Saturday, February 28, 2009

Leaving the Brothers


I just found this in my desk. It was given to me during my exit interview at Lehman Brothers. I left Lehman about a year and a half before it went bankrupt, imploding after 159 years of existence.

This booklet provides practical information with respect to benefits and other such administrative matters. Yet, the formality of its existence seems to imply that it is a life guide for re-entering society after years of captivity.

I started working for Lehman Brothers in early 2001. I suppose I worked there because I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with my life. I realize how strange that might sound. A Wall Street behemoth is not the typical place to idle away one’s time while attempting to solve the secrets of their universe. Some people might pass such a phase brewing an endless series of espressos at some anonymous Starbucks. I spent it at Lehman.

The first role I had at Lehman was with the firm’s Expense Management team. My managers were accessible, unpretentious people and I liked them right away. The mission of the team was to reduce costs through efficiency and strict policy. Keeping a lean shop, reigning in a Wall Street giant’s excesses seemed an egalitarian mission and I liked operating as a watchdog. Wall Street was beginning a downturn that eventually turned severe after September 11th. Expense Management took equal footing with revenue earners when Lehman began rebuilding.

September 11th came and went. I doubt I have anything more to add to our nation’s collective remembrances of that time, that oddball doorway between the blissful nonsense America once was and the caustic nonsense we’ve now become. I suppose I was more affected by that day than I initially let on. Lehman was right across the street from the North Tower. We saw the planes hit, we saw the people jump, we ran for our lives. I can’t describe it any better than the renderings that have already given by countless voices, most of them more eloquent than mine.

During that time, I took a great deal of solace by being part of the Lehman team. We all got through the dread of that time together. It wasn’t as though something horrible had simply happened to me and me alone. I had others there that had experienced the mayhem as I did. We were there for one another.

I have to admit I liked some parts of that Expense Management role and I did well there for many years. But soon Lehman’s exponential growth overshadowed its need for belt tightening. The company doubled in size, due in part to the acquisition of the asset manager Neuberger Berman but more poignantly due to the acquisition of several mid-size mortgage companies. Most of these companies were located out west, with operations in Colorado, California, Utah and Nebraska. These were essentially factories churning out loans for Mother Lehman who would then securitize them for the market. It was a fluid means of success, of course, dependant on the underlying viability of the loans themselves.

Several years had gone by and the firm had a morphed into more ambiguous culture. The once regular-guy environment began to gravitate towards something more akin to Goldman Sachs. Our Expense Management team became increasing marginalized within this new boundlessly successful Lehman Brothers. It became clear that my role wasn’t leading anywhere and if I were to be perceived as a growing professional, I’d have to transfer into some new department. I’d become an accountant who just wanted to be a writer and a writer who could no longer write.

When I came to the conclusion that I needed to make some sort of change, I did what I normally do when encountering a life-altering revelation: I ignored it and pretended nothing was wrong. I'd always harbored fantasies about breaking out of what was becoming an increasingly predictable career path. Everyone does this one way or another. We all have the dream of the other self, the one who foregoes the demands of life and pursues days of endless meaning, contribution and recognition.

I transferred out of Expense Management into an accounting team that supported Lehman’s Investment Management division. I felt that working closer to the front office of the firm might make me feel more akin to its culture and that I might become a Lehman guy after all. The team I was joining was mostly composed of personnel from Neuberger Berman, that asset management company that Lehman acquired in 2002. I was the first non-Neuberger, Lehman person ever to work on their team. They made no effort to mask their obtuse hatred for the firm that had acquired them; their new de facto home. I was sunk from day one and always treated as an outsider. This is corporate life.

Once in my new role, my interactions with those who ran Asset Management only re-affirmed that I clearly didn’t belong and my choice to further my Wall Street career was a bad misstep. A large portion of my time was spent with one money manager who lived under the constant delusion that our accounting team was understating her monthly revenue, 35% of which formed her compensation (which often yielded her a monthly paycheck of $60,000). During one conversation, she uttered the phrase, ‘you can’t live on this.’

But such dealings with money managers paled in comparison to the culture of sales people. The brokers who’d shepherd clients to the money managers were tainted with an acutely nihilistic instinct towards unrestrained self-compensation. The amorphous rules of compensation made for long days spent on the phones with brokers attempting to resolve their pay issues. Most often, these conversations went as follows:

Me: “But we (Lehman) are only making 75 basis points on this account.”
[Insert Broker Name]: “Yeah, well it was agreed that I’m getting 35 basis points. Ask [Insert Managing Director Name] - he signed off on it.”
Me: “He did?”
[Insert Broker Name]: “Yeah.”
Me: “Did the Compensation Committee approve this?”
[Insert Broker Name]: “I dunno…I think I got an email here…”
Me: “You do realize that (Insert Money Manager name] makes 35 basis points on this as well?”
[Insert Broker Name]: “So?”
Me: “So Lehman Brothers is only making 5 basis points on this account.”
[Insert Broker Name]: “Yeah…so?”

It was time to go. It was time to go anywhere.

I gathered and prepared my formal reasons for leaving. Firstly, I was tired of the commute into New York City. We’d made the move to Westchester County once marriage and children came along. Living in city in my twenties and commuting to it in my thirties were different experiences entirely. The City’s hassles began to overwhelm its charms. I didn’t really even experience New York anymore, only those same ten blocks between the office and Grand Central. It became like a tunnel and the few wonders it offered became a familiar and invisible blur as I’d sprint between train and office, office and train: the bookends of my day. I longed to escape that blur where I might have the autonomy and flexibility that automotive commuting and a suburban office park might offer.

Towards my last years at Lehman, more and more jobs of the accountants and technicians who record and reconcile daily activities and ensure that transactions settle with counterparties, the operators who produce the data necessary for client statements, the internal services that kept the infrastructure of the firm; more and more of these jobs were going to India. The even blend of front office and back office jobs that had long given Wall Street its democratic pulse began to erode. What remained were the unaffected vast population of high earning front office personnel and a residual of back office folk, now vastly outnumbered in influence and increasingly marginalized amid the day to day decision making of the firm.

I’d planned to articulate while quitting that my future life in this lower tier would make for unhappy workdays. This was good in a way, I’d finally evaluated why I was working there, seeking honest reasons beyond the paycheck. I was no longer a young man who could morph one way or another. I’d evolved and began to crystallize some self actualization that was inconsistent with Lehman Brothers. In my exit interview I remember simply saying, I don’t belong here.

Well? Where do you belong then, they asked.

It was a logical question, really an existentialist dilemma. I truly didn’t know the answer and doubt I ever will. I was thirty-four and despite having spent an awful lot of time in Wall Street firms, I hadn’t become rich by osmosis. Expensive cars and country clubs were not to be in my future but more importantly, I’d become okay with this. Self loathing brought on by a perceived lack of success had been gnawing away at me for years. But becoming a husband and a father made me long for as simple an existence as I could maintain in suburban America. I’d taken a look around me and realized I had every material possession I could ever want. I forgave myself for not achieving some vaulted level of success I couldn’t even define in the first place. Armed with that forgiveness, I’d lost my Wall Street religion. Once you stop believing in the gods and gospels of Wall Street, the romance, pomp and circumstance of its church elude you as well.

The woman who was the Chief Administrative Officer for the Asset Management division remarked to my boss that it was a good thing that I was leaving. They could replace me with someone better. That was fine, I figured. There was no sense in being bitter. What she’d said was probably true.

My oldest friends with the firm, the ones I’d gone through 9/11 with - they held a farewell lunch for me at a mid-town steakhouse. They’d all become senior vice presidents and spent most of the lunch talking amongst each other about the latest firm gossip, the rumors of the next big personnel shake-ups. I sat clueless through most of it all, chiming in only when our favorite old stories would resurface.

Full of steak and merlot, I stepped out onto a bright sunlit 52nd Street. There were kisses on the cheeks and pats on the back. And then I was gone.

5 comments:

  1. A failing, corrupt system always works hard to make workers they perceive as "unsuccessful" to feel inadequate. It must feel liberating to be on the other side of that. That you should find peace of mind and a chance to write is a better life, and a boon to your readers.

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  2. I love the shot of Jim Lovell standing in front of the reel to reel technological marvels we know as "com-pute-rs."

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  3. Yes...the shot of Lovell came from a 70's era Sports Illustrated. The ads are fantastic. Beyond the immeasurable copy that they all seem to contain, I love the incredibly earnest statements they make? "Why do you smoke Viceroy cigarettes? Because you've never made a bad move in your life, that's why!" The shot above was taken for an add for some financial services company. Unbelievably, they were saying that they have an edge on their competition...because they use computers and no one else does?

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  4. Slimbo, perhaps you should send your new found Lehman literature to Dick Fuld, the disgraced former CEO, with a short note that says something like: "Thought you could use some comforting. This wonderful guide will show you the way". I don't know you're the writer

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  5. Actually I was contemplating sending it with a return envelope...asking him to autograph it and send it back to me.

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