A.G. Edwards, Inc. History

One North Jefferson Avenue
St. Louis, Missouri 63103

Telephone: (314) 955-3000
Fax: (314) 955-5402

Public Company
Incorporated: 1967 as A.G. Edwards & Sons, Inc.
Employees: 15,500
Sales: $2.24 billion (1999)
Stock Exchanges: New York
Ticker Symbol: AGE
NAIC: 52312 Securities Brokerage; 52311 Investment Banking and Securities Dealing; 52321 Securities and Commodity Exchanges; 52392 Portfolio Management (pt); 52393 Investment Advice; 551112 Offices of Other Holding Companies; 52592 Trusts, Estates, and Agency Accounts

Company Perspectives:

At A.G. Edwards, our ultimate objective is caring for our clients' investments and financial futures. We focus on listening to gain an understanding of our clients' goals, on providing explanations for what are often complex financial issues, and on being there for our clients when they need us--in good times and bad. Key Dates:

Key Dates:

Albert Gallatin Edwards forms A.G. Edwards & Son Stock and Bond Traders with his son Benjamin Franklin Edwards.
A.G. Edwards buys a seat on the New York Stock Exchange.
A New York branch office is established.
Company sells 'Liberty Bonds,' thus introducing financial savings alternatives to small investors.
Benjamin F. Edwards III, great grandson of founder, is appointed managing partner.
A.G. Edwards incorporates, and Benjamin F. Edwards is named CEO and chairman.
A.G. Edwards becomes a publicly traded company.
Company celebrates its 100th anniversary.
A.G. Edwards launches web site.

Company History:

A.G. Edwards, Inc. is a holding company whose subsidiaries provide a full range of retail brokerage services, including securities and commodities brokerage, asset management, mutual funds, investment banking, insurance, trust, and real estate. Subsidiary A.G. Edwards & Sons, Inc., is one of the largest retail brokerage firms in the United States, with more than 650 offices throughout the nation to serve both individual and institutional investors. A.G. Edwards is known for its conservative investment approach, and the company is a traditional commission-based brokerage.

Early History and Political Roots: 1800s

Albert Gallatin Edwards, the founder of A.G. Edwards, was the son of Governor Ninian W. Edwards, an important figure in the early history of the state of Illinois. Born October 15, 1812, Albert Gallatin Edwards was named (with remarkable prescience, as events proved) after U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Albert Gallatin, an influential advocate of fiscal conservatism in Washington, D.C. Young Edwards was born in Kentucky and grew up in Illinois, of which his father was territorial governor and later state governor and senator after its admission to the Union in 1818. After graduating from West Point in 1832, A.G. Edwards served briefly with the U.S. Army's first permanent cavalry unit, based south of St. Louis. There he met and in 1835 married Louise Cabanne, a member of one of the oldest St. Louis families. He subsequently resigned from the Army to work for the local wholesaling firm of William L. Ewing.

With ties to leading families in Missouri, Illinois, and Kentucky, Edwards, not surprisingly, prospered in the world of trade. William Ewing specialized in the supply of goods to stores throughout the southwestern United States, a role for which its St. Louis location rendered the company well suited. Albert Edwards brought to the firm a number of important political connections, most notably with a rising Illinois attorney named Abraham Lincoln. Edwards's older brother, Ninian Wirt Edwards, had followed his father into Illinois politics, where he enjoyed little success but became a fixture in the capital city's social and political circles. Ninian's wife, Elizabeth, was a member of the powerful Todd family of Kentucky, and her cousin, John Todd Stuart, became the law partner of Abraham Lincoln in 1839. The Edwardses were soon close friends of Lincoln--so close, in fact, that the future president married the sister of Elizabeth Todd in the home of Ninian Edwards in 1842. Whether Mary Todd was a good love match for Abe Lincoln has long been a subject of debate, but she was certainly a political asset, as Lincoln would later be of great help economically to the Edwards family.

When the Civil War erupted in 1861, Albert G. Edwards proved loyal to the party of his in-law President Lincoln, staunchly defending the Union cause in a state torn between factions of both parties. Edwards was involved in the defeat of Confederate troops at St. Louis early in the war, and in 1861 he was made a brigadier general in the Missouri State Militia and later bank examiner for the state of Missouri. On April 9, 1865, Edwards was appointed assistant Secretary of the Treasury by Lincoln, who was assassinated six days later. Edwards's job was to oversee the Sub-Treasury Bank in St. Louis, a regional depository similar to today's Federal Reserve Banks. He would continue as assistant secretary throughout the administrations of four subsequent presidents, retiring in 1887 at the age of 75 with a solid reputation in the financial community of St. Louis.

Founding of a Brokerage Firm in the Late 1800s

Edwards's retirement was brief, however. Less than two months later he formed a partnership with his eldest son, Benjamin Franklin Edwards, to buy and sell stocks, bonds, and similar investment instruments. Because banks were then among the heaviest traders in securities, Albert Edwards's strong ties with the St. Louis banking community would be invaluable to the new brokerage house of A.G. Edwards & Sons (AGE). The company soon announced that it would become the first St. Louis broker to handle transactions on the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) for local banks. By thus allying itself more closely with banking interests and the NYSE, AGE escaped involvement with the briefly fashionable St. Louis Mining and Stock Exchange, where heavily leveraged mining stocks were traded like poker chips until the markets' sudden collapse in the early 1890s. When the Exchange closed for good during the depression of 1893, it took with it many local brokerage companies, but AGE suffered only minor losses. This was the first of many occasions on which AGE's conservative investment policy would save it from the worst of the markets' cyclical downturns.

Albert G. Edwards died in 1892 at age 80, leaving the brokerage business in the hands of George Lane Edwards, the founder's second son, who was born in 1869. George Edwards would serve as managing partner of the firm from 1891 to 1919, at which time his brother Albert Ninian Edwards took over. With the recovery of the St. Louis economy in the late 1890s, AGE increased its trading on the NYSE, buying a seat on the exchange for $29,500 in 1898 and two years later opening its first New York office. A year later, AGE was instrumental in the creation of the St. Louis Stock Exchange, which enjoyed immediate popularity; trade volume reached a peak in 1902 of $44 million that would not be exceeded until the salad days of the late 1920s. Federal regulation of the wilder financial schemes cooled market activity in the intervening years, during which time AGE built on its blue chip reputation and quietly prospered.

Changing Times in the 1920s and 1930s

The nature of the investment business changed radically after World War I. The widespread sale during the war of government 'Liberty Bonds' introduced the concept of financial markets to millions of private citizens who had no alternative to leaving their savings in bank accounts or holding it as hard cash. In the booming 1920s this trend was greatly accelerated and brokers like AGE adjusted accordingly, shifting an increasing amount of their attention from banks and wealthy investors to the mass retail market of small investors. Under the direction of managing partner Albert N. Edwards, the company added its first brokers devoted solely to the soliciting of new individual investors, of whom the firm gained countless numbers as the bull market of the 1920s roared toward its catastrophic conclusion. Stock speculation became a hobby and passion for millions of Americans who ten years before did not know Wall Street from Main Street, many of them trading stocks for which they paid margins as low as ten percent of the current price.

Fortunately for AGE, St. Louis brokerage houses kept their margin requirements higher than the New York firms, thus softening the pain of October 24, 1929, when the stock market crash wiped out many investors and began ten years of national depression. AGE came through the crisis of 1929 in relatively good condition, its largest single loss only $5,000 (on an account of $1 million), but the years following were bleak. Not only had the great crash soured a whole generation of Americans on the notion of stock investments, it brought the entire securities industry under a cloud of suspicion for its role in the calamity. Again, the brunt of this criticism was felt in New York, while regional firms such as AGE were correctly perceived as having acted more responsibly toward their customers. Indeed, when the NYSE reorganized its governing body in the late 1930s in an effort to convince the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) that it had addressed past regulatory lapses, it named AGE's own William McChesney Martin, Jr., as its first paid president. Martin was AGE's first floor broker and only 31 at the time, but his status as an outsider and a man of integrity combined to make him the ideal candidate. He remained president of the Exchange until 1941, when he joined the Army.

In St. Louis, meanwhile, AGE was now led by Presley W. Edwards, son of Benjamin Edwards and grandson of founder Albert Edwards. This latest Edwards faced a brutal business environment in the 1930s--'Every day you went home exhausted from doing nothing,' he was quoted as saying in AGE's official company history--but the lean years forced AGE to adopt the thrift and assiduity that later made the company's fortunes. Presley Edwards foresaw that AGE's future lay in the direction of small branch offices, but his plans were blocked by the United States' entry into World War II in 1941. A boon for most American businesses, the war only continued the Depression's long freeze in the securities markets, and AGE's retail expansion did not get underway until the 1950s.

Expansion in the 1950s and 1960s

Renewed investor confidence and the strong postwar economy allowed AGE to increase its number of branch offices to 11 in five states by 1957, which jumped to 19 by 1960 and then quickly to 44 only five years later. AGE had been the first brokerage house outside New York to install a computer back in the 1950s, and its sophisticated approach to data management helped the company coordinate the activities of its widely scattered and generally small branch offices. At the head of this 300-person brokerage force was Benjamin Franklin Edwards III, who joined his great-grandfather's company in 1956 and ten years later was its president at the age of 33. Rather surprisingly, the combined handicaps of youth, great responsibility, and family expectations did not deter Benjamin Edwards III; as of 1999 he remained the CEO of a company far larger than his forebears would have thought possible and was cited numerous times as one of the outstanding CEOs in the securities business.

When Benjamin Edwards took over the top spot at AGE in 1965, the nation's economy was booming and brokerage houses were expanding on every front. The question for AGE was not whether to expand but in what direction; as a mid-sized regional player in the securities industry the company could have embarked on any number of different paths. Edwards and his staff conducted a two-year study of AGE's strengths and weaknesses relative to the emerging marketplace, concluding in 1968 that they should continue what they were already doing but on a larger scale. As Benjamin Edwards later described in Investor's Daily: 'We ended up with a model that called for the delivery of financial services of value to a `mass/class' market through a network of retail branches acting as agents of the customer. [The brokers'] allegiance was to clients, not to us.'

Central to Edwards's declaration are the terms 'mass/class' and 'allegiance.' By 'mass/class' Edwards meant that his brokerage force would concentrate its energies on the mass of individual investors, the 'little people' of middle America, and only incidentally pursue the wealthy, 'class' investor. That meant continuing to open more retail offices in small communities around the country--from 44 in the mid-1960s to 450 in 1992--and staffing them with a higher proportion of brokers than the average Wall Street outlet. It also meant largely ignoring the big-money deal-making that came to be known on Wall Street as investment banking. AGE has always done its share of stock underwriting, but it did not get caught up in the exotic corporate deals of the 1980s simply because its clients were not corporations and because Benjamin Edwards maintained a healthy skepticism toward get-rich-quick schemes of all kinds.

The second key term of Edwards's statement quoted in Investor's Daily, 'allegiance,' is harder to define but probably more fundamental to AGE's success. All brokers claimed to be acting on behalf of their clients, and it would be easy to dismiss Edwards's statement as routine puffery if not for the fact that AGE's history appeared to confirm its truth. AGE had long made it a policy not to trade stocks on its own account, just as it did not market its own investment packages to clients. Either step could easily divide the 'allegiance' of a broker between the welfare of his customers and the making of money for the corporation, eventually destroying the relationship of trust between client and broker on which AGE had built its reputation. For the same reason, AGE refused to lure top brokers away from other firms with bonuses and high salaries and encouraged its own brokers to maintain annual sales figures about 30 percent lower than the industry average. Freed from the pressure to earn high commissions, AGE brokers were more likely to consider the interests of their clients instead of looking to make the maximum number of trades possible in every eight-hour day. As compensation, AGE let the brokers keep approximately ten percent more in commission than was standard in the industry.

Continued Growth Through the 1980s

The result of AGE's 'goody two-shoes' philosophy, as Edwards humorously characterized it in the New York Times, was a tradition of loyalty from customers and employees alike. When the company suffered large losses in the industry shakeout of the early 1970s, AGE employees responded to management's frank call for help by working five-day weeks for four-days pay and cutting overall costs by 17 percent in a matter of months. Brokers tended to stay at AGE for its low-pressure approach to sales and closely knit, supportive environment. 'There's less politicking here and more teamwork,' commented one senior broker when interviewed for the company's profile in The 100 Best Companies to Work for in America, which appeared in 1983.

Customer loyalty was tested severely in the period following the SEC's 1975 decision to deregulate commission rates. Soon 'discount houses' appeared in the securities business, offering to transact trades at prices substantially lower than those charged by full-service houses like AGE. Such discounters appealed directly to small investors from whom AGE earned the bulk of its revenues and should have taken a significant piece of market share; but it appeared that the discounters did not adversely affect AGE's business, even though the latter refused to lower its commission rates. Indeed, the period from 1975 to 1990 saw the greatest expansion in AGE history, offices increasing from 100 to more than 400 and employees from 2,000 to over 8,000. Clearly, the company's several hundred thousand customers valued the knowledge and experience of AGE brokers more than the dollars they would have saved by using a discounter, which typically offered no client counseling. AGE's success in the face of such direct competition confirmed the company's long-held belief that when it comes to money handling, customers desire above all a broker whom they know and trust.

The most dramatic demonstration of AGE's independence from Wall Street fashions--and the strength derived from such independence--was provided by the market crash in October 1987, the year AGE celebrated its 100th anniversary. The 1980s had seen a phenomenal rise in the deal-making power of investment bankers, many of whom earned enormous fees for engineering mergers, acquisitions, and leveraged buyouts that were often undercapitalized and sometimes fraudulent, as in the cases of Michael Milken and Ivan Boesky. The market crash destroyed this glitter-and-greed atmosphere, and in its wake about 18 percent of the industry's employees had lost their jobs by 1991. By contrast, AGE, since it did not trade its own account, sustained minor losses in the crash and in the following years increased its workforce by 33 percent.

Remaining True to Tradition Amid Industry Changes in the 1990s

The 1990s enjoyed a strong economy that gave rise to increased activity and changes in the financial sector. Entering the 1990s, AGE experienced tremendous growth in every category, bottom-line earnings that made its competitors green with envy, and, most remarkable for a company expanding so quickly, virtually no long-term debt. AGE was not, however, without trials; as the market turned toward discounting and fee-based services rather than commissions, it became more challenging for AGE to remain committed to its traditional and conservative approach to investing. Edwards was vocal about his opinions regarding the economic climate and was steadfast regarding AGE's loyalty to clients. In his letter to shareholders in AGE's 1993 annual report, for instance, Edwards denounced the increasingly popular fee system, noting that the industry had turned toward charging fees for any number of services. Edwards was also vocal about the battle between fees and commissions. He believed the commission system held brokers accountable to clients, while fees did not and could be detrimental to customer accounts. Edwards explained in an interview in Securities Industry Management in 1994, 'The tie that binds should be between the broker and the client. This whole business of trying to tie the client to the house and immobilize the broker is bad news for our industry.' Apparently AGE's workforce agreed with Edwards; according to The Loyalty Effect, AGE's broker retention rate, at 92 percent in the mid-1990s, was well above the industry average of 80 to 85 percent.

AGE's status as traditional and conservative did not mean the company was not progressive. AGE had long been open to new technology, having installed its first computer system in 1949. In 1990 the firm spent $25 million to upgrade and expand its computer system, adding a satellite-based communications system that allowed the St. Louis headquarters and branch offices to transmit data and voice messages. Four years later a computerized bond processing and inventory management system was put into operation, as well as the Edwards Information Network, a satellite-based audio communications network that disseminated timely information to brokers. Also that year brokers were introduced to the Broker Workstation, an interactive computer system designed to provide news updates to investment brokers. Though AGE was against online trading, the company launched its own web site in 1996, providing clients with access to account and investment information.

Profitability continued, but in order to remain competitive in the rapidly changing, high-pressure investment industry, AGE was forced to change with the times. Despite its contention that clients seldom invested wisely when allowed to trade on their own money, in 1997 the company began to offer clients that very option. AGE also opened a branch office in New York City that year, something the company had avoided for a century. A year later AGE introduced a program that allowed clients to purchase no-load funds. AGE's program was innovative in that it offered broker advice concerning no-load funds, which were typically purchased by do-it-yourself investors.

In 1999 AGE announced it would allow clients to make online trades, but only with the approval of a broker and a commission. The company refused to offer discounts, although rival brokerages had started discounting to compete with Internet discount firms, which allowed customers to make trades for a minimal fee. Despite AGE's online plans, Edwards remained firm in his beliefs that online trading was not the wave of the future and that eventually clients would return to full-service brokerages. Edwards told the Grand Rapids Press, 'When you trade your own money, fear and greed come in.'

AGE's revenues rose steadily, as did the company itself. While competitors succumbed to new pressures such as online trading, AGE grew primarily through traditional avenues, such as opening additional branches, increasing its workforce, upgrading computer systems, and searching for strategic acquisitions. In 1991 the company had 442 offices and 4,317 brokers; by the end of fiscal year 1999, which ended February 28, AGE had 639 offices and more than 6,500 financial consultants. In fiscal 1999 alone, AGE added 45 offices and nearly 500 employees. The company expanded its headquarters in St. Louis with a 405,000-square-foot addition and received a thrift charter, allowing AGE to nationally expand its trust services. Fiscal 1999 also saw AGE's fourth consecutive record year in both revenue and net earnings.

The reputation of excellence that AGE had built up over the centuries continued into the 1990s. Not only was AGE selected as one of 'The 100 Best Companies to Work for in America' in Fortune magazine's annual survey for a fourth time in 1998, but the company also received recognition and top honors in publications including SmartMoney, Worth, and Kiplinger's. As AGE approached yet another new millennium, it looked toward the future rather than to the past. Though the firm planned to keep pace with industry changes, it also planned to remain true to the company's mission and focus on the client. 'The pace of change in our industry continues to accelerate,' Edwards noted in a prepared statement. He continued: 'Our guiding beacon remains the benefit of our clients. Our efforts toward the future are focused on being of value to our clients and building and strengthening client relationships.'

Principal Subsidiaries: A.G. Edwards & Sons, Inc.; Gull-AGE Capital Group, Inc.; A.G. Edwards Trust Company FSB; AGE Commodity Clearing Corp.; Edwards Development Corp.; A.G. Edwards Life Insurance Company; AGE Properties, Inc.; AGE Investments, Inc.; A.G. Edwards Investment Management Consulting Services, Inc.; A.G. Edwards Capital, Inc.

Principal Competitors: Paine Webber Group Inc.; Merrill Lynch & Co., Inc.; The Jones Financial Companies, L.P., LLP; Morgan Stanley Dean Witter & Co.; The Charles Schwab Corporation; E*TRADE Group, Inc.

Further Reading:

  • A.G. Edwards: A Heritage of Serving Investors, St. Louis, Mo.: A.G. Edwards & Sons, Inc., 1991, revised edition, 1998.
  • 'And the Winners Are ...,' Worth, July/August 1999.
  • Branch, Shelly, 'The 100 Best Companies to Work for in America,' Fortune, January 11, 1999.
  • Forbat, Pamela Savage, 'A.G. Edwards: Business As Usual,' Registered Representative, March 1996.
  • Friedman, Amy, 'Positive Prospects,' Financial Services Weekly, June 11, 1990.
  • Gallagher, Jim, 'Sitting Pretty: Being `Out in the Sticks' Saved Edwards,' St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 1, 1991.
  • Hanford, Desiree J., 'A.G. Edwards Sticks with Its Traditions,' Wall Street Journal, May 26, 1998, p. B13.
  • Leblanc, Sydney, 'Interview: Benjamin F. Edwards III,' Securities Industry Management, August/September 1994.
  • Levering, Robert, Milton Moskowitz, and Michael Katz, The 100 Best Companies to Work for in America, Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1983.
  • Reichheld, Frederick F. and Thomas Teal, The Loyalty Effect, Boston, Mass.: Harvard Business School Press, 1996, 323 p.
  • Rogers, Doug, 'A.G. Edwards Matches Profit with Stock Price Performance,' Investor's Daily, June 6, 1991.
  • Santoli, Michael, 'A.G. Edwards Praised and Criticized for Low-Risk Way,' Austin American-Statesman, October 26, 1996, p. 4.
  • Scott, Mac, 'Edwards Quietly Climbs Ranks of Wall Street,' St. Louis Business Journal, January 6--12, 1992.
  • Wayne, Leslie, 'Where the Brokers Are Still Smiling,' New York Times, November 26, 1989.
  • Wells, Garrison, 'Brokerage Lags in Web Trading-On Purpose,' Grand Rapids Press, September 10, 1999, p. A12.

Source: International Directory of Company Histories, Vol. 32. St. James Press, 2000.