T. Rowe Price's 'muni maven' trades up

Municipals: A diminutive, super bond trader will head a T. Rowe Price department that oversees $55 billion in assets.

February 22, 2004|By Paul Adams | Paul Adams,SUN STAFF

They were looking for someone with a Ph.D. and a strong background in credit analysis. Mary John Miller had neither.

But George J. Collins, who retired as T. Rowe Price Associates' chief executive in 1997, remembers thinking Miller would make a better analyst than any of the other applicants who answered the Baltimore investment firm's ad in The Wall Street Journal in 1983.

A former Capitol Hill staff member and urban planner, Miller had spent years studying public policy and how municipal governments could fix their infrastructure. And T. Rowe Price needed someone who could take a critical look at the municipal bonds that financed such projects.

"They hired me because I convinced them I knew something about municipal bonds - not so much from the financial side of them as the substance of what [a city] is trying to borrow for. Does it makes sense?" recalled Miller, who discovered a love of finance while doing research at the Urban Institute.

Twenty-one years later, Miller, 48, is poised to join a growing number of women who have risen to high-level positions in the historically male-dominated financial industry. In April, she will replace the retiring William T. Reynolds as head of the firm's fixed-income group, an 82-member staff of bond portfolio managers and analysts who oversee $55 billion in assets.

"I think she is one of the most professional people I've ever met and exceedingly intelligent and gifted," Reynolds said in an interview the day Miller's promotion was announced.

It wasn't long ago that women of Wall Street made headlines when they took over for male executives. Today, industry insiders say, it is increasingly commonplace.

Though white men still hold more than two-thirds of the management positions industrywide, women are increasingly occupying corner offices at medium and large firms, according to a survey by the Securities Industry Association.

Between 2001 and 2003, "managing director" positions held by women climbed from 14 percent to 19 percent of the total. Among large firms, women in "executive management" positions climbed sharply, from 14 percent of the total in 2001 to 20 percent in 2003, the survey said.

"What that survey says to me is it's not that unusual anymore," said Kyle Maldiner, chairwoman of the association's diversity committee and a senior vice president at Lehman Brothers Holdings.

Miller, who is married and has two teen-age sons, demurs when asked if she sees herself as a role model for women in the business. When billions of dollars are at stake, gender takes a back seat to portfolio results.

'A green toad'

"You could be a green toad and if you were good [at managing money], this is a company that would recognize that," she said.

Around the office, colleagues say, Miller doesn't play the gender card.

"She would never wear that on her sleeve," said Hugh D. McGuirk, a T. Rowe Price vice president and portfolio manager who works with Miller. "Mary has always been dedicated to her work and I think she has adopted a philosophy that if I do a good job the people around here are going to recognize it."

About 5 feet 4 inches and athletic, Miller occupies an office on the seventh floor of Price's downtown headquarters at 100 E. Pratt St., overlooking Baltimore's Inner Harbor and Light Street. Just down the hall is the firm's bond trading floor, a noisy room crammed with flat-screen computer monitors that glow with the latest financial news from Reuters and Bloomberg.

Despite her move into management, Miller can frequently be found at one of the 36 spots on the trading-room floor, where she monitors bond prices and oversees Price's Tax-Free Income Fund.

She plans to continue managing the fund after she takes over for Reynolds. It keeps her in touch with the market, she says, and helps her to stay in tune with what the other portfolio managers are going through.

And it's never boring, said Miller, who seems to take pleasure in monitoring the Federal Reserve, tracking economic indicators and reading employment reports that would put most people to sleep.

Monitoring the Fed

At a recent early morning strategy meeting, she absorbed detailed economic reports relayed by a team of analysts in the fixed-income group. Seated around an oval table in the team's conference room, the group discussed an impending appearance by Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan before Congress and everything from retail sales to unemployment statistics.

"I find it intellectually stimulating," Miller said in an earlier interview. "People say, `Bond market? Don't you want to be in the stock market? That's where the action is.' But I've always liked the sort of mathematical, quantitative nature of the bond market, as well as the credit side."

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