The tractor is waiting for Richard "Dick" O'Brien.

After more than 50 years in the municipal bond business, the senior executive vice president and director at the regional brokerage firm Folger Nolan Fleming Douglas, farmer and longtime 4H volunteer, is ready to step down and spend more time with his family and his farm. O'Brien, 76, will retire at the end of June.

O'Brien has been working since he was 14, back when he was a soda jerk. Today, he says he has three jobs: his day job at Folger Nolan, his job running his farm and his volunteer work.

"I've been busy all my life," he said. "It's time for me to spend more time in warmer climates during the winter … and spending more time with my family, my kids and my grandkids."

His career in munis includes almost 20 years as a trader and general partner at Baker, Watts & Co. and roughly 10 years at Paine Webber. Since 1986, he's been at Folger Nolan.

There, O'Brien covers fixed income activities. In the past, he's been involved in trading, underwriting and credit research; he also handles some institutional sales and a few retail accounts.

But his career has extended beyond that of a market participant. O'Brien served for two years as assistant executive director of the Municipal Securities Rulemaking Board shortly after Congress created it in 1975.

He's also sat on numerous professional and civic affiliations. Among many others, he served as the president and director of the Municipal Bond Club of Baltimore.

But as with many who step away from the business, he'll miss the people the most.

"I've been really fortunate in that I deal with people whom I like," he said.

Joe Roberts, director of institutional sales in municipals at M&T Securities, Inc., is one of them. He's known O'Brien more than 40 years.

For one, O'Brien was instrumental in bringing Roberts into the muni business as an administrative assistant, a role that morphed into a trading position. Subsequently, the two have worked for similar firms.

"We worked together and we worked in competition with each other," Roberts said. "I really can't speak higher of anyone in the business than [O'Brien]. His ethics, knowledge, his ability to get along with people … he's above a triple-A rating. He was and is extremely proficient in all areas."

Megan Brune, a relationship advisor in client services at Brown Advisory, is another. She worked with O'Brien almost 20 years, trading munis through him and Folger Nolan as a portfolio manager. O'Brien taught her about the muni market and bonds in general, and he knew consistently the types of securities she was interested in buying.

"Not only was he our broker-dealer that we placed trades with, but he was a very good resource and a knowledge base for the markets and what was occurring at the time," Brune said. "Of all of my brokers that I dealt with, and that my colleagues still deal with, he has been by far our greatest resource and support."

Scott Krug, a managing director in municipal trading at M&T Securities, Inc., has worked alongside O'Brien, or with him while at competing firms, for 37 years. He'll miss O'Brien's professionalism when he retires, as well as his encyclopedic knowledge of the market.

"He was like the dean of students for all bond traders," Krug said. "Anyone who ever needed information on a local bond issue would always go to Dick, whether customers, co-workers or competitors … During times we've been at competing firms, we always worked together when we could."

O'Brien's observations of the municipal market reflect some of the quieter changes he's noticed. For one, the market wasn't as large or as complex as it is today. And people knew each other better, he added.

But the most challenging transformation in the municipal bond industry today is the credit side of the market, O'Brien said. Starting out in the business, he remembers checking an issuer's ability to pay first, and then its willingness to pay. But now he's noticed how the federal bailout of General Motors has thrown into question the almost inviolable rights bondholders possessed.

"Willingness to pay today is a lot more political than it was," O'Brien said. "Even though you have the legal rights, the political aspects of it can overcome those legal rights. So how do you evaluate the willingness to pay?"

He concludes that such evaluations now are more makeshift than statistical. And as a result, O'Brien is a lot more careful about what he's willing to recommend to investors.

Soon, though, O'Brien will log more hours at home on the farm, where he undertakes maintenance work and modest tasks. Far from the days of finding buyers for munis, he'll busy himself with raising dairy goats, as well as horses, chickens and other related animals. And he'll occupy a different seat.

"One benefit of having a farm and spending time on a tractor is that's my thinking time," O'Brien said. "When you're sitting and driving around, you've got plenty of time to think about the rest of your life."

Subscribe Now

Independent and authoritative analysis and perspective for the bond buying industry.

14-Day Free Trial

No credit card required. Complete access to articles, breaking news and industry data.