Equal Opportunity to Succeed, and Fail

By October 30, 2007Miscellaneous

E. Stanley O’Neal rose from Alabama cotton picker to a master of Wall Street when he became Merrill Lynch chairman and chief executive in 2002.

However, O’Neal retired Tuesday after the brokerage company wrote down $8.4 billion in assets due to overexposure to the disastrous subprime mortgage market, asset-backed bonds and bad loans, according to news reports. The company posted a third quarter loss of $2.43 billion, its biggest quarterly loss in its 93-year history.

Despite the bad financial news there is still a good lesson to be learned about race from O’Neal’s rise and fall, Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson writes today. African American executives can succeed and fail, just like their white counterparts, if given the opportunity to compete as equals, he argued.

What’s really significant is that there is a Stan O’Neal. And a Dick Parsons, the African-American CEO of Time Warner, rumored to be on his way out, too, after a long and profitable run. And a Ken Chenault, the African-American CEO of American Express, who is staying put, far as I know. And a Bob Johnson, the founder of Black Entertainment Television, widely acknowledged as the first African-American billionaire.

They attained Master of the Universe status by being smarter and tougher than their peers – and now a much bigger cohort of black corporate executives is coming up behind them. It just goes to show what happens when you open a door.

And don’t feel too sorry for O’Neal, according to a report in the Financial Times. He was paid $48 million last year and could walk away from Merrill Lynch with $100 million in deferred compensation and retirement benefits.

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