Merrill Lynch's Valentine's Day appointment of E. Stanley O'Neal to head its retail brokerage division drew mostly yawns from Merrill reps. O'Neal was previously Merrill's CFO. John "Launny" Steffens, retail chief since 1985, was named to a new post of Private Client Group chairman, in which he will play more of a strategic role.

"I'll be brutally honest with you," says one Merrill broker in the Midwest. "I don't know [O'Neal] and I don't care. It's a New York thing. Wehave our own life."

Other Merrill reps around the country confirm that the management shift was a nonevent in their offices. The firm's introduction of a discount unit in December and rollout of its Unlimited Advantage account this past summer have set the stage for the future, they say. Most don't think O'Neal will change the firm's direction.

By taking on retail responsibilities, O'Neal is now a contender for the Merrill president and CEO posts. The firm traditionally requires top executives to acquire experience in all of the company's business units.

Merrill's CEO David Komansky is due to retire at age 65 in 2004.

In July 1999, Merrill's then COO and CEO-heir-apparent Herb Allison resigned. Some observers feel part of the reason was an internal rift over the company's Internet strategy. Allison wanted the new Merrill Direct discount unit to be separate from Steffens' Private Client Group, but Steffens won the battle to retain control.

That's why some brokers expect Steffens to essentially remain in charge of retail. "He's an institution here," says a Merrill producer on the West Coast.