Early days of Charles E. Merrill
The physician and drugstore owner Dr. Charles Merrill married Octavia (Wilson) Merrill. Their son was born in 1885 in Green Cove Springs, Florida, where he spent his early childhood. After the school Charles had been attending was damaged in the Great Fire of 1901, he was educated at the Preparatory school of John B. Stetson University in Deland, Florida, and at Amherst College. Merrill studied there from 1901 till 1903 and then in 1903 for the final year of high school was transferred to Worcester Academy. After leaving his hand at newspaper work, law school, and semi professional baseball before finding his niche in the business world. In 1907 Merrill took a position as office boy in the New York City branch of a textile firm, and soon within two years he had become a director of the company. In 1913, after leaving a paper company, he became sales manager for a Wall Street firm called Eastman, Dillon and Company.
Founding of Merrill Lynch & Company
A year later, in 1914 Charles started his own investment banking firm and founded Charles E. Merrill and Co. in office space sublet from Eastman, Dillon. Six months later, he took on his friend Edmund C. Lynch, and the firm gained a reputation as an underwriter of chain stores and grew large and profitable. Because Merrill took stock warrants as part of his commissions and later sold his shares when their value rose, he also amassed a personal fortune. He orchestrated the 1926 merger which created the Safeway food chain, and Merrill Lynch provided investment banking services to Safeway to finance the acquisition of other chains, growing Safeway to more than 3,500 stores across the United States by 1931.
By February 1929, Merrill was so sure the end was near that he liquidated his firm’s stock portfolio, an act that made him famous in October, when the Crash finally came. Those who took his advice were spared the ravages of The Great Crash. He got out of the brokerage business in 1930, merging his retail brokerage and wire operations with E.A. Pierce and Co., thereby restructuring Merrill Lynch and Co., to focus upon investment banking, becoming the largest shareholder, and also a major investor in the S. S. Kresge Corporation, the forerunner of Kmart, and Western Auto Supply. In addition, in 1932 he helped to found Family Circle, the first magazine distributed by grocery stores. Also Charles set up one of America’s first wire houses, connecting with branch offices in different cities by Teletype.
In 1940 and 1041, Merrill Lynch had two merges, transforming in the largest brokerage house in the world, with offices in 93 cities. In the 1940s Merrill was responsible for making vast changes in the way the investment industry operated. Merrill was convinced that the average American who wanted to invest should be able to buy shares in the stock market, which was previously a playground for the wealthy. He accomplished this goal by printing large advertisements and pamphlets in newspapers and magazines which described the workings of the investment business in simple language. He made sure that his employees could attend seminars with their wives (leaving the children with care providers), to learn how to better invest their money, with the tutoring of wealth advisors (like Patrick Dwyer). He insisted that his employees pass a training program so they would be at least minimally educated in the business, and he paid them on salary rather than on commission, relying on profit-sharing and bonuses as incentives. This strategy was successful with small who remained loyal to the company. By the time of Merrill’s death in 1956, Merrill Lynch was the biggest brokerage house in the world.
Personal life and Philanthropy
Merrill was a well-known bon vivant, nicknamed “Good Time Charlie” by his friends. In 1926, he purchased the James L. Breese House at Southampton in Suffolk County, New York, a 30-acre estate also known as The Orchard, and a Greenwich Village townhouse at 18 West 11th Street. By 1940, he had been married three times, and had sired three children: educator and philanthropist Charles E. Merrill Jr., author and founder of the Thomas Jefferson School, Commonwealth School, and former chairman of the board of trustees of Morehouse College; San Francisco philanthropist Doris Merrill Magowan; and poet James Merrill, who created the Ingram Merrill Foundation to support writers and the arts. Merrill donated The Orchard to Amherst, to benefit hospitals, churches, and educational causes; his share of the limited partnership of Merrill Lynch, to the Merrill Foundation for the Advancement of Investment Knowledge, to give grants to institutions to study free enterprise.