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Vita Sua in a Bygone Mobile

Part 3 in a series: "We're On Our Way"
Previous installments: 1 & 2

Mobile Bay Times
... But here I was, in the spring of 1952, at age 31, starting a new career.

The year was a momentous one for me. C and I had built our house in JH, which we occupied March 26, the week after I started at SRC. And our first born, L, had joined the family circle just a month previously.

These had to be
rather difficult
times for C. At
that time, JH was
an isolated
community, seven
miles west of
downtown Mobile
with virtually no
located within
three miles.
I was at work Monday through Friday and also Saturday mornings at SRC and immediately after finishing the day there, went on to the paper on Tuesday, Thursday and Friday nights working until 11 p.m. and sometimes as late as 1 a.m. I also worked until 8 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays.

So, for much of the time, C had no one but tiny L on hand. It had to be a lonely sort of life and very confining. And, in the lonely wooded area where we lived, I'm sure the nights were sometimes frightening, particularly when I did not get home until well after 11 p.m. Of course, I could not always predict when my newspaper day (night) would end, so she had to sort of look for me when I got there.

But we were sacrificing to provide a good life for L and the boys who were yet to come.

I was not assigned a desk at SRC. There was none to spare and PD, I assume, not certain that I would make the grade, wasn't ready to invest in one for me.

In addition to my correspondence work, I spent time helping the girls mark the board, changing the paper on our various ticker machines and, since I was a reasonably adept typist, operating the wire system which, in those days, was a simple device which anyone who could type could operate. I did have the use most of the time, of our private office, which had a desk and it was here that I did most of my correspondence work.

I had been told that I was not to solicit any orders. This was very strictly verboten for anyone who did not hold a license. A six-month training period was required before the New York Stock Exchange examination could be administered.

I  had been at work about two months and business was very slow. PD, on one of his drinking bouts and obviously concerned about this slow business, accosted me. "Goddamn it, you can't succeed just sitting around here and reading books. Go out and do some business."

So, even though I was not yet qualified, I began some soliciting. My first account was a Willie C., enrolled on May 3, 1952, who bought ten shares of American Standard at 15 7/8. I also opened an account for my mother the same day. As the days went on I added a few more clients and, at the end of May, had six accounts.

However, one June day, PD, again juiced up, lit into me. "Goddamn it, don't you know you aren't supposed to be soliciting business. You could get us all fired."

That was that. I went back to my studies, although I did sign up two more clients before I received my license Sept. 22, 1952.

The testing procedure was a real joke. The materials were sent down from the NYSE and I was to take the test, under supervision of the office manager, without the aid of any of my books.

Actually, I didn't need any aid. The test was relatively simple. However, PD's "supervision" consisted of looking over the questions and giving me his answers or calling in XX if he found something he couldn't answer. I didn't want or need the help but I got it regardless.

I passed, but whether with flying or drooping colors, I can't say. No grades were given.

That very first day of eligibility, Sept. 22, I signed up my first good account, a National Guard friend, Leonard M., who did enough business for me to have my first $100 day - actually $119.43.

Now my draw was $250 a month but no one had told me what sort of commission I was working on. In fact, we never were told at SRC. The idea was to do as much business as you could and, as your production increased, you could ask for a raise in your draw. And, depending on your success, the office's success and the firm's fortunes for the year and -- most importantly, the manager's whim  -- you would receive a Christmas bonus.

PD and XX would hold conferences and talk to New York in early December, working on splitting up that year-end melon. Later, of course, it was just XX and he primarily took care of himself. I can hear him now, talking to the operating partner, MN, -- "Whatever you want to do for me, Mr. MN, is all right. You know I try to do everything I can for these boys. I don't mind the extra hours and extra work!" Then he mentioned a figure for each of us, I suppose -- we never did hear the figure -- a very low figure. That done, obviously it left very much for him. And when Mr. MN would tell him what he was to receive, you could see XX's face light up, "That's very fair, Mr. MN. It's real good of you."

I have no idea what the bonuses were that first year. I'm sure they weren't very good as business was very slow. I do know what mine was however.

On Christmas Eve, in good spirits, both figuratively and literally, PD called me into the office. He pulled out a pint of whiskey and said, "Here kid, this is yours. Sorry it can't be more."

Things did get better at SRC but not an awful lot.

I suppose I should have been grateful for the pint. I had now been a stock broker for a little more than three months, had worked for the firm for eight and a half months, had produced a total of $937.49 in gross commissions and been paid $2,125.

My business improved the following year -- it had to. But my gross production for all of 1953 still didn't match my pay.

Of course, these weren't exactly halcyon days in the brokerage industry. A little firm like SRC made money because their operating costs were low but overall production figures, particularly in Mobile, were quite small. In 1953, the entire office gross was $90,143. This meant that PD, XX and RK, experienced brokers all, averaged about $29,000 gross production each.

I don't know how much pay they received, but the payout for a firm with SRC's low overhead should have been about 40 percent. This would mean that they got about $12,000 on the average. Payout ratios throughout the industry generally varied from 33 percent to 37 percent with smaller firms, such as SRC, which did not have big advertising outlays, generally paying more.

How was it like to work in a little brokerage office in those days?

The average New York Stock Exchange volume was about 2 million shares, compared to the 17-18 million average we were to see in the late 60's and early 70's.

The tape which dominated the office barely crawled along and a person could, if he wished, record every trade. There were no machines to provide instant information, viz the bid and asked, volume, high and low, time since last trade. All of this was to come later and revolutionize the stock market.

If someone called and wanted to know the bid and asked for a stock in which he had an interest, we had to wire New York for the information. It might take as long as twenty minutes to retrieve it and pass it on, via the telephone, to the prospective customer.

In that passage of time, the prospect often had gotten "cold feet" and decided not to buy or sell.

It is my contention that the huge growth in the volume that was to come to the stock market was due in large measure to the development of the Bunker Ramo and Quotron machines. With these devices you could pass on immediately to a prospect most of the information he could require and press him for a decision. Unable to provide a rational reason for waiting, most often the client would go ahead. That extra 20 minutes we had to give him to think of reasons why he should not buy or sell made all the difference in the world in the early and mid-50's.

(Chapter IV: "The good doctor returns to the game.")           

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