Features

Taking charge

Loretta Marcoccia worked her way up to a pioneering leadership position in finance. She got her start at UTSC.

Berton Woodward
Loretta Marcoccia

You just never know where a co-op position will take you. For Loretta Marcoccia (BA, 1988; Specialist in Administration), it took her on a soaring career at a financial house with a legendary name. It gave her a perch at the sidelines of the dramatic Wall Street meltdown of 2008, as well as Black Monday in 1987. It led her into a pioneering role encouraging women to reach the top of the financial field. And, frighteningly, it sent her to the building opposite the World Trade Center complex on the morning of September 11, 2001—an intense experience that confirmed her understanding of who she was.

Today Marcoccia is chief operating officer of Merrill Lynch Canada, part of Bank of America Merrill Lynch, or BAML (“Bammill,” as it’s called internally)—a global powerhouse in corporate and investment banking. Outside her office door in Toronto’s Brookfield Place complex on Bay Street is the trading floor, filled with men and women looking intently at a sea of electronic screens. They are trading securities and covering institutional clients for currencies, equities and fixed income products. Downstairs the investment bankers are talking to corporate clients about financing solutions. Marcoccia plays a big part in making it all work. If you parse her title, “chief” and “officer” mean she plays a major role in the strategic direction of the firm, but the term “operating” is key—that’s the part that keeps it all on the rails. Listing the wide range of people and departments she helps coordinate, Marcoccia sums it up: “I support the president in running the day-to-day.”

Marcoccia grew up in Etobicoke, in Toronto’s west end, the middle child of immigrants from the Le Marche region in central Italy. She grew up speaking Italian and remains fluent, and was a high achiever in high school— top marks and Athlete of the Year in Grade 13. Now she helps coach her daughter’s basketball team at the same school, where her picture is still on the wall. (“My daughter likes to laugh every time we walk in.”)

When she came to UTSC she was attracted by its innovative co-op program, in which students alternated each semester between school and a workplace internship. “I really thought I wanted to be a chartered accountant,” she recalls. She did co-op placements at a succession of banks, but in the end she decided that accounting was not for her.

Browsing the lists for her final co-op placement, Marcoccia saw the posting that would change her life. Merrill Lynch Canada was looking for a first-year student for its human resources department. She begged them to take her instead, noting they would get a more experienced student cheaply. She walked in the door three weeks before the Crash of ’87—and loved the work from the get-go. “It was a really dynamic and interesting place to be.” The crash also led to a major downsizing and she was seconded to the chair’s office to help put together severance packages. “I was the only one in the department who could use Lotus 1-2-3 and run a regression analysis,” she says, a skill she’d learned at UTSC in her stats class.

As so often happens with co-op positions, the company offered her a job after graduation. Two years later she became Merrill’s co-head of human resources—a huge responsibility at age 26. Even so, by 1993 she was ready to jump to Pepsi, so Merrill offered to move her to the financial side of its operations as a business manager supporting Fixed Income and Equity Markets. Now she was hanging with the vaunted Masters of the Universe. As Marcoccia puts it, “I had a seat at the table.”

Throughout her career, every two to three years she assesses where she stands—should she change jobs? And somehow, every two to three years, she still ends up at Merrill. After 25 years, it’s easy to see why. She has danced across a series of business management positions, in 2003 reaching chief operating officer of global markets. In 2007 she became COO of the firm in Canada. But the story hardly ends there.

And then came the dramatic September 13-14 weekend of 2008, when the world’s entire financial system was perched on a knife edge. Marcoccia recalls how the staff at the Canadian arm of Merrill went home on the Friday amid angst over rumours that investment giant Lehman Brothers might be failing. In New York the Treasury Secretary convened an emergency weekend summit of investment bank CEOs to deal with what had become a crisis. The hope was that Charlotte, N.C.–based Bank of America would buy Lehman Brothers and stop a domino line of failures. Instead, Bank of America ultimately bought Merrill Lynch, which was seen as vulnerable but still valuable, to help shore up the system.

Meanwhile in Toronto it was only from the Sunday afternoon news reports that the Merrill staff found out their firm had been acquired. In the office on Monday morning, “it was pretty freaky, but there was no panic.” Their biggest concern was whether corporate and institutional clients would continue to deal with Merrill, especially when the competition at Canada’s big banks would lose no opportunity to diss their U.S.-based rival. But the injection of Bank of America, whose lines of business complemented Merrill’s, proved to be a boon to its new Canadian subsidiary, and the deals quickly began flowing again. Marcoccia ran the transition for Canada, and in 2009 she was reappointed to her COO spot under the new owner—a major vote of confidence.

Marcoccia’s rise seems all the more spectacular, given that she is a woman in a male-dominated industry. In the mid-1990s she was a founder and board member of Women in Capital Markets (WCM), a non-profit group that supports women in the financial professions, where she established an industry-wide mentorship program for young women. But seeing as her own firm in Canada has already had a female president, she views the key issue as attracting more women to the industry, so more women will reach the top jobs. “It’s the law of numbers,” Marcoccia says. “It only changes by recruiting more women and getting them trained and moving up the ranks.” It’s essential, she adds, to draw women into jobs that have a clear path towards senior positions.

Then there’s work-life balance, an issue for Marcoccia as well. Given her long workdays—12 hours is commonplace—and a husband also in the industry, how has she raised a son, now 17, and her daughter, 14? Hiring a high-quality nanny was essential, but she also stresses the advantage of an office that is relatively close to her home in The Kingsway area of Etobicoke, which allows her to be actively involved in her children’s lives. “Right after lunch, they would skate from 1 to 1:30,” she says, recalling the time when the kids were little. “I would leave the office at 12:15, go home, change, grab my skates, be at the rink by 1, skate with the kids and be back at my desk by 2 o’clock.”

Family also played into the crucial decision she made about New York—typically the apex of career aspirations for those in the financial field—albeit involving very dramatic circumstances. On September 10, 2001, accompanied by a 22-year-old niece and her friend, Marcoccia checked into a hotel a block away from the World Trade Center. The next morning, Marcoccia left the two young women at the hotel while she attended a conference for Merrill at the World Financial Center—directly across from the World Trade Center.

“We saw a plane go by, rather low,” Marcoccia recalls, “and the next thing we knew, we were all being evacuated.” The next few hours were a fog of horror and chaos. She saw people jump from the towers and she was still in the area when the first tower collapsed. She remembers walking scores of blocks into Midtown Manhattan before being reunited that evening with her niece and her friend in New Jersey.

The next day, she drove back to Toronto with a full carload of Canadians. “I am driving, I am also on a conference call, and I have the map on my lap. In crisis I go into complete overdrive,” says Marcoccia. “That morning, I had arranged to have staff from the New York office work out of Toronto, and for the car and for passports at the border. I had all this stuff going on. That’s kind of what I do.” In other words, a born COO.

The unnerving experience of 9/11, however, led her to turn down an offer of a position in New York that November which would have had her working in Lower Manhattan. “I didn’t feel I could bring my family anywhere near there.”

And so she remains at the operating helm in Toronto. She has also stayed in touch with colleagues from her UTSC program, which has expanded from 25 students a year in her time to 220 today. Sometime soon, she’ll need to do her two-to-three-year assessment yet again. And while our bet is she’ll still be at BAML for years to come, you just never know where a co-op will take you.