Still Trading After All These Years

BofA Merrill's Sylvia Rocco reaches 40 ... and still counting

How has Sylvia Rocco, a sales trader at Bank of America Merrill Lynch, managed to cover accounts for 40 years, all at the same firm? She chalks up her longevity to her love of the business, the thrill of competition, loyalty, a willingness to keep learning and being flexible.

"I love what I do so much," Rocco said. "I’m having so much fun now, more than ever."

Indeed, Rocco has witnessed the evolution of an industry–from the rise of institutional trading to the electronic trading revolution.

She recalls her first year as a sales trader in 1970 as a less complicated time to be a trader. That year the Dow Jones Industrials Average closed at 838.92 points, about the time when Watergate, the scandal that brought down President Richard Nixon, was just a building about to open.

Calculators weren’t really used, she said. Neither were computers or email, let alone algorithms, dark pools or actionable IOIs. Everything was done by hand. Every order was tele-typed or phoned to the floor of the exchange. There were listed-trading desks and OTC trading desks. And company earnings releases were printed and mailed. An analyst’s report on a stock often took five days to arrive.

For sales traders, the business was a phone call to the floor. And the job involved paper–lots of paper. "It was almost clerical, in a way, because you were dealing with so much paper," Rocco said.

In 1970, she started as an institutional sales trader in single stocks at Merrill Lynch. Today, 40 years later, she’s an institutional sales trader in single stocks at Bank of America Merrill Lynch. And during all those years on the cash desk, there are few days that Rocco can recall when she did not love her job.

"It’s been a lot of fun, and a constant learning experience," Rocco said. "I like that I can come into the office early in the morning and when it looks like nothing’s going on and unexpectedly, I can have a great day trading. I never know what’s going to happen; my job is never boring. It’s what I make it."

Her position as a sales trader has been a constant learning experience during her career, as the job has changed dramatically. It’s evolved to where Rocco said she must be a relationship manager, a student of the U.S. and global markets, a fount of information on all of BofA Merrill’s products, as well as the capabilities and limits of the firm’s systems. In short, sales trading has undergone a complete evolution, Rocco said, almost an industrial revolution.

"It’s harder today," she said. "Traders really need to think more. But it’s more intellectually stimulating."

Learning aside, nurturing relationships–with her clients, her position traders and her other colleagues–is her favorite part of the job. Her boss, Henry Mulholland, head of Americas cash equity trading, has been known to seat young sales traders next to Rocco so they can watch and learn from her skills at managing relationships.

The results have paid dividends, according to Mulholland. "It’s a subtle, little trick that we have," he said. "Every once in a while, we move people next to Sylvia. And in 18 months, they’re better at their jobs."

Her customers appreciate her approach to relationship management, as well. William Priest, the chief executive officer and portfolio manager at Epoch Holding Corp., said he’s been a client of Rocco’s for almost 40 years. And to him, Rocco defines professionalism as a trader.

"She’s the salt of the earth and thinks of her clients first, last and always," Priest said.

Rocco began her days at Merrill Lynch as a trading assistant–a secretary, as she described it. She worked in the sales department for several brokers who covered institutional clients. The position resembled a phone clerk’s, she said, relaying orders when the brokers were out at meetings.

Soon, the brokers concluded that Rocco would make a good sales trader, as she’d already built relationships with clients. After some hesitation, Rocco accepted the head trader’s offer to move over for a pay raise and bonus and was promptly handed several dozen of the desk’s smaller or more difficult accounts. "Do something with them," she remembered them saying. And she did.

"I loved it immediately," she said. "It’s constant action. It’s constant competition."

Rocco remembered the learning process as one of trial and error. As she knew nothing about trading, she had to sit on the desk and learn by making mistakes. "Once you’ve shorted a stock on a downtick," she said, "you learn you never do that again."

But Rocco credits her earliest bosses, colleagues and clients as the source of her success today. They were her mentors.

These days, it’s her turn to give back. And teaching younger sales traders over the decades might be her second favorite part of the job. Rocco tries to mentor them, just as she was. She gives each a challenging assignment to do. When they succeed, the confidence they gain is immeasurable.

Rocco’s place in trading history is unmistakable, given the time frame of her career and the fact that she is a woman. Rocco remembered how in 1975, she was one of only two women on the trading desk. In addition to seeing the ranks of women in trading grow over the years, Rocco also has noticed how their priorities have changed.

"I see more women who wouldn’t even think of leaving their careers," she said. "When they have children, they work around it. That’s what I did. I figured out a way to have my career and have my kids, too. And I really see that happening." Rocco has two grown sons.

Rocco married a commodities trader at Merrill, Ray Rocco, who retired 15 years ago. Being traders, each understood the other’s job. They could empathize and commiserate with each other on the ups and downs of the workday. And that’s helped them through Wall Street’s bigger trials over the years, such as the crash of 1987, the dot-com bust, Sept. 11 and the turmoil of 2008-2009.

The decades saw subtler trials, too. For one, equities cash desks contracted with the evolution of the industry. The growth of electronic trading has taken ever larger bites out of the high-touch business. But Rocco insists that high-touch trading is far from dying.

Her desk still fields a lot of requests for capital for tough positions. And it also supplies a lot of color to help clients make the right trading decisions, she added. Rocco has also noticed how even those wanting to trade low-touch still want to talk to her on the desk, even though they are using the firm’s electronic trading products.

"[The high-touch business] is definitely changing, and has definitely shrunk," Rocco said. "But I don’t think it’s dead. And I don’t see it going away."

During her four decades, Rocco has had opportunities to work at other firms, but she never felt compelled to take the jobs, even though they may have offered more money. She felt comfortable where she was and liked her colleagues.

Count her boss Mulholland as one of her fans, who praised her work ethic, focus and positive outlook during the dark days of 2008, when it appeared that the entire financial system was on the brink of collapse.

"She has a work ethic that would embarrass most people in the business," Mulholland said. "She absolutely comes with the same intensity and the same focus every day of the year. It’s really amazing. And she has a genuine love and passion for the business, for her clients and for the people she works with, and it just comes through in so many ways."