He left General Motors for Merrill Lynch in 1986, beginning a meteoric rise to CFO in 1998, president in 2000 and CEO in 2002. In July 2002, when Fortune magazine named O'Neal the most powerful black executive in the country, O'Neal refused to comment for the story. Most interviewers found ONeal disinclined to talk about his race and background, as Fortune later wrote: "[O'Neal] is even reluctant to discuss what it's like to be the first African American to run a major Wall Street firm."
Last year business pundits praised O'Neal, and his firm rewarded him for their record $7.5 billion net income by paying O'Neal $48 million, one of Wall Street's richest packages.
Back in 2002, when O'Neal was picked for ascension to CEO, Fortune published a fairly glowing, lengthy story on O'Neal titled, "Can Stan O'Neal Save Merrill?" mentioning his race only once. And a BusinessWeek story, "Merrill: Is Stan the Man?" never mentioned his race. Aside from noting that O'Neal was the first black CEO of a big investment firm, most stories at the time focused on O'Neal's accomplishments, his leadership style and the obstacles facing Merrill Lynch -- but did not focus on his race.
But O'Neal, as did many CEOs in financial services, placed bad bets in the mortgage market. The sub-prime meltdown resulted in a $7.9 billion write-off in mortgage-related assets for Merrill Lynch's third quarter. His rivals -- Citigroup Inc. and others -- also lost huge sums of money. After his five-year tenure -- average for an American CEO -- the board fired him.
As for the termination, only a handful of papers bothered to mention that O'Neal is black -- and usually deep into the story. A front-page Wall Street Journal article said, "Mr. O'Neal . . . is widely credited with boosting Merrill's profitability and transforming it . . . . " Then halfway through the story, it says, "No one on Wall Street embodied the Horatio Alger story better than Mr. O'Neal, who became the highest-ranking African-American on Wall Street." The New York Times story, "At Merrill, a Risk-Taker's Rise Ends With a Messy Undoing," makes no mention of race.
O'Neal's race played no role in either his hiring or firing. So Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton will likely remain silent -- for a change.
As to the trainee at the rental car agency, I doubt whether she ever heard of O'Neal. But she certainly could benefit from something the former Merrill Lynch CEO once told Newsweek: "It's maybe the only country in the world that could have somebody like me start out where I did and wind up doing what I'm doing."