John O’Brien mentored futures traders and expanded his family-owned brokerage

The former chairman and CEO of R.J. O’Brien Associates died Saturday. He was 68.

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John O’Brien, former chairman of R.J. O’Brien & Associates

John O’Brien

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In the tense world of futures trading, John O’Brien projected a calm image, his mind focused on keeping his family-owned brokerage a preferred place for customers to do business and for employees to work.

Mr. O’Brien, who was involved in the management of R.J. O’Brien & Associates since the 1980s, oversaw expansion into international markets and early investments in technology so the firm could prosper as futures trading became a global, computer-powered phenomenon. The Chicago-based firm, RJO for short, was a founding member of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange in 1919 and the last survivor from those ranks. Today it is the United States’ largest independent futures brokerage and clearing firm.

“He just had a lifting spirit. He was just a very positive, positive person,” said Gerry Corcoran, RJO’s chairman and CEO. Corcoran said that when Mr. O’Brien recruited him to the company in 1987, many thought a family-owned brokerage couldn’t survive against bank-owned competitors. He said Mr. O’Brien refused to accept that thinking.

“His willpower was very strong. He could will things to happen,” Corcoran said.

A longtime resident of Chicago’s North Shore, Mr. O’Brien died Saturday at age 68. He had battled cancer for several years.

Mr. O’Brien, who graduated from St. Norbert College, earned his trading spurs in the pits of the Chicago Merc starting in 1977, where he dealt mostly in futures for cattle, gold and the Standard & Poor’s 500 index. He was a savvy trader but gave up most of that when he moved into management of RJO, which his grandfather John McCarthy founded in 1914 by making cash deals for butter and eggs.

During a video the company produced for its centennial, Mr. O’Brien discussed how he tried to set RJO apart. Its strength, he said, is “providing customer service with impassioned energy and integrity and risk management. But one of the hidden secrets of us as a firm is we want to do that with joy. This was a very stressful industry with emotional highs and lows and we thought it was important to have a positive mental attitude on a daily basis.”

At the time of the video, Mr. O’Brien was no longer in day-to-day management. Looking back to those days, he spoke with fondness about the firm’s employees. “They gave me a great gift of friendship,” he said.

Mr. O’Brien was the firm’s CEO from 1986 to 2000 and chairman from 2000 to 2007.

“John spent his career championing the U.S. futures industry and was instrumental in expanding its reach to customers around the world,” said Terry Duffy, chairman and CEO of futures exchange owner CME Group. “As someone who literally grew up in this business, he fostered a culture of treating all clients and employees as family — a legacy that continues within RJO today. John was a friend and mentor to many within the business and will be deeply missed.”

Mr. O’Brien’s wife of 39 years, Patricia, survives him, as do a brother and three sisters. He is also survived by children John, Therese, Timothy and Carmel, and by six grandchildren. His father, Robert O’Brien, a past chairman of RJO and the Merc, died in January at age 103.

Visitation for John O’Brien will be from 4 to 8 p.m. Wednesday at Donnellan Family Funeral Home, 10045 Skokie Blvd., Skokie. A funeral Mass will be said at 11 a.m. Thursday at St. Joseph Catholic Church, 1747 Lake Ave., Wilmette.

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