Times have changed, particularly in investing. Whirring computers and instantaneous international news reports dominate the financial scene. Markets are as volatile as the weather.
Stockbrokers are now financial consultants, and pure stock-picking has given way to well-rounded investment planning. The brokers who prospered through these changes are survivors.
Yet everybody makes mistakes, even the four highly successful veteran brokers with a combined 114 years of experience who were interviewed for this column.
"I missed the gold rally in the 1970s because I was troubled about investing in overseas mining situations, and somehow the inherent value of gold just didn't strike me," recalled John Thomas, a broker with PaineWebber Inc. in Palm Beach, Fla., for 20 years.
"I sat there and watched as gold went from $500 an ounce to $600 and then $700 and $800, not realizing 'the trend is your friend' and that I could have found excellent opportunities for my clients."
Of course, there's always the stock that got away.
"I regret that I didn't buy stock of Merck & Co. in 1985, for the stock was about $15 a share then [adjusted for splits] and has since gone up 10 times that amount to around $150 a share," said Irwin Metzger, a broker with Merrill Lynch & Co. in New York for 32 years.
Perhaps more could've been made of an opportunity.
"Being right here on the edge of the Silicon Valley, I can look back at many opportunities in emerging companies that I wish I hadn't missed," said broker Alan Winterbotham of Dean Witter Reynolds Inc. in Palo Alto,
"While I recommended a stock such as Cisco Systems to my clients at $18 a share [adjusted for splits] and it's now more than $80 a share, I wish in the early days I had much more aggressively recommended it and other stocks such as Hewlett-Packard."
Long-term survivors are those who kept up with technology but retained the human touch with clients.
"I know this sounds pretty ancient, but when I started as a broker we used a chalkboard to list the stock prices, and clients would either come in or call to find the latest price," said Thomas McCarron of Shearson Lehman Brothers in Northbrook, Ill., a stockbroker for 26 years.
"I have gone from chalkboards to computers, with perhaps the biggest advance in our business the software program that now gives the ability to come up with an investment package tailored to an individual client."
When Metzger started in 1959, the slogan of the New York Stock Exchange was "Own Your Share of American Business," and individuals owned more stock than any other category of investor. Today, institutions own the most.
"While stocks were once 85 percent of the services I provided, they're now 30 percent," Metzger said. "I'm a financial consultant who must offer and explain a wider variety of investments."
These proven brokers start their day early, reading and listening to all they can about the financial world. They recommend that investors do the same.
"Like the real estate adage about 'location, location, location,' in investments the advice should be 'read, read, read,' " McCarron concluded.
"The investor must keep up on what's going on and should find a financial consultant he can communicate with, someone with whom he can discuss what you're both reading."