From the November 2006 issue of Research Magazine • Subscribe!

November 1, 2006

On the Fast Track

Necessity is also the mother of re-invention. Meet Sabina F. McCarthy, clearly demonstrating and indeed personifying that figure of speech: From stay-at-home single mom, she transformed herself into a regional managing director of one of the world's leading financial firms -- in little more than a decade.

At 53, "I'm a late-comer," says the modest McCarthy, who runs a half-a-billion-dollar business and oversees 450 financial advisors plus 150 support and operations staff.

That's some good game of catch-up! Since 1998, the high-energy manager has been on a fast track at Merrill Lynch, where she began as an FA six years before, the divorced mother of three young children, one with severe disabilities, who were dependent mainly upon her for financial support.

In McCarthy's most recent ascent, she was promoted from director of the firm's Northern Virginia complex to regional managing director of the entire Washington/Virginia region, comprised of four big complexes. At this post since September 2005, she makes her office in suburban Tyson's Corner, Va.

"I'm looking at things from a more strategic 30,000-foot perspective and the needs and opportunities of our whole marketplace," says McCarthy, whose region has scored in the firm's top five each month since she took the reins.

"Sabina is one of our superstars. She's got a great job trajectory in the organization," says David McWilliams, southeast division director. "She's a top performer and really understands how to get results. People perform for her because they like her. Sabina's smart -- and they realize she's focused on their success."

Outgoing, inquisitive, McCarthy has a talent for engaging FAs on a personal level. That lets her discover what they hold most important so she can help them reach their goals. Whether identifying target markets or joining client meetings, McCarthy digs being FAs' "real business partner." "When everybody knows there's an opportunity to achieve their potential and greatness," she says, "it's all ships in a rising tide."

The divorced mom was in serious need of "a career, not just a job," she recalls, when a friend steered her to Merrill Lynch back in 1992. When she landed an offer to train as an FA, "I saw a tremendous upside opportunity: It was on my shoulders to make of it what I would. I didn't have to wait for someone to give me a raise each year."

Being female in an overwhelmingly male industry was of no concern because "I didn't really have an option for failure," says the Garden City, Long Island-reared McCarthy. "I just did what I had to do."

A graduate of Wheaton College, in Norton, Mass., the government major with a B.A. degree had earlier joined Marine Midland Bank as a management trainee, then spent a few years at AC&R advertising agency, a unit of Ted Bates. Married a year out of college, she delivered three babies in quick succession and, except for some part-time work later, quit the labor force to become a Long Island homemaker.

Her eldest child was born 11 weeks prematurely and spent his first three months in the hospital. Until he was 14, Sam, who has cerebral palsy and is non-verbal, lived at home. He then moved into a residence for boys with similar disabilities. "It's hard for a parent to admit that there's somebody else who can do more for their child than they can," says McCarthy. "But that's what it was about -- giving Sam an opportunity for a much fuller life. He lives on a working farm in the Catskills now with other young men. They go out and do things together. He uses a computer and a power wheelchair. Within the confines of his disability, he does really well."

Sam, now 27, was already living Upstate, and the FA's two other children, Elizabeth and Teddy, were boarding in prep school, when McCarthy accepted a promotion taking her to California as resident manager of Merrill's small La Mesa office in San Diego. Every six weeks she flew East to spend the weekend with the kids.

A year later, she advanced to sales manager of the Rancho Bernardo, Calif., complex and later the same year was named district sales manager of Central Florida. That's when McCarthy gave up her book and called Palm Beach home. The following year, promoted to director of the Westwood (Los Angeles) complex, she returned to the West Coast. In 2004, four years later, she became director of the Northern Virginia complex before rising to her present post.

All this career advancement did not squelch the opportunity for romance. Back in Florida, McCarthy had made a new phone acquaintance: financial advisor Joe Sherman, based in Rochester, N.Y. On the FA's next trip to Palm Beach, he and McCarthy went to dinner. Now they've been married four years and take motorcycling holidays together (McCarthy rides on back).

At work, she's technically Sherman's boss; though, for obvious reasons, he doesn't report directly to her. Their offices are in fact located about 20 miles apart, his in another Virginia town, Alexandria. At home, "we try very hard not to talk shop," says McCarthy. "But [marriage to an advisor] does keep me fully grounded as to an FA's daily challenges. It's a tough job."

That, doubtless, also goes for her challenging responsibility of managing 600 wirehouse employees. However, the even-tempered executive is unfazed: she utterly enjoys the work; and David McWilliams looks for her to rise even further.

Says McCarthy: "It's wonderfully rewarding to see a young FA have a breakthrough in his business and, for instance, be able to buy his first home or to see an older advisor take more time with his family because he could take on a young partner. To have a hand in that is what I love to do."

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Sabina F. McCarthy

Regional managing director, Washington/Virginia region, Merrill Lynch. Home base: Tyson's Corner, Va.

Manages 450 financial advisors with AUM of about $40 billion.

What trait has helped her? "Practical optimism. I'm not a cockeyed optimist -- I understand what the hurdles are. But I take them on -- and help people around me take them on -- with optimism. More than half the battle in life is having a positive attitude

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