. As Merrill approaches its 100th birthday on January 6, 2014, current leadership is celebrating its history, principles, and culture and attempting to resurrect Mother Merrill.

From a one-man shop to the world’s largest brokerage, Merrill Lynch grew and prospered through principled leadership and a core set of values that shaped its culture. Unfortunately, this storied past has been overshadowed by its recent demise. Until now.

“The real story of Merrill Lynch had to be written,” says Winthop H. Smith Jr., former Chairman of Merrill Lynch International and son of one of ML’s founders. Win Smith is one of the few people to have known all of Merrill Lynch’s CEOs. “By bringing Wall Street to Main Street in the 1940s and 1950s, Merrill Lynch democratized the capital markets and allowed middle class Americans to become investors,” says Smith. “The credibility that Merrill Lynch brought to investing by the average American at that time is desperately needed today.”

Win Smith has written the first history of Merrill Lynch, Catching Lightning in a Bottle: How Merrill Lynch Revolutionized the Financial World, which traces the impact of the company from its founding in 1914 to its final shareholder meeting in 2008. While accurately chronicling pivotal moments in the history of the firm, Win also weaves in remarkable personal observations and experiences, providing insight into the fascinating characters, unique talents, and personal struggles of many of Merrill’s leaders.

Over the course of his twenty-eight-year career at the firm, Win Smith watched it expand globally without forsaking its culture or values. Then in 2001, he abruptly resigned because he could not endorse the new direction the firm was to take under incoming CEO, E. Stanley O’Neal.

Central to the historic success of Merrill Lynch had been the core set of principles developed by its founders, the first of which was that “the interests of our customers MUST come first.” These principles became the North Star for future leaders of Merrill Lynch. The culture which developed became known as Mother Merrill and allowed the company to grow, evolve, and succeed for the next six decades. But O’Neal’s openly-stated disdain for The Principles and the culture led the firm in a different direction and an over-leveraged Merrill Lynch was eventually bought by Bank of America to save it from collapse.

Smith describes it this way: “This is a story of the real Mother Merrill. It tells why so many of the firm’s employees still feel that working there was like catching lightning in a bottle. We caught the essence of something powerful and elusive and were able to share it with each other and with our clients throughout the world.”

In a timely and revealing interview, Win Smith can discuss:

  • What Wall Street could learn today from this history of Merrill Lynch.
  • What total commitment to clients means and examples of principled leadership.
  • What he would have done as CEO between 2001 and 2008.
  • What needs to happen to restore confidence in Wall Street by investors on Main Street.
  • Past leadership at ML and his experiences as Chairman of Merrill Lynch International.
  • His father’s friendship and business partnership with the charismatic Charlie Merrill.
  • What lessons he hopes to pass on to his children, as his father passed them on to him.

“Arthur Levitt, former Chair of the SEC under President Clinton, once said that Merrill Lynch is the only firm on Wall Street with a soul,” says Smith. “Before O’Neal, I whole-heartedly agreed with that assessment, and I only left the company after I was convinced it was losing its soul. This book is all about a company with a unique culture that allowed it to thrive—and how the betrayal of that culture led directly to its downfall.”



Born in New York City, Winthrop H. Smith Jr. received his BA in Political Science from Amherst College and his MBA in Finance from Wharton University. His long career at Merrill Lynch began in the “bullpen” and he held line and staff positions in human resources, finance, marketing, and investment banking. During Win’s final decade with the firm, he was EVP of Merrill Lynch & Co., member of the Executive Management Committee, and Chairman of Merrill Lynch International. In the latter capacity, he led one of ML’s four business units with 9,000 employees, over $2 billion in revenues, and client assets of $180 billion, developing senior client relationships in over eighty countries. Currently, Smith is the President of Sugarbush Resort in Vermont and director of four financial firms in the U.S. and Canada.


Catching Lightning in a Bottle: How Merrill Lynch Revolutionized the Financial World is available on Amazon and at other major online retailers.