Former Wall Street CEO, leader and philanthropist dies at 83

William A. Schreyer, who rose from trainee to chairman and CEO during a 45-year career at Merrill Lynch & Co. Inc. and led the company’s evolution from U.S. stockbroker to diversified global investment bank died on Saturday, Jan. 22, 2011, at his Princeton, NJ home. He was 83.

During the time that Schreyer served as chairman and CEO of Merrill Lynch, from 1985 to 1993, it became a leader both as a global securities underwriter and strategic adviser to corporations and governments, while maintaining its prominence in wealth management for individual investors in the U.S.

He gained wide recognition for his decisive leadership during the stock market crash of 1987, when he counseled investors not to panic via nationally televised commercials, signing-off with the signature line: "At Merrill Lynch, we’re still bullish on America."

Daniel P. Tully, chairman emeritus of Merrill Lynch, said, "Bill Schreyer was a visionary leader with exceptional skills at dealing with people. He was a generous mentor to all of us who succeeded him. He loved Merrill Lynch, and inspired those around him with an irrepressible sense of humor and optimism. He will be greatly missed by all who knew him."

Schreyer was born in Williamsport, Pa., where his father managed the local office of a stock brokerage acquired by Merrill Lynch. During his high school years, long before the age of instantaneous electronic data transmission, he worked part time marking a storefront chalkboard with securities prices wired from New York.

After graduating from Penn State University in 1948, Schreyer joined Merrill Lynch as a junior executive trainee, and was sent to Buffalo, NY as an account executive-- now called financial adviser. There, he met Joan Legg, the daughter of a local banker, and in 1953 they were married. Schreyer's time in Buffalo was interrupted by two years of active duty as a lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force, during which he was stationed in Germany -- where he developed his interest in international financial markets.

In 1963 he entered management as head of the company's Trenton, NJ office and held a succession of positions in the company's retail branch office system, culminating in 1972 as regional director in the New York metropolitan area.

Schreyer moved to the institutional side of the business in 1973 when he was appointed head Merrill Lynch Government Securities Inc., a subsidiary involved in sales and trading of U.S. Treasury bonds and other government securities. During this time, he convened what he described as an informal, weekly breakfast meeting of the business heads serving institutions and corporations in sales, trading and investment banking.

As early as 1977, Schreyer recommended creating a separate unit within Merrill Lynch to house its institutional businesses, a move rejected at the time as premature. However, the company took a step in this direction in 1981, organizing into two sectors -- individual services and capital markets. The latter was led by Schreyer as executive vice president. Two decades later, in 2003, the company's institutional businesses, including global markets and investment banking, accounted for 50 percent of the company's net revenues and 70 percent of pretax profits.

Schreyer became president of the parent company in 1982, and rose to CEO and chairman of the board in 1985. A strategic decision made early in his tenure established Merrill Lynch's direction for the 1980s and beyond. In 1986, Schreyer divested the company's residential real estate business, believing that Merrill Lynch should focus its resources and management attention on the global financial markets rather than domestic U.S. home sales.

A period of substantial international investment followed. Merrill Lynch was among the first group of foreign firms admitted to membership in the Tokyo Stock Exchange (1986) and became the first U.S. investment bank to open a representative office in the People's Republic of China (1993). The company also built-up its operations in London, Hong Kong and Singapore during this period.

A strong proponent of the expansion of securities marketing into developing countries as well as those evolving from communism, Schreyer co-led Wall Street delegations to China and the former Soviet Union in his capacity as a vice chairman of the New York Stock Exchange.

In the late 1980s, as market activity contracted after the 1987 crash and the U.S. economy struggled under an impending savings and loan crisis, Merrill Lynch revenues and profits came under pressure. Schreyer responded with a sweeping restructuring of the company. While this resulted in a substantial charge against earnings in 1989, profits rose steadily in ensuing years along with the stock market.

On the eve of his retirement, Forbes magazine gave this assessment of Mr Schreyer’s tenure as CEO: "If ever a chairman deserved well of his shareholders, Schreyer does. The great bull market in stock and in underwriting was not, of course, of his making. What he did accomplish was to bring -- and keep -- Merrill's costs under control."

In his memoir, "Still Bullish on America," published in 2009, Schreyer examined the "cataclysmic" financial events of the two previous years with this conclusion: "Yes, I'm an optimist. The pessimists are correct at any given points in history, but never over the long term. I believe in the regenerative powers of capitalism, as long as there are people at work with intelligence, imagination, courage, character and the desire to make a better life. I don't see any of those human qualities going away anytime soon."

Throughout his life, Schreyer devoted considerable energy to philanthropic endeavors. In 1980 he initiated Merrill Lynch's noted Christmas Calls program, a tradition that lasted for nearly three decades in which Merrill Lynch offices around the world opened their doors to senior citizens to make telephone calls to loved ones during the holiday season.

In 1988, he launched Merrill Lynch's unique ScholarshipBuilder program in partnership with the Urban League. Merrill Lynch "adopted" some 250 economically disadvantaged grade-schoolers from 10 inner cities, providing tutoring and mentoring. Upon graduation from high school, the students received full scholarships for higher education or vocational training.

A life-long supporter of education, Schreyer and his wife, Joan, announced a personal pledge of $30 million in 1997 to endow a new honors college at his alma mater, Penn State University. They added to this endowment in 2006 with an additional gift of $25 million. The college, named in the Schreyers' honor and located at the University Park campus, underwrites international study and graduates more than 400 students annually in a wide variety of majors.

Long devoted to the university, Schreyer served on the Penn State Board of Trustees from 1986 to 1998, including two terms as president (1993-1996). At the time of his death he was a trustee emeritus. He also chaired the university’s first capital campaign which ran from 1984-1990, raising over $350 million.

Said Penn State President, Graham Spanier: "The Schreyer Honors College is truly the fulfillment of Bill's vision and values. Through his own life, he showed that real leaders are dedicated to both excellence and ethics. Thanks to the Schreyers' support and guidance, our students are graduating from Penn State prepared to follow in his footsteps and take on the challenge of conscientious service and leadership in an increasingly global society."

Among his many other activities, Schreyer was a corporate director, serving on the boards of Schering-Plough, Deere & Co., Callaway Golf and U.K.-based Willis Corroon.

In the non-profit sector, he was a trustee and international councilor of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a bipartisan public policy institute based in Washington, D.C. He was instrumental in integrating international finance into its research agenda.

He also served as a trustee of the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library Foundation, and was a consultor for the Vatican’s Patrimony of the Apostolic See.
In addition to his wife, Mr. Schreyer is survived by his daughter, DrueAnne Schreyer, a son-in-law, Rodney Frazier, and two grandchildren, Kelly and Charles Frazier.

A private service will be held in Princeton, and a memorial service will be planned for the spring. The family asks that, in lieu of flowers, any donations in Mr. Schreyer’s memory be made to The Schreyer Honors College at Penn State, in University Park, Pa.; the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC; the Princeton HealthCare System, in Princeton, NJ, or Daytop Village, in New York, NY.

Contacts: 

Paul Critchlow

Work Phone: 
917-476-3030
Last Updated January 10, 2014