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August 31, 1999

Making It to the Top: The Secrets Behind a Trader's Steady Climb From Chief Lunch Gal' to Trading

By Gregory Bresiger

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  • Making It to the Top: The Secrets Behind a Trader's Steady Climb From Chief Lunch Gal' to Trading
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Trading is hard enough. Many times the margin separating success from failure is reed thin. A winning trade is often dependent on a strong gut, an intuitive feeling. It's what ballplayers call "a good bounce of the ball" or what others might say is just plain luck. Even trading veterans can go from stars to bums and back again very quickly.

Maureen McCarthy, a managing director and head of position trading for Nasdaq and international equities at San Francisco-based BancBoston Robertson Stephens, has learned that many times in a highly successful, yet, at times, rocky career in trading.

A few months ago she almost re-learned this star to burn rule when a trade nearly went bad. It could have easily destroyed a career that had been distinguished by success after success even though she had not been prepared to become a trader.

McCarthy unexpectedly got a try out on the firing line in the early 1980s when in her mid-20s. Thanks to her sister, who was a broker, McCarthy was able to get in the door. She obtained an internship at the now shuttered Kidder Peabody while still in college.

"I made a lot of mistakes in the beginning. But I was lucky to have excellent people helping me," she said. "Frankly, I wasn't ready for trading, but I was able to survive."

McCarthy had mentors who prepared her to learn from failure. After that, good luck had combined with intelligence and persistence to provide her with success. Quickly, sometimes through luck, she was able to move from "chief lunch gal" to positioning and trading stocks at Kidder.

"When I got a job as a trading assistant right out of college, I knew from the start that this is what I wanted to do. I didn't want a nine to five job. I was attracted to the excitement of trading," she said.

Thirteen years later, trading has been the only kind of work she has done in her adult life. It was easy for her to dedicate herself.

She studied and became an expert in biotechnology stocks in the 1980s, in part, because few position traders were interested in this exotic area. "People really didn't understand these stocks. They thought they were all dogs," McCarthy said. Studying them, she saw the potential of biotechnology.

Biotech stocks took off, as did her career. She had moved into gaming stocks in the early 1990s when competitors thought they were dead. Again, she had chosen well. Her superiors noticed and she began to move up.

McCarthy, 36, grew up in Canton, Illinois. She started at Kidder Peabody in San Francisco right out of college in 1986. She moved to cross-town rival Montgomery Securities and then on to her present firm about three years ago. In the process, she jumped from a Nasdaq trading assistant to becoming a principal at Montgomery Securities to a trading executive at BancBoston Robertson Stephens, where she is in charge of the firm's position trading for Nasdaq and international equities.

Despite her success, McCarthy had another lesson recently in how fickle, how tenuous success can be, how even the mighty can fall quickly in this business.

Skating on Thin Ice