Schwab was born in Sacramento, California, the son of Terrie and Lloyd Schwab. He attended Santa Barbara High School in Santa Barbara, California, and was captain of the golf team. He attended pre-college school at Holy Rosary Academy in Woodland, California. Schwab graduated from Stanford University in 1959 with a B.A. in economics. In 1961, he graduated from Stanford Graduate School of Business with an MBA. Schwab is a knight of the Sigma Nu fraternity.
In 1963, Charles R. Schwab and three other partners launched Investment Indicator, an investment newsletter. At its height, the newsletter had 3,000 subscribers, each paying $84 a year to subscribe. In April 1971, the firm incorporated in California as First Commander Corporation, a wholly owned subsidiary of Commander Industries, Inc., to offer traditional brokerage services and publish the Schwab investment newsletter. In November of that year, Schwab and four others purchased all the stock from Commander Industries, Inc. In 1972, Schwab bought all the stock from what was once Commander Industries.
In 1973, First Commander changed its name to Charles Schwab & Co., Inc.. A decisive turning point came in 1975, when the federal Securities and Exchange Commission deregulated the securities industry. Companies could then charge any fees they wanted. Schwab had long complained that the established firms showed little concern for the needs of their customers. Financial securities were not bought by consumers, they were sold by salesmen, who made higher commissions and profits by selling riskier securities regardless of the disadvantages to the consumers. Schwab set up a series of radically different policies. First, the charges to consumers were cut in half. Second, salesmen are and were paid hourly salaries, rather than commissions on the total sale price. Third, Schwab refused to offer any advice to the customer. It also set up a toll-free number to take orders nationwide and later set up 24-7 system that would allow customers to place orders from anywhere at any time. Established firms were outraged, and tried to block Schwab's expansion.
In September 1975, Schwab opened its first branch in Sacramento, California. It expanded across the state and cut its expenses by very heavy emphasis on automation. In 1981, Bank of America offered Schwab $53 million in stock for his 37 percent ownership. He sold, but remained as President of a semi-autonomous unit. At this point the unit had annual sales of $41 million, 600 employees, and 220,000 customers through 40 branches. Expansion was rapid, reaching 1.6 million customers in 1986, with sales of $308 million. Bank of America, however, had its own separate severe problems, and its stock plunged. The SEC investigated Charles Schwab on the possibility he was selling stock to take advantage of insider information; he denied it, and no charges were filed. Tensions between the Schwab unit and Bank of America escalated until 1987, when the deal was cut for Schwab to buy back the brokerage company for $230 million. Schwab took the firm public. In 1988, however, the company was forced to rebate 2 million dollars to customers whose funds had been illegally used.
In 1977, Schwab began offering seminars to clients. By 1978, the company had 45,000 client accounts total, and the number grew to 84,000 in 1979. In 1980 Schwab established the industry’s first 24-hour quotation Service, and the total of client accounts grew to 147,000. In 1981 Schwab became a member of the NYSE, and the total of client accounts grew to 222,000. In 1982, Schwab became the first firm to offer 24/7 order entry and quote Service. It opened its first international office in Hong Kong, and the number of client accounts totaled 374,000. By 1995 the company was by far the largest discount broker, with revenue of $1.4 billion and $200 billion in total assets managed. By 1996 there were 3.6 million active accounts.
Schwab always stressed cutting edge Technology, and pioneered computerization to replace paperwork. The emergence of the World Wide Web in the mid 1990s posed a new threat with new startups trying to exploit their software. Schwab responded in 1996 by becoming the first major financial services firm to sell online listed and over-the-counter stocks, as well as mutual funds and bonds. The startups charged $36 a trade, and Schwab charged $39 per Internet trade, compared to $160 charged by traditional brokerages using the old Technology. In 1984, the firm innovated with the Mutual Funds Marketplace, which gave customers a choice of 140 no-load funds. It expanded to 500 no-load funds by 1992. In 2000 Schwab introduced mobile/wireless trading with its PocketBroker mobile app that functioned on RIM (BlackBerry), Palm, Windows CE, and WAP-enabled phones, with deployments in the USA, UK, and Hong Kong. Schwab also introduced Schwab Bank (Charles Schwab Bank, National Association), a federally chartered intrastate Retail bank headquartered in Reno, Nevada. The application for the Bank was approved on February 2003 by the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (“OCC”).
David S. Pottruck, who had spent the majority of his 20 years at the brokerage as Schwab's right-hand man, shared the CEO title with Schwab from 1998 to 2003. In May 2003, Schwab stepped down, and gave Pottruck sole control as CEO. Just a year later, on July 24, 2004, the company's board fired Pottruck, replacing him with Schwab. News of Pottruck's removal came as the firm had announced that overall profit had dropped 10 percent, to $113 million, for the second quarter, driven largely by a 26 percent decline in revenue from customer stock trading. After coming back into control, Schwab conceded that the company had "lost touch with our heritage", and quickly refocused the Business on providing financial advice to individual Investors. He also rolled back Pottruck’s fee hikes. The company rebounded, and earnings began to turn around in 2005, as did the stock.
In 2014, Schwab denounced the rise from 50,000 to 300,000 per second in the number of trade inquiries from 2007 to 2013. He warned that this high-speed trading is "a growing cancer" that threatens to destroy fairness in markets." He wants these practices either taxed or made illegal.
Schwab as of February 2017 is worth $8.2 billion according to Forbes. The Charles and Helen Schwab Foundation was formed in 1987. In 2013 it reported assets of $270 million and made $13 million in grants. He serves as its chairman; his wife is the President.