Idealist rode the bull, lived to write the book Annapolis author tells of a 'year of madness' on Wall Street

January 27, 1998|By Melinda Rice | Melinda Rice,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

March 3, 1995, is a momentous date in the life of Paul Stiles, one marked with a gold star in the Daytimer of his personal history.

Not quite as important as May 4, 1991 (the day he married Sarah), or July 30, 1997 (the day his son Curtis, was born), but still a landmark day.

After a year at a job he grew to despise in a city he viewed through the bifocal lenses of dismay and distaste, on March 3, 1995, Stiles was fired from a high-paid job as an associate at what was then Wall Street's biggest securities firm.

"It was a relief," said Stiles, 33.

Retreating to Annapolis, where he lives in a cottage with Sarah, 30, Curtis and Tugger, their Jack Russell terrier, Stiles wrote about that year in New York -- about how it changed his life and reaffirmed his values. Times Books has published "Riding the Bull: My Year in the Madness at Merrill Lynch." It will be available in local bookstores Feb. 15.

Though touted as an insider's view of the way Wall Street works, "Riding the Bull" is really the story of the disillusionment of a young idealist.

When he arrived in New York in January 1994, Stiles was ready to prove himself and make a pile of money. Increasingly, he found his principles getting in the way.

"There is an assumption that the market is acting on moral foundations," said Stiles. "But people's principles are being obliterated by this system."

Stiles was not naive. He'd left the Air Force Academy after two years, dismayed at unethical behavior he saw there, such as a cheating scandal involving most of the football team and a commanding officer who he said lied to him.

He accepted a naval ROTC scholarship and transferred to Harvard. The Navy posted him to the National Security Agency when he graduated with a degree in business. NSA was worse than the academy, he said.

"It's a malevolent bureaucracy and it wastes millions of dollars," said Stiles, who recalls that most NSA employees worried more about their pensions and workplace fiefdoms than anything else.

When his four-year commitment to the Navy was up, Stiles followed the money to Wall Street. A friend had earned a million working there, and that sounded pretty good to Stiles, by that time married, living in Annapolis, and thinking about starting a family.

He didn't even know what a bond was. But he brushed up at the library and pursued Wall Street managers until Merrill Lynch hired him.

In February 1994, entertaining visions of wealth, Stiles and Sarah left Annapolis for Brooklyn, N.Y., to begin a year that would test their marriage and Stiles' core beliefs.

Those beliefs -- including that life should be a search for truth, beauty and goodness and that a man's worth is not measured by his net worth -- were shaped in Needham, Mass.

Stiles grew up there in a three-bedroom house with a younger brother and two older sisters. Their schoolteacher parents, Curtis and Marilyn Stiles, treated their children as people to be unfolded rather than clay to be molded.

To pay for countless lessons and private schooling, Curtis took a second job as a movie projectionist. Summers, which the family spent on Cape Cod, he worked as a bartender.

F. Washington Jarvis, headmaster at Roxbury Latin School, remembers Stiles as a headstrong, but sensitive young man who despised phoniness.

"He was a very interesting combination of intense, relentless, tough and vulnerable, sensitive and tender," said Jarvis. "It's a combination that really blows you away."

"I had come from a wonderful environment, a wonderful family," said Stiles. "I thought the whole world was like that."

Wall Street was not. "Nobody there does anything for a moral reason," he said. "What do you think that does to you as a person? The system benefits at your expense."

He found himself untrained, in a hostile workplace filled with co-workers who viewed everyone as competition. His coveted high salary did not go very far in New York. Sarah traveled a lot for her job with an educational software firm, and Stiles did not know how to tell her what was going on at work.

"I didn't see the clues until it got really bad," said Sarah. "We were just existing, co-existing." When the ax fell March 3, 1995, Stiles viewed it more as liberation than execution.

After a record bad year, Merrill Lynch had let 25 percent of its work force go. Stiles was not among them, but he let it be known that he did not like New York or the culture of Wall Street and his boss offered him -- then insisted he take -- a severance package. Two weeks pay and help finding another job.

Stiles found his own next job -- writing a book about the experience.

"I got very excited when I got Paul's book. I said, 'This is a new voice,' " said Karl Weber, who edited Stiles' book before leaving the publishing firm to work for himself. "I had never read anything quite like it."

Stiles, Sarah and Tugger returned to a cottage in Annapolis with a view of the Severn River.

While Sarah worked for the county public schools training teachers to use technology, Stiles relived his Merrill Lynch experience and pounded it into his portable MacIntosh computer.

"Things had stopped making sense. When that happens, you go through this wrenching emotional change," he said. "That's what drives me to write. It drives other people to drink."

Stiles finished the book last year, an event relegated to secondary importance by the arrival of Curtis. The first-time father and first-time author now believes that people and principles are what is important in life. He no longer trusts institutions.

Pub Date: 1/27/98

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