Elaine La Roche, who became one of the most powerful women on Wall Street when women there were scarce — notably helping to orchestrate the first partnership between an American investment bank, Morgan Stanley, and the government of China — died on Aug. 25 at her farm in Sharon, Conn. She was 70.
Her daughter Eve La Roche said the cause was pancreatic cancer.
In the 1990s, when women faced daunting odds in landing high-level positions in the securities industry, Ms. La Roche rose from administrative associate to managing director at Morgan Stanley, earning a reputation as a problem solver.
In her 22 years with the firm, she was an integral participant in the creation of the China International Capital Corp., a landmark joint venture in 1995 between Morgan Stanley and the government-run China Construction Bank.
“With CICC we have positioned Morgan Stanley to be in the vanguard of investment banking in China and will become the leading firm in the minds of the Chinese elite in financial, corporate, and political circles,” Jack Wadsworth, the head of Morgan’s Asian business unit at the time, was quoted as saying in 1996.
Ms. La Roche soon moved to Beijing to be chief executive of the corporation, a post she held from 1997 to 2001. She became a respected China expert and was lauded for earning the trust of her Chinese counterparts. She later served as vice chairwoman of JP Morgan China Securities in Beijing from 2008 to 2010 and for a time was chief executive of the China International Capital office in the United States.
During her tenure at Morgan Stanley, Ms. La Roche confronted an industry environment notoriously reluctant to promote women. At the time, The New York Times reported, fewer than 10 percent of the partners and managing directors at Wall Street’s top securities firms were women.
But by 1996 she had risen to managing director, making her the highest-ranking woman at one of the most powerful firms on Wall Street. That year she became the first woman to preside over the Public Securities Association, the bond market trade association.
Ms. La Roche’s climb at Morgan Stanley had included the post of chief of staff to John J. Mack as he rose from president to chief executive. He relied on her to handle tough assignments. One task, in the early 1990s, was to cut costs by tens of millions of dollars during an industry downturn.
She went at it with a fervor that didn’t win many friends at the firm, where she had already earned a reputation for being brusque, impatient, and given to profanity-laced tirades on Morgan’s trading floor before slamming down the phone — a characterization she did not dispute.
“Trading-room culture and intensity is not gender specific,” Ms. La Roche was quoted as saying by The Times in a 1996 profile. “It’s OK for a guy to slam the phone down on the trading floor.” But, she added, “Since I left the trading floor I have tempered my colorful language.”
Wadsworth was heading the firm’s Asian unit when Ms. La Roche was overseeing the cost-cutting project. “As head of Asia,” he said in an interview, “I would get a call from Elaine many mornings at 8 a.m., and she’d say, ‘Jack, do you know you have two nurses on the payroll there? You need to get rid of one of them!’ I learned quickly that you didn’t argue with her.”
If some subordinates were put off by her manner — one former employee told The Times that “her style is to manage through fear, intimidation, and knee-jerk reaction” — most of the firm’s top executives saw her as a supremely effective leader and rewarded her with regular promotions and hefty paychecks.
“If we had a problem, she would solve it,” Mack said in a phone interview. “She was smart, a workaholic, who went at it a hundred miles per hour every day. When she had a vision or she needed to execute a project, she was very demanding. I don’t think anyone would have made those negative comments about her if she was a man.”
For the 1996 Times article, Ms. La Roche, who was 47 at the time, was asked how being a woman in a mostly male industry had affected her career. “It hasn’t made it easier,” she said. “I think that I am extremely sensitive about living in a glass box, that I recognize that issues of style with respect to women can unfortunately often be more important than issues of substance.”
Marie-Elaine Andree La Roche was born in Manhattan on Aug. 17, 1949, to Andre and Madeleine (Hanin) La Roche, and grew up in northern New Jersey. Her father, an immigrant from Haiti, was a civil engineer for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey; her mother, from France, was a schoolteacher.
Ms. La Roche frequently expressed pride in being a first-generation American. She graduated from the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in 1971 and went on to earn an MBA from American University in Washington. Before arriving on Wall Street, she was an assistant first to Donald Rumsfeld, when he was a Republican congressman from Illinois, and then to George Shultz, when he was secretary of the Treasury under President Richard M. Nixon.
She joined Morgan Stanley in 1978 and became a vice president in 1981. In 1984 she moved to the firm’s fixed income division, where she first worked for Mack. She was named a principal in 1986 and managing director the next year.
Ms. La Roche married Peter Donovan, a geologist, in 1988. The couple adopted two children from Honduras, Felicia and Nicholas. The marriage ended in divorce.
Ms. La Roche was 45 when she had her daughter Eve with her partner at the time, the playwright Lonnie Carter. In addition to Eve La Roche, she is survived by her other children and her brother, Andre La Roche Jr.
Ms. La Roche, who favored investing in real estate over the stock market, purchased her Connecticut farm in 1997 and made it her home. Lion Rock Farm, as it is called, sprawls across 625 acres in the northwest part of the state. Besides being a working farm, it has been a popular venue, complete with guesthouses, for weddings and other events.
Eve La Roche said her mother had been intent not just on protecting the land from development but also on maintaining the jobs of the people who work the farm.