In 2007, John Merchant leaned back in his seat at a Westport restaurant. It was lunchtime. What better way to share insight into David Ellis Adams Carson than sipping a martini. I had known Merchant as a young reporter. He shattered stereotypes with a gift for intellect that segued from neighborhoods to boardrooms. He advised a young Tiger Woods and was the first black to serve on the United States Golf Association executive committee.
On this day we were discussing Carson, the immigrant actuary’s unconventional rise to chief executive of People’s Bank, for my book Bow Tie Banker.
The waiter approaches Merchant: what’s your pleasure?
“A Bombay martini, please. Tell the maker to pour a small amount of vermouth into the glass, swirl it and then empty the glass. Lightly rim the glass with lemon. Fill the glass with Bombay gin. If it comes back in any other fashion I don’t want it.”
The waiter departs.
Merchant continues the martini discussion with me.
“Now, the best way to serve this martini is to store the gin in the freezer. Restaurants don’t do that. My gin is in the freezer.”
“So that’s a Merchant Martini, right?” I query.
“You said it.”
John Merchant, the raconteur, passed away March 5.
He was a trailblazer in Bridgeport in so many ways, socially, legally, industrially. On Jan. 14, 1993, I interviewed Merchant as part of an oral history project for People’s Bank. Grab a Merchant Martini, or beverage of your choice. Interview below.
Maybe if Sam Hawley hadn’t made the phone call the social fabric of People’s Bank would be different.
It was the summer of 1965. Hot summer days scorching America’s cities got even hotter as the civil rights movement tested the racial assimilation of the country. Hawley, People’s chief executive officer, wanted to do his part to avoid “burn baby burn” in Bridgeport, a city that had not experienced mass rioting.
Fearing rumors of an impending riot in the city, Hawley placed a phone call to a young lawyer John Merchant, a man he had met through their involvement with Bridgeport’s anti-poverty agency, Action for Bridgeport Community Development which had strong ties with inner-city neighborhoods. Hawley asked Merchant to investigate the validity of the rumors and call him back.
Merchant explained: “I waited 15 minutes and called him back. I said it’s only a rumor.” But while he had the bank president on the phone, Merchant had a couple of things to add. “One is we really did not make a habit of announcing our riots in the past,” he told Hawley. “And secondly, I really don’t think that it’s a good idea for you to call me about these issues unless you are going to talk to me the other ten months of the year.”
Hawley responded quickly, “You’re right. What shall we do about it?”
What they did helped the bank to open relationships that reflected the ethnic and racial value of the city. For the first time, Bridgeport area corporate leaders sat around a table with black community leaders totally unknown to them. They discussed racial tensions, minority hiring, labor issues, housing loans and developing bonds that worked for both sides. Merchant, a retired Naval officer, coined the group the 1800 Club, named for the group’s meeting time, 6 p.m.
Merchant’s standing with the bank led to his appointment to People’s board of directors in 1967, the first black named to the board.
Born and educated in Greenwich, in 1952 Merchant enrolled at Virginia Union University in Richmond, Va. on an athletic scholarship. In 1955, he received his bachelor’s degree in sociology, with a minor in history. Three years later, he was the first black graduate of the Law School at the University of Virginia.
After law school, Merchant served on active duty as a line officer in the U.S. Navy until December 1961. He passed the Connecticut Bar exam in 1962 and then created the law practice Merchant, Melville & Spear, the latter two partners are now both Superior Court judges in Connecticut.
In September 1967, Gov. John Dempsey appointed him deputy commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Community Affairs, where he served until 1971. In 1970, he was the Democratic candidate for Treasurer of the State of Connecticut, finishing a close second, and running ahead of the party’s candidate for governor, Emilio D’Addario.
He is currently Connecticut consumer counsel, a position to which Gov. Lowell P. Weicker Jr. appointed him in May of 1991. He is also a partner in the law firm of Merchant & Rosenblaum, with offices in Bridgeport and Stamford.
He talked about his introduction to People’s and the evolving social fabric of the bank during an interview on the morning of Jan. 14, 1993.
Q: Let’s go back to the 1960’s. You were a young lawyer active in the city’s anti-poverty agency, Action for Bridgeport Community Development. Sam Tedesco was just leaving as mayor. Hugh Curran was coming in. What comes to mind when you think about Bridgeport in the mid‑’60s?
A: A couple of things come to mind immediately that the politicians seemed to be in charge but I never got the impression that they were doing a thorough job for the city. I remembered that they were building what is now the Hi-Ho Shopping Mall and they were in the land acquisition phase and they had these thoughts about running the highway out so that the suburbs could get into the shopping center and then they put up the shopping center and forgot the road. The road came later and that’s when they got Trumbull Shopping Park.
I remember being struck by the fact that it was clearly a Democratic city. The Republicans were the minority party and essentially uncomfortable. My partner and I, in an effort to try and build up the business, had decided that he would deal with trying to get involved in politics and that I would try to deal with social services, so politics was really not my business because that was my partner’s area.
The other thing that struck me about Bridgeport was the way in which they had isolated the minority community, in that public housing was set up in a way in which, I don’t know if it was deliberate, it dissipated any potential for political power. You had the South End, you had the Green Apartments, you had P.T. Barnum and the you had Father Panik Village which was in a transition and I remember telling people about Father Panik Village and they would say, well that used to be where the immigrants would live and they came over and worked in the factories, and then it started going downhill in terms of the physical condition. The population was changing from the sense of white immigrant groups to black and Hispanic.
There was a lot of positive activity in the minority community in the East End, Stratford Avenue and places like that. But then you take a look at how you vote for alderman and stuff like that, and you think you don’t have to be a mental giant to figure out that you aren’t going to get a black alderman. The issue of political power was really just to the inner-city Italians.
Q: So, did you say to yourself that we have to start getting blacks assimilated into government and politics in the city?
A: It was something that I thought about. I remember and I still believe that there are only two kinds of power in this country. There are only two kinds of power period. One is the power of control. The other is the power of influence. Very few people ever achieve the power of control except in very narrow ways. And if you don’t have some power of influence you really are not in the loop and what struck me was that the minority community in Bridgeport really did not appear to have serious power to influence in either the political system or the business system. And those are the two major communities, politics and business, after all is said and done. Everything else is small. That’s where the decisions are made and I remember being struck by the fact that we did not have that power to influence in Bridgeport in any meaningful way.
Q. Why did you open your law practice in Bridgeport?
A: We chose the city because primarily, I had daughters who lived in New Haven and I was in Greenwich so we picked a place somewhere in the middle. Bridgeport seemed the sensible place. I remember we couldn’t find an office. Nobody would rent us office space on Main Street except Dave Zimmer. And not only did he lease us space but you couldn’t get on the bank list to do closings. You used to have to be on a list. So it was a locked system here. And Dave Zimmer said you can use my name because he was on all the lists. He said I don’t want a dime from you. You use my name. He said the only thing you have to do is say this is the guy who’s going to do the title searches.
Q: Somewhere along the way you were introduced to Sam Hawley. Do you remember how that occurred?
A: Sam was involved with ABCD. He and Parker Lansdale and Ed Harris all knew each other, related to each other and I remember Sam being involved with ABCD which is the way that I came to know him I believe. And the way that I came to the bank I remember very clearly. When I was working with ABCD, I think it was on a Tuesday, there was rumor going around town that we were going to have riots outside. Blacks were going to riot outside.
I got a call from Sam Hawley. It was in the afternoon and he asked me about this rumor. I really didn’t know what to do. I heard the rumor. I didn’t believe it but I told Sam that I would check it out and I would get back to him. So I got off the phone. I waited 15 minutes and called him back. I said it’s only a rumor, a couple of things though while I’ve got you on the phone. One is we really did not make a habit of announcing our riots in the past. And secondly, I really don’t think that it’s a good idea for you to call me about these issues unless you are going to talk to me the other ten months of the year. Without hesitation, and I will never forget this, he said, “You’re right. What shall we do about it?”
All of a sudden it’s my problem. And I didn’t know what to say because I hadn’t thought about this before. I said, well, look, I’m a black male and you’re a bank president. Why don’t I get some black males together and you get some bank presidents together and let’s sit down and talk. And that was at a time when powerful white people weren’t going to talk to black males that were strangers. You just didn’t do that. And so that was the only thing that I could think of. He said okay, fine.
Two hours later he called me back. He said I’ve got a hold of the presidents. He had every bank president I could think of committed to meeting with some black guys whose names they didn’t know in advance to be held at People’s Bank. Now I’ve got a problem because I’ve got to find some black guys but I was the neighborhood guy and so I went to Charles Tisdale, Clarence Williams and those guys became my guys to go to this meeting and we started this meeting and we decided to meet regularly.
Q: You were all black males in your early 30’s.
A: Yeah. Those meetings stretched out so that we would meet one week with the seven largest manufacturers and then the other week with the bank presidents and that’s where, if you ever heard this term, the 1800 Club, came from. That’s my name. The 1800 Club was because we met on nights at 6:00. Eighteen hundred is military time for 6 P.M. Now people think 1800 is the number of people who belong to the organization but it’s for military time and we would meet every Monday as a group. We would meet to decide what we wanted to discuss with these manufacturers or bank guys, you see what I’m saying, that’s where we got the 1800 Club.
Q: Where did this all lead? What did you accomplished?
A: Well, I think what it did is it opened up communication between the minority community and the majority community in ways that still continue now and we began to get things done. And so for example, we had a group of black guys who could access the president of all of these companies and banks and that was part of the plan. If I picked up the phone or any one of these guys picked up the phone and called the CEO of Sikorsky you’d get the CEO on the telephone. And if there was a problem in the shop we related to, we could resolve it much more readily without it getting to be a hang up or serious. I can’t even picture all of the good things that might have come out of it. None was ever a newspaper story as a single incident but a lot of problem solving, a lot of understanding, and out of it came things like Sam.
The bank instituted a program that we created to lend money to welfare recipients. The rules for borrowing money are you have to have a permanent job, you have to be in the community. You have to be known in the community, blah, blah, blah and when I looked at the rules a welfare recipient who had been there any length of time fell within those rules but you’re not going to lend them $10,000, $15,000 or $25,000 but within the context of what’s important. God bless Sam Hawley and Lenny Mainiero. They set aside a special fund a month and put a limit on it, $250 was the most you could borrow, and the neighborhood coordinators who worked under ABCD under my supervision dealt with people in the community who were on welfare. If you had to buy your kid a pair of shoes and say you came up $50 short on the rent and those things happened a lot, but they would then take that person to the bank to borrow $50 and they would charge him some interest and maybe you have to pay the $50 back in a year and they trained people in the bank to intake these people and they had to come to the bank and go through the process.
That’s how you become acclimated to the way the world works. You know you file an application and they would get the money. What they didn’t know was that if any of my people were brought in here and were recommended it was guaranteed but we never told them that so a lot of people got over because they were able to take care of their landlords and the kids still had shoes and they ran that program, that lending program for a long, long time and they found out that the loss ratio for those loans was lower than their loss ratio for their average loans.
Q: Did you ever get a little cynical and ask Sam Hawley why he was doing this?
A: No. I never did with him because it was clear to me that he really believed in Bridgeport and the greater Bridgeport area. My sense of him was that he really was committed. Anytime I came to Sam, it was my impression that he really decided yes or no on the basis of whether it was right. Whether it was right in a moral sense or whether it was right in terms of the community in which the bank served and worked. I really think that those were the judgments that he made. Obviously it was good for the bank’s business but I don’t think that was foremost. I really think that he made the judgments by whether it was the right thing to do. I think that’s the answer. That’s always been my impression of him. I’ve always believed that if I could sell him on the idea that it was the right thing to do that he would go and do it.
Q: The Board of Counselors was another example of this?
A: Another example of his creativity. I mean he knew that the board of the bank was not representative of the total community but he also knew that he would have a terrible job in trying to add to the board and go through all of that. So this Board of Counselors, made up of community people, made good sense. It was no threat. And you get input which is helpful to the bank. So if you improve your sources of information and you can pay them on a regular basis to provide it, then you can always access them. Once Sam designed it, he knew who were his supporters on the board so he’d tell them about it and get their support. Let’s say there’s ten guys on the board and he got four of them supporting him, he’d call up the fifth and sixth of them and say look five guys are supporting this, what do you think? And somehow he put together this thing and sold it and I was one of the first three counselors.
When I left the first meeting somebody gave me some money. I said what’s this for? They said that’s your fee. Oh, I’ll take it. Back then it was $50. I believe it was $50 and one of the managers was charged with the responsibility of coming with an envelope with $50 bills. One meeting was $50. If you didn’t attend the meeting, you didn’t get paid. But if you attended the meeting, you got paid. Somebody kept track. And then you sat around and we participated. They were serious. They said you’ve got all of the rights that any other trustee has unless there’s a statute that says you can’t. You get paid. You can participate. It worked. John Driscoll was one of the first. Geraldine Johnson was also a trustee. When I look back Sam Hawley was about ten years ahead of where the Black Enterprise Magazine story started with respect to blacks going on boards.
I remember the first woman was a Sister from St. Joseph’s Manor in Trumbull. Sam Hawley suggested that she be a counselor. I mean how can you not vote for that? How are you going to vote against it? I said that guy’s clever. I mean here’s a woman who represents Catholics, with Catholic views, she’s got vows of poverty and she clearly has input in the community and is an information resource and represents something and the fact that she’s a woman besides she’s no threat to anybody. All of a sudden you had a woman on the board way before people started talking about women on boards. Sam Hawley did that. I said damn, this guy’s smart.
Q: So, what did you talk about?
A: We talked about Bridgeport and we talked about the political and business relationships. I think Sam saw me as a resource for acquiring a better understanding of the minority community, the black community specifically and felt that, you know, if you’re not Italian and brought up in an Italian home, you don’t understand the Italian community. He tried to figure out a way to do just that kind of thing. If you never lived in Greenfield Hill, you don’t understand what living in Greenfield Hill is like. So it was that kind of education and at the same time I was learning from him.
We talked about not only the hiring question but the lending question and I think Sam looked to me for guidance on breaking through on some of these old rules. So he started talking about the need, how important it was for blacks to have a stake in the community by owning more homes as opposed to renting. That’s what the man was in business for.
Q: But you had to push that message out to the community?
A: Well, I hesitate because of how you framed the question that I had to, no I didn’t have to, but certainly I was involved in that and so I became the vehicle for interfacing between the bank and the minority community. And not on a stand-alone basis because if I had a suggestion for Sam and Lenny that they became aware of, they would bring it to the bank and then it would flow without me needing to be there. It just became part of the fabric of the bank.
Q. Do you think that message was received in the neighborhoods?
A: Yes. If you measure it over time. I imagine that you would find that there still is a great faith in People’s that exists in the greater Bridgeport area and People’s as an institution than perhaps any other single institution, and that does not mean everybody has been happy. I think that message is part of the fabric of the city now. I think people see this bank as a stalwart guardian so to speak of what Bridgeport should be or can be.
Q: How has the bank’s relationship with African Americans and Latinos evolved?
A: I think at this point in time for example on the employment side you can demonstrate that there’s been some things done because you can see blacks and Hispanics in many positions in the banks. A much greater demand existed when I first came on. Arguably, we haven’t really elevated anyone into the upper level ranks at this stage of the game but that’s an issue that doesn’t disappear from the table and won’t for a long time. I know that there are blacks working at this bank who have the potential to be the CEO. I also know there are a lot of young whites who work in this bank who have the potential to be the CEO and now you’re in a competitive situation, alright. The bank’s going to win one way or the other if either one of them becomes CEO.
I don’t think I could leave here and be a bank president and I’ve got 20 something years of being a director, okay. I just don’t have it in terms of the details. Some of the things that go into the job. But if you can bring people through the phase and be sure that he can get to be a vice president, maybe he can be the first vice president and move up the ladder, then you can be considered or you can make a lateral move because of your skills and I see that process happening here. Not to the extent that I would love to see it happen but I think to a much greater extent than I believe possible.