Paul Purcell's father hoped he would take over the family insurance-brokerage firm, but Purcell's interests lay in finance. In 1971 he joined Kidder, Peabody in Chicago as an associate in investment banking. Over the next two decades, he quickly rose through the ranks to managing director, a post he held from 1980 to 1994.
When the firm took a different turn after its sale to General Electric and underwent several management changes, he moved Robert W. Baird & Co. Incorporated ("Baird") in Milwaukee. He served in a variety of capacities, including chief operating officer, before becoming president and chief executive officer in 2000. He added the title of chairman in 2006.
In 2004, Baird made Fortune magazine's list of the 100 best companies to work for, its first of six consecutive years on the list. Also in 2004, Baird employees bought back the firm through a leveraged buyout, the culmination of a project Purcell began when he joined in 1994.