Muriel Siebert is a pioneer in the world of finance. She was the first woman to own a seat on the NYSE, one of the first people to open a discount brokerage, the first woman to serve as superintendent of banks and, briefly, the first self-made female billionaire. The trailblazing of Siebert has done much to improve the situation for women in finance as well as the financial lives of many people.
Journey by Studebaker
In 1954, the death of her father left 22-year-old Muriel Siebert uncertain about what finishing her accounting/business degree would do to the family finances. Instead of completing her degree, she hopped in her Studebaker and drove from Cleveland to New York to find a job on Wall Street. She was rejected outright for her lack of experience and university education. Desperate for work, Siebert embellished upon completed accounting coursework and was hired as an entry-level research analyst.
Siebert was on the bottom rung of a very long corporate ladder. She started by calling companies with questions handed to her by senior analysts and relaying the answers to them. Adding her own insights to the ensuing discussions, Siebert was promoted and given the companies that higher-ranking analysts considered boring. Siebert's gift for numbers helped her dig deep into the financial statements and produce very accurate analyses that brought more work for her and more money for her firm.
Becoming M. Siebert
Unfortunately, Siebert soon discovered that male analysts with a comparable portfolio – and even some more junior analysts – were making much more than she was. She told the firm she was in talks with a competitor and was promptly fired. Siebert quickly landed at another firm with a much better pay package. With her high-quality research, Siebert was able to bring in several institutional clients. Unlike the male rainmakers who received a 40% cut of the business they brought in, Siebert only received a bonus tied to the commissions she generated.
Siebert continued to look for a firm that would put her on equal footing with her male colleagues. Alarmed at the lack of callbacks when she circulated her resume, Siebert dropped "Muriel" in favor of the initial "M." Only then did the calls start coming. Siebert built up a stable of institutional clients that followed her from firm to firm, earning around a half million a year, but no firm would make her a partner. Siebert had gone as far as she could go on the traditional path and she needed to do something daring to get any further.
Storming the Barricades
Siebert set her eyes on buying a seat on the New York Stock Exchange and running her own brokerage firm. She was the first woman to even attempt it, and she needed an existing member to sponsor her. It took 10 tries before she found her sponsor and then she ran into another catch. The NYSE added a condition that required Siebert to get a guaranteed loan for $300,000 before they granted her the $445,000 seat. Banks, seemingly in on the joke, refused to grant the loan until the NYSE guaranteed her the seat. It took months for Siebert to arrange financing, but on Dec. 28, 1967, she became the lone woman to own a seat on the exchange. She was 35.
Siebert brought many of her institutional customers with her into her new venture, but she was constantly frustrated by how reluctant they were to admit that they used her services or to refer other clients. When May Day came, Siebert was one of the very first to jump into the discount brokerage market. This move promptly got her dropped from her long time clearing house and created all sorts of hostility from the big brokerages on Wall Street. Only when Charles Schwab joined the field did "discount broker" cease to be a dirty word.
Siebert's achievements were treated with more respect outside of Wall Street, however, and the governor of New York selected Siebert to be the New York Superintendent of Banks in 1977. Siebert put her company into a blind trust and took over the oversight of over $400 billion held in 500 banking institutions and over 1,000 smaller companies. In exchange for all this stressful responsibility, Siebert had the pleasure of introducing herself to people by her new acronym, "S.O.B."
The problems of the early 70s, stagflation and the oil shocks, made for difficult times. Many of the banks were forced to pay high interest rates to keep deposits while most of their long-term loans were bringing in much lower rates, leading to an overall capital drain. Siebert used deep cost cutting, mergers and reorganization to keep all of the banks on firm ground when failures were occurring all over the nation. She followed this with a failed run for the Senate before returning to her firm.
Siebert's firm had been run poorly in her absence, but she soon brought it around by embracing the new technology coming available. Online trading was one of the fastest growing segments of the investing world and Siebert was ideally placed to get into the market. Siebert decided she needed her firm to go public in order to reward employees with stock options and make larger acquisitions. She chose to do a reverse merger with a publicly traded furniture dealer that was liquidating. Although seen as a "back-door" way to go public, Siebert was able to keep most of her firm under her own control – she wasn't in it for a capital grab.
Unfortunately, the small amount of Siebert stock on the market and the online nature of its discount brokerage made it ripe for a pump and dump scheme. Internet traders targeted her shares and ran their worth up far beyond any reasonable valuation, making Siebert the first female billionaire, for a while. When the SEC investigated the scheme, Siebert was cleared. She didn't sell any of her shares at the artificial highs, so her billion-dollar valuation was fleeting.
The Second Act: Financial Educator
Siebert's most notable work has come in the latter half of her life. Always free with her checkbook for charities and women's causes, Siebert gave New York State the gift of knowledge. During her time as S.O.B., Siebert saw the horrible personal finance habits of the poor and middle class. People were living paycheck to paycheck, using check cashers instead of bank accounts, and generally living underwater with no hopes of getting out. Siebert has put years of her own time and large amounts of her own money toward developing basic personal finance courses for high school students in New York State. Her initiative has been picked up by other states and students all over the country are getting the basics on investing, saving and budgeting so they can start out right.
Siebert passed away Aug. 24, 2013.
The Bottom Line
With so many achievements behind her, one might expect Siebert to retire one of these days, but the first woman of finance has shown no signs of slowing down.