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A pioneer broker reorganizes and expands

For two years, Muriel Siebert has been cleaning house -- not a split level in the suburbs, but a brokerage house in the thick of New York's financial district. Brash and tenacious, ``Mickie'' Siebert was the first woman to crack the most exclusive of male bastions -- Wall Street. Today she is reorganizing her namesake firm and, in a controversial move, is buying up pieces of failed brokerages.

In 1967, some 13 years after starting out as a $65-a-week stock researcher, she plunked down $445,000 to buy a seat on the New York Stock Exchange. Two years later, she formed the stock brokerage firm Muriel Siebert & Co.

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Ms. Siebert is not shy about her place in the history books.

``I am the only woman to join the NYSE, to start, own, and operate a member firm, in the history of the United States,'' she states.

As if that wasn't enough, she spent five years as the New York State superintendent of banks. As regulator over some 300 United States and foreign banks with about $500 billion in assets here, she wielded considerable power. Her 1977-82 tenure embraced the most tumultuous period for New York banks since the depression.

``Mickie confronted about the worst problems of any state regulator,'' one bank chairman said later. ``And she grabbed the reins. She took the flak.''

``That was fun,'' Siebert recalled in a recent interview at her spacious (if cluttered) office deep in the finanical district. ``When you have a serious problem . . . it becomes a challenge.''

So what is the college dropout from Cleveland doing for ``fun'' these days?

She is hard at work rebuilding her discount brokerage firm. (Discount brokers buy and sell stocks and bonds for a lower fee than full-service brokers. Typically, discount brokers don't provide advice, research, or other costly extras.)

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While Siebert kept the New York banking system from coming unglued and ran unsuccessfully for the Senate, her company was in a blind trust. She returned to find Muriel Siebert & Co. foundering.

``I've spent two years just cleaning it up, cleaning it up, and cleaning it up. It was in lousy shape. Lousy,'' she says angrily.

But most of the mopping up is over. Her firm now employs 24, her active stock accounts number 50,000 (mostly individuals), and she is back in ground-breaking form. Siebert's garb -- polka dot blouse, navy suit laced with money-green pin stripes -- and her latest gambit confirm what competitors say about her: She's Wall Street through and through.

In a move unprecedented among discount brokers, Ms. Siebert waded into the remains of the collapsed government securities dealer, Bevill, Bresler & Schulman (BBS). On May 10 she offered $100,000 for about 4,000 active stock accounts. A week later, she had paid $5,000 for perhaps 500 active accounts at Parr Securities, another crumbling brokerage.

She concedes it is a lot to swing at once, but ``you don't time these things. You see an opportunity and you step up to the plate.''

``It's probably a smart move,'' says Mark D. Coler, president of Discount Brokerage Advisory Services. At present, he says, Siebert's company is ``just one more firm in the discount brokerage business.'' Mr. Coler estimates that her relatively low commission prices put hers just barely among the lowest 30 of 150 discount brokerages.

With about 3,000 bank branches now offering discount trading services, competition is fierce. Analysts and discounters agree that buying up customer accounts -- or whole firms -- may be the cheapest way to grow at this point.

The BBS transaction looks like a ``smart'' deal for a number of reasons. On average, Bevill, Bresler customers were bigger stock traders than Siebert's clients. Most were active bond traders, too.

Capturing the stock and some of the bond trades would boost her business nicely. Also, many BBS customers are in New Jersey, which has her considering the prospects for another office there. If she can woo all the old BBS and Parr customers to trade at her firm, Siebert thinks she can chalk up a 25 or 30 percent increase in business.

Clint Pollack, president of Pace Securities, admires Siebert's savvy but thinks she has a major sales job ahead of her: ``Buying up lists of customers is only a shade better than buying up a reasonably well-proven direct-mail list. How valuable those names are remains to be seen.''

Siebert responds, ``With Parr, maybe I am buying a mailing list. I didn't pay very much.'' But the Parr purchase is an opportunity to get lost business back. It was started by some former Siebert employees who, she says, took customers with them.

As for the BBS deal, she's getting not only prospective clients but three former BBS employees. She calculates she will break even if the BBS accounts pull in only $20,000 a month in revenues. (Before the BBS collapse, those accounts were generating $50,000 a month in revenue.) The deal has been renegotiated so that, if she doesn't get the monthly $20,000, her losses are minimal.

As for keeping those Parr and Bevill, Bresler accounts: ``This ought to get 'em,'' she says holding up a brochure that chronicles her achievements with newspaper articles. ``I'd say I have a shot. . . . If I lose,'' she shrugs, ``I've gone fishing for a 150,000 bucks -- by the time I get the legal and mailing bills.''

A hands-on manager, she frequently stops in mid-sentence to grab the phone. ``I can't stand seeing all those phones on hold,'' she says picking up the receiver. ``Hello, is someone helping you?''

Like many of discount brokers, Ms. Siebert would like to expand. ``Carve a niche here, a niche there. If we're a little better and a little smarter we'll be able to find them.''

It's not an uncommon stategy. The line between a full-service brokerage and discount brokers is blurring as more discounters provide not just low-cost trades, but ``extras'' such as research, bond trading, and money management counseling.

Someday Siebert would like to open a financial planning service for women. In lectures and speeches around the country, she urges women to sign up for even the most elementary finance courses. She relishes her own monetary freedom and wants to point the way for others. ``How many women know about mortgages, basic investments, building credit?'' she asks. ``Money management should be taught in high school as one of the basics.

Since returning to her company, Siebert says she has turned down state and national government positions offered by both parties. ``Very frankly I think you have to go in and out of government. You get jaded when you go in there because you have too much power.''

She says politics has its own morality. ``You lie in politics and it's accepted behavior. On Wall Street, your word is your bond. . . . I think that the government needs business people.'' So, she says, ``that door is still wide open.''

She's had lucrative, tempting offers to buy her company, too. But she is just now getting the firm into fighting trim.

``Look,'' she says, ``I'm supersenstive to the fact that I am the only woman that started, owns, and operates a [NYSE] member firm. I've gotten enough honor out of it. There is a little obligation that goes with it. So I ought to carry the obligation.''

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