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THE UNLIKELY LIFER FROM QUEENS

About a year ago, Richard A. Grasso, chairman of the New York Stock Exchange, was bobbing and weaving in a boxing ring. As part of a charity bout attended by the Wall Street community, the short, slight 50-year-old sparred with Roy Jones Jr., the International Boxing Federation super middleweight champion at the time. The two put on a great show, helping to raise $1.5 million for the U.S. Olympic Committee.

Grasso isn't your typical NYSE chairman. He's the first ''homegrown'' one, having joined the NYSE's listing department in 1968. Grasso didn't plan on becoming a lifer: ''I was going to use it as a platform to go somewhere else,'' he says. ''I wanted to be a trader.'' Instead, Grasso, who is described as a shrewd behind-the-scenes operator with superb people skills, rapidly rose through the ranks and was mentioned as a candidate for the chairmanship seven years ago, when he was president. The board ultimately appointed William H. Donaldson, but one of his mandates was to prepare Grasso for the top slot, which he got in June, 1995.

Grasso grew up a subway ride away from the exchange in the lower middle-class neighborhood of Elmhurst, Queens. He's loyal to his roots: Until recently, he still owned the apartment in the five-story walkup where he was raised, though it had sat empty for years. It was in Elmhurst that he bought his first stock, at age 13, with $1,000 saved up from a job in a pharmacy. The stock was an airline and was ''experiential investing: I used to visit LaGuardia and watch the planes.''

Today, he, his wife, son, and three daughters live in exclusive Locust Valley, N.Y., and also have a home in the Hamptons on Long Island.

Charitable and civic activities take up a good chunk of Grasso's time. He is particularly involved in children's charities and police organizations. ''I have the ultimate respect for what [the police] do,'' he says. ''The NYSE is blessed with a level of commitment from the New York City police force that is extraordinary.'' Grasso worked closely with former Police Commissioner William J. Bratton, sponsoring breakfasts at the NYSE for the NYPD's top brass to gain management insights from the likes of Jack Welch of General Electric and Harvey Golub of American Express. ''Dick saw it as a way to support the city,'' says Bratton.

One criticism of Grasso that surfaces is that he is controlling. ''Dissent is not tolerated,'' says one former employee. Grasso finds such assertions reflective of a much earlier time at the NYSE. ''When we have meetings, I think we're a better company by the dissent,'' he says. Critics also wonder whether Grasso has a broad enough vision, having worked only for the NYSE. ''They've been wondering that forever,'' says Grasso, with a smile. ''I guess they'll only know after I'm gone.''

For all his intensity, Grasso is not above poking fun at himself. At a dinner with 30 or so members of the trading-floor community in March, Grasso, along with the rest of the table, eyed the towering pile of salad placed in front of him. ''It's embarrassing to be as tall as your meal,'' he deadpanned.

By Suzanne Woolley in New York


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Updated July 25, 1997 by bwwebmaster
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