Financial trailblazer Muriel Siebert ignores glass ceiling
By DIAN VUJOVICH
Special to the Palm Beach Daily News
Anyone in need of a female role model ought to take a look at Muriel Siebert's life. Ever since she accepted her first job as an analyst on Wall Street, she's been blazing trails in that very male-dominated financial world.
How has she done it?
Through sheer determination, a solid sense of self and her natural abilities, drive, gumption and guts.
No stranger to awards and accolades, "Micki," as she prefers being called, was one of three women honored recently at The Weizmann Institute of Science's annual Women of Vision Luncheon. I spoke with her by phone before that luncheon.
"I'm a college dropout and I've received 18, and will be getting my 19th honorary doctorate," said this frequent visitor to Palm Beach. "Nowhere else but here in this great country could that happen."
Siebert opened her first discount brokerage firm in 1975, the year Congress gave brokers the right to offer flexible rather than fixed commission fees. Two years later, Hugh Carey, the Democrat governor of New York, offered this Republican lady a position as superintendent of banking in that state. It was a position she couldn't say no to. Accepting it, however, meant taking a leave of absence from her firm. Which she did for five years.
Today there are seven Muriel Siebert & Co. firms around the country; four in Florida, one in California and one in New Jersey.
What you might not know about Micki, in addition to the fact that she's not a college grad and is able to work politically with both Democrats and Republicans, is that she relishes a good fight, has a great sense of humor, is a risk taker and dog lover. "I don't go anywhere without my dog, Monster Girl 2."
And she believes whole-heartedly in financial literacy.
"You know there are states where they have to teach Tasmanian history but they don't teach how to balance a checkbook?" says Siebert who has championed that cause and created financial literacy programs now taught in a number of schools. "I mean we have to do this in this country. We have to educate the people. We're going to have problems if we don't."
She discussed her ability to take a risk, the key that unlocked her trailblazing career:
"I had taken a tour around New York, and at that time they could take you on the balcony of the New York Stock Exchange. I took one look at the floor and thought to myself that, if I ever come here to live, I'm going to get a job down there. It looked exciting.
"So I applied to Merrill Lynch and they said, 'College degree?' and I said, 'No,' but I needed a job.
"I applied at Bache & Company and they said, 'What are your strengths?' And I said, 'Well, I do very well at accounting. I just have a natural talent.' "
Bache gave her a test and then offered her a choice of positions. One, a job as a trainee in research paying $65 a week. The other, an accounting job for $75 a week.
"I took the 65 dollars and I lucked out."
She began that job in December 1954.
Here's more from Siebert:
Q: How did you wind up buying a seat on the New York Stock Exchange?
A: I began making money and wanted to move from the small firm I was at to a larger one that offered more. And I wanted to be paid equally -- the same as men were being paid.
I asked a money manager I knew which firm he thought might pay me equally, and he said, "Don't be ridiculous, you won't be paid equally. Buy a seat for yourself."
I thought he was ridiculous, but did my research, read the constitution of the New York Stock Exchange and found out there was no law against a woman buying a seat. But I had to meet some qualifications. Like find a sponsor -- and no one from the floor would touch me. I had to be sponsored by upstairs partners.
JP Morgan agreed to be a sponsor but then pulled out. Then a friend of mine at Chase took me up to Rockefeller who said he would sign the application stating the bank would loan me the money. The seat was $445,000. I was putting up $145,000 and borrowing $300,000.
It was all so controversial, but on Dec. 28, 1967, I made the New York Stock Exchange co-ed.
Q: What do you think about the U.S. economy today?
A: I'm very, very concerned as to how we are ever going to pay off our debt.
We are accumulating debt that will have to be paid for.
Q: Do you think we can pay that debt?
A: Not unless we find a way. If we can create the next generation of products so that we can keep our position as an industry leader in the world, we'll find a way hopefully to pay for it. If we cannot, I don't know who will buy the bonds when they come up for renewal.
We've got to create the next breakthroughs in technology in this country so maybe we can manufacture those products. Or the developments could be in drugs or some other industries. But somebody should be going after where the breakthroughs may be, figure out how to spot them and then put money into developing them. We've got the best higher education that's available and get people from China, India and around the world coming here for their educations, but once they've gotten their degrees, we don't let them stay -- they go back. That needs to change.
So we need a few Bill Gates' types whose ideas help us create millions of jobs.
Q: What about interest rates and taxes?
A: I think they both will have to go up. We'll have to be competitive, assuming that the global recovery continues. And we are going to need a Congress that works with each other. Now the Democrats yell about the Republicans and the Republicans yell about the Democrats. It doesn't help the country, and that's what I care about -- the country.
Q: And investing in the stock market today?
A: Look, everybody says you cannot make long-term investments today. I happen to disagree. Everyone is trying to get people to become traders, and you can't do that. I can't buy that (thinking) because I don't think that they (individual investors) have the level of knowledge to do so.
I do believe there are many stocks that used to sell for two and three times as much, that are good quality companies with international profiles that are available to invest in today. And I happen to think that if you buy companies of quality -- and you do not speculate unless you can afford to lose that money -- things will work out over time.
But I tell people if they feel that they don't have the knowledge, to buy a no-load, no-transaction fee mutual fund because I happen to believe in the market. You can put 100 bucks a month into one, and it will pile up. If you have a good month, you put in 200 or 100 into another fund. Or you can pick an ETF.
Q: As part owner of the municipal bond firm of Siebert Branford Shank & Co., what do you think about mutual fund investing?
A: For older people who have money, I think you've got to have a good percent in good quality municipal bonds. Before investing, though, it's very important to get to look at where those bonds get their revenues.
I told a friend of mine that you should put enough into municipal bonds to pay your fixed expenses so you can have that income. But you've got to look. You just can't say buy municipal bonds period. You've got to see where (the bond's) source of income is coming from.
Q: Any final words of advice?
A: I was at the Waldorf being honored by an organization and was asked how I got to be successful. And I said that there are three four-letter words that end in "k." You should have seen the looks on the faces in the crowd after they heard that.
One is luck and I told them that I happened to get into an industry where I had a natural ability.
Another is work and if you want to get any place you have to be prepared to work on Saturday and Sunday or stay and work late sometimes.
And the other is risk.
How do you analyze risk? You write down the best thing that can happen, the worst thing and look at where the shortfalls are. Then I tell people, if you can't live with the worst thing, don't do it.
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