Bull Street

DAVID LENDER

 

Bull Street


A White Collar Crime Thriller


by


David Lender

Copyright 2011 © by David T. Lender


Chapter 1



New York CityBefore the global financial crisis

“If I don’t have a job by April, I’m not getting one,” Richard said.  “At least that’s the adage at B-school.”

“And this the Ides of March,” Dad said.

That ominous reference hit home.  Richard’s guts rumbled.

Richard Blum and his dad, Hank, sat in a Greek diner in downtown Manhattan near Wall Street.  It was two blocks from Walker & Company, Richard’s first interview of the day, and four blocks from Dad’s insurance convention.  Richard played with the tag on his teabag, preoccupied; this five-day trip to New York was his last chance to salvage a job on Wall Street from an otherwise failed recruiting season.  It was opportune that Dad and he could squeeze in breakfast together while Dad was in town from St. Paul at the same time for his convention.  They sat at a booth across from the counter, leaning in toward each other so they could hear over the clink of china, barked orders, the clang of spatulas on the grill.  Richard savored the clamor and aromas of the place.  It had a casual comfort, a folksy smell of eggs and home fries Richard knew Dad must be enjoying.  He eased up his cuff to check his watch.

“You getting concerned?” Dad asked.

“It’s never over until you call it quits, I guess, but in finance parlance I’m a wasting asset.”

“Not what I asked.  You worried?”

“Sweating bullets.”

He looked at Dad’s clothes:  cotton/polyester button-down, spot on his pin-dot tie, suit shiny from wear.  He smiled; it made him comfortable, too, warmed him inside.  He glanced down at his own clothes.  He was wearing $3,500 in Polo Ralph Lauren.  The topcoat he’d sprung for as part of this last-ditch effort to land the big one was dragging on the floor.  A barometer for how it was going.

“You must be making progress, though.”

“I’ve struck out in all my on-campus investment banking interviews-–the few I’ve gotten.”

Dad just nodded, taking it in, thinking.  “Anything useful to you come of them?”

“Only that Michigan’s a second-tier school for the Wall Street firms.  The entire recruiting season of interviews only netted all our MBAs twelve investment banking second-round callbacks on campus, four trips to New York, one offer.”

“That’s at least one.”  Dad, trying to be positive.  He smiled, then squinted and pursed his lips.  “There must be others coming to campus.”

“No.  It’s too late in the season for first rounds on campus.”  Richard resisted the urge to squirm in his seat.  “So that’s it for anything through the Placement Office.”

Dad winced.  He looked down at his plate, hesitated, then back in Richard’s eyes.  “Now this trip,” he said, continuing to eye him.  Richard first thought Dad’s expression meant he realized this was Richard’s last gasp.  Now he had an inkling maybe there was more to Dad’s look than that.

“Yeah, eleventh-hour effort.  In New York to pound the pavement, follow up on cold letters attaching my resume.  See if I can beat down some doors.”

Dad leaned back.  “So how’s the trip going?”  Richard felt him zeroing in, watching him.

“Four screening interviews, down to my last two.”  Richard started twirling the tag from his teabag again, beginning to get anxious, knowing today’s interview was his only real chance.

“Remember A Mathematician’s Apology?” Dad said.  His gaze was now locked in on Richard, intent.  Richard swallowed.

“How could I forget?  It’s been a big influence on me.”

It was the book Richard and Dad had both read as he headed to college.  Richard was turning the corner from defiant teenager, starting to get close with Dad again, this time man-to-man.  When Richard landed the job after college writing ad copy at McAlister & Flinn, still living at home, he and Dad developed a working relationship.  Dad helped out as proof-reader and critic.  Richard learned Dad actually had business wisdom to impart; insurance was at least on the same hemisphere as writing copy to convince people to buy steak sauce or annuities.  Business became a common language and culture that kept them up late nights, talking about interest rates, the CPI.  And eventually, over a scotch now and then, they discussed the novels of Elmore Leonard or Trollope, the music of Mozart and Beethoven.  Richard thought back to A Mathemetician’s Apology, said as if reciting, “Three kinds of people.  The first, I do what I do because I have an unusual talent for it.  The second, I do what I do because I do lots of things pretty well and this was as good a choice as any.  And the third, I don’t do anything very well and I fell into this.”

“I’m a good fidelity bond underwriter, and I could’ve done a lot of other things probably just as well.  What you’re going after is a world I don’t understand much about.  But if you think you have it, go for it.”  Still searching Richard’s face.

“Yeah.  I can do this.”  Telling himself, needing it for this interview.

“So don’t give up.  But don’t compromise who you are and where you came from.  Don’t let Wall Street turn your head.”

“Any other advice?”

“Well, since you ask,” Dad said, now giving him that half-smile he wore when he launched a zinger but still wanted to show affection.  “All I’ve heard is excuses.  This isn’t like you.  Get primal.  Think like these Wall Street guys, like a caveman who needs to win over a woman or he can’t procreate.  Put some oomph into it.  You’re on your own; nobody can do it for you.”

They sat in silence a moment, Richard looking at the half-smile still on Dad’s face.  Dad was right.  It’s all up to me.

Dad said, “What?  You think I can’t still kick your butt?”

Richard felt his throat thicken.  “Thanks.” 

“You’re very welcome.”

Richard looked at his watch.  Dad grabbed the check, said, “Get going.  Give yourself some time to collect your thoughts.”

“Why don’t you let me get this?”

“When you’re a mogul you can buy me dinner.”  They both stood.  Dad stuck out his hand.  They shook, then hugged.

“Love to Mom,” Richard said.

“Call her.  Tell her yourself.”

Richard nodded.  “Any final thoughts?”

“If you fall flat you know you can always come home to regroup.”  He smiled.  “But you aren’t going to let that happen.  Both you and I know that, don’t we?”


#


Richard looked at his watch:  7:45.  He’s late.  He sat in Walker & Company’s reception area at 55 Water Street, waiting for his interview with François LeClaire.  And he’d rushed through breakfast to get here by 7:30.  He caught himself clenching and unclenching his fingers into his palms, forced himself to relax them.

Great.  More time to ponder the imponderable. 

Richard picked up a magazine from a Sheraton end table next to the antique Chippendale chair he sat in.  Fortune.  The current issue; Harold Milner was on the cover.  He’d also graced the covers of Forbes and Financier magazines over the last decade.  In the cover picture for the article, “Financial Engineering on Steroids,”  Milner stood in a conference room at Walker & Company.  It was probably the very one Richard sat outside now.  The picture showed Milner framed against the backdrop of the Brooklyn Bridge, the back door entrance to Wall Street.  Inside the issue Richard knew the first page of the article showed a photograph of Jack Grass and Mickey Steinberg standing on either side of Milner.  He was Walker & Company’s most important and prolific client.  Richard knew all about these guys.  He'd been Googling them before Google was a verb. 

The Fortune article got it mostly right, although it was obvious to Richard he’d done more research on Milner than its author.  Milner, then Chief Financial Officer of Coastal+Northern Corporation, had taken his entrepreneurial leap at 40 years old.  He’d cashed in his C+N stock options for $1.5 million, used them for his first deal and never looked back.  Now his $7 billion private empire employed 17,000 people in 22 states.  The article called him brilliant, eccentric, wildly creative, and a compulsive workaholic—one of the most powerful and wealthy entrepreneurs in the U.S.

Richard looked into the open door of the conference room at the table set for breakfast.  He imagined Milner, Jack and Mickey discussing a deal over breakfast and felt an airiness in his stomach.

Richard saw a young guy, probably an Associate, walking toward him.  He had his jacket off, a pile of papers and some presentation books in his hands, quick pace, looking tense.  Yeah, an Associate, probably first year.  He hurried past Richard and peered into the conference room.  Seeing no one there, he sat down in the chair across from Richard, apparently waiting.  He was twitchy and sweaty.  It made Richard feel sorry for him.  The guy’s papers started sliding out of his lap.  Richard reached out to help him but the guy shook Richard off, reined them in himself.

Richard now saw the guy checking him out, probably guessing why Richard was here.

“Who you waiting for?” he asked.

“François LeClaire.”  Richard saw his face show recognition, then his forehead wrinkle with tension.  The guy sighed and leaned back in his chair.  At that moment his Blackberry vibrated in his belt and he sat up with a start.  Richard heard someone talk fast and loud on the other end of the call.  The guy left in a hurry, papers rustling.  Richard got the uncomfortable sense that this could be him in a few months, stealing a moment of relaxation as he waited for somebody to yell at him about a column of numbers that didn’t add up. 

The elevator door opened and Richard turned to see Harold Milner, the man himself, walking toward him.  Milner carried himself with an understated manner that somehow magnified his power and importance.  Richard instinctively stood, and then a surge of adrenaline froze him in place like a ten-year-old meeting Babe Ruth.  He realized as Milner approached he was as big as the Babe up close, too.  Six feet five or so, thick in the chest like a football lineman, massive hands.  Trademark shaved head.  He cruised up to Richard.  “Harold Milner,” he said, extending his hand.  Just like that.

Richard felt himself starting to speak without knowing what would come out.  He said something gushy after introducing himself, his voice faint as he said, “Mr. Milner.”

“Call me Harold.”  Milner looked into the empty conference room, then sat where the Associate had moments earlier.  He glanced down at the copy of Fortune Richard still clutched.  “And I’m not as bad as they say,” he said.  “Or as smart.”

Richard smiled, more relaxed now.  His body had unfrozen and he sat back down, now sitting with Harold Milner like they were shooting the breeze.  “I’m not sure I believe that.”

“Which?  Bad or smart?”

“Smart.  I’d say you’ve done okay . . .  Harold.”  ‘Harold’ came out haltingly, Richard trying it out.

“Yeah, well, ‘with money in your pocket, you are wise and you are handsome and you sing well, too.’”

“F. Scott Fitzgerald?”

“Yiddish proverb.  Don’t believe everyone’s press clippings.”

“Hard to believe you’ve just been lucky.”

“No, but the stuff in that article is downright silly.”

Richard smiled.  “You’ve done some interesting deals.”

“Yeah, but this ‘steroids’ nonsense is just to sell magazines.  My approach is about as low tech as they come.”

“I don’t know.  On the Brennan deal it was pretty exotic the way you set up that special-purpose subsidiary to finance the receivables on the McGuffin division.”

Miller gave him a shrug and a look that said, “So?”

“So, that extra financing gave you about a twenty percent price advantage over the other bidders.  It got you the deal.”

“Maybe.”

“And on Dresner Steel, the way you sold off two of the divisions and merged the rest with Tilson Manufacturing and Milburg Industries within a year.  How many guys could pull that off and still keep the tax-loss carryforwards intact?”

Milner looked at Richard as if pondering something for a moment.  He said, “Good insights.  I’m impressed.  But I’ll let you in on a little secret.  I don’t consider I’ve done anything particularly imaginative or creative in my life.  I stick to simple, risk-averse basics.  You know who Vince Lombardi was?”

“I’m from Minnesota.  Our state seal has an image of the Packers kicking the Vikings’ asses.”

Milner smiled.  “I’m like Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers.  We come up to the line and crouch in position for an end sweep.  The defense knows it’s probably an end sweep because it’s second and seven, and, besides, Lombardi’s only got ten plays in his playbook anyhow.  Whattaya think we do?”

“Throw an eight yard pass to the opposite sideline.”

“End sweep, perfectly done.  Seven yards every time.  Nothing exotic, just basic execution.”

Richard wanted to ask him if this ‘aw shucks’ routine disarmed CEOs whose companies he was trying to take over, but settled for:  “Good story.  Works for me.”

Milner put his elbow on the end table, cupped a big hand over his mouth.  Richard could see him smiling with his eyes, apparently thinking.  He remained silent, then:  “Are you new?”

“So new I’m not even here.”

Milner scrunched his eyebrows like he was puzzled. 

“I’m waiting here for an interview,” Richard said.  Milner smiled with his eyes, his hand over his mouth again.  “I think the guy who was supposed to meet you was just called away.”

“Well, then you stepped in and did the job.  You got my vote.”  He stood up and held out his hand, a big smile on his face.  Richard got up and shook hands with him again.  “Welcome to the firm, Richard,” Milner said.

Richard laughed.  Not a nervous one because he was freaked out that he was actually bullshitting with the most famous guy in finance.  He just laughed because it was funny, Milner telling him to call him Harold, putting him at ease, joking around.  Not some stiff, but a regular guy.

They were still shaking hands, Richard laughing, when Jack Grass and Mickey Steinberg walked up.  There he was, standing among the guys who’d done 15 major deals together over the last 20 years, not including scores of financings, refinancings, divisional divestitures and add-on acquisitions; a mini industry, the three of them.

Richard heard Jack and Mickey greet Milner, saw them shake hands, exchange a few good-natured barbs.  But not clearly, not like it was real, because he was now somehow out of his body watching from a distance.  He zeroed in on Milner, larger than life again.  The casualness that said he didn’t need to make an effort to impress was still there.  Now Richard took in Mickey, Walker’s genius in Mergers and Acquisitions, who droned on in a monotone, frizzy Jewish hair, sleepy eyes.  Mickey was probably laying out some wisdom, because Milner gave him his complete attention, nodding as Mickey spoke.  Now Richard studied Jack, the firm’s Chief Executive Officer.  Jack stood smoothing the peaked lapels on his European-inspired suit, looking artfully put together from his French tie and matching pocket square down to his Italian loafers.  Jack’s eyes moved around like a big jungle cat’s.  Watching Milner, taking in everything, now sizing up Richard, now back to Milner and Mickey.  His athletic build showed in the close-fit suit, shirt cuffs protruding Cary Grant-like from his sleeves, hair razor-cut, Palm Beach tan standing out against his white collar and cuffs.

They walked into the conference room, Milner smiling and lifting a hand in a restrained wave goodbye to Richard.  Jack Grass saw it and glanced back at Richard, seeming to make a mental note.

Richard looked into the open door of the conference room.  A mahogany table was set for three, bedecked with crystal, china, formal silver and fresh linen.  Its subdued sheen and worn edges showed graceful age, complemented by the oriental rug it sat on.  The aroma of rosemary and eggs mixed with some other scent he couldn’t identify emanated from an unseen kitchen.

Richard wished he could listen in on their meeting, be in the room with them.  Hell, he wanted more than anything to be one of them, particularly Milner.  He was a big part of why Richard was here.

Just as they sat down at the table to breakfast, a trim man in a double-breasted suit walked into the reception area with an air that he owned the place.  Richard took him in:  slicked-back hair, pocket square that matched his bold Hermes tie, English-striped shirt with white cuffs showing below his jacket sleeves.  A Jack Grass wannabe?  He walked erect, lips pursed, projecting arrogance.  LeClaire, no doubt.  He’d be the most important person in Richard’s life for the next hour.

  “François LeClaire.  Sorry I am late.”  He smiled, but modestly, as if to overdo it would wrinkle his suit.  His accent had the exaggerated edge of a cartoon character, almost too pronounced to be real.  “Conference call to Europe.  Unavoidable,” now adopting a manner like Richard, of course, knew the import of all this.  He shook Richard’s hand like he wanted to leave no doubt he understood the concept of a firm American handshake.  He extended his other hand in the direction of the offices with the formality of a Swiss hotelier.

Here we go.  Richard resisted the urge to peek back at Milner. 


#


Harold Milner looked down at the rosemary and goat cheese omelet on his plate, then at his hands; the meaty hands of a carpenter or mason.  But for some turns in his life, that could’ve been him.  It was something he tried hard never to forget.  He couldn’t help laughing at himself now:  he was uneasy, and trying to hide it.  He’d been at the deals business a long time.  Lots of tense moments, tough deals, pressure.  But he rarely felt like this.

He looked over at Jack and Mickey.  They sure took Milner back.  Twenty years of dreaming, manipulating, trial and error, making it work.  Elbow-to-elbow, the three of them.  Jack, the ideas guy, sitting there now, puffing and blowing, preening himself in that $5,000 custom suit.  Mickey the planner and thinker.  Jack should thank God he had Mickey.  He made Jack’s schemes real.  And it really wasn’t just Mickey’s brains and technical mastery; it was Jack’s crazy ideas, because without Jack’s dreaming Mickey wouldn’t have had anything to breathe life into.

Before he met these two he was just a scrappy guy doing pint-sized deals.  Then he met Jack, and a month later, this new guy he had in tow, Steinberg-–Mickey, not a nickname for Michael, just Mickey—short, plump and unathletic.  They both showed up at Milner’s New York office in that dowdy building he’d started out in at 8th Avenue and 34th Street.  Smelled like the Chinese restaurant downstairs.  Jack grinning his golden-boy grin in a $2,000 English-cut suit, still only 31 years old and Walker’s top producer, already running the firm’s Corporate Finance Department.  Mickey blinking slowly, shaking hands more firmly than Milner expected from someone with that weasely face and punch-drunk demeanor.

Jack pitched the Caldor idea almost before they sat down, itching to get at it.  Jack talking nonsense about buying a billion dollars of debt owed the retailer Caldor by its credit card customers for 20 cents on the dollar.  Mickey explaining that Caldor was near-bankrupt and desperate for cash.  Jack saying Caldor’s credit card customers would ultimately pay their bills, Milner would make a killing.  Mickey laying out how to finance the deal.  Back and forth, Milner’s eyes shooting from one to the other like at a tennis match.  Then Jack telling Milner all he had to kick in was $10 to $12 million, maybe make 20 to 30 times his investment in a few years.  Milner thinking, that got his attention, whoever these guys were.

It had turned out to be a recipe for an incredible home run:  Milner had invested $16 million of cash, almost all he had laying around, and borrowed the rest to buy Caldor’s credit card receivables.  After paying off his lenders in two years, Milner had netted $455 million.  Jack and Mickey had propelled Milner into the big time.  Within a year he bought a Lear jet and apartments in New York, Palm Beach and Los Angeles.  He moved his office to the penthouse of the Helmsley Building; the anchor of the 45th Street entrance to New York’s power alley business district on Park Avenue.  And that had only been the beginning.

But now, this was the end.

“I wanna do a deal on Southwest Homes,” Milner said.

He saw Jack perk up across the table like a dog sniffing a bone.  Mickey was characteristically quiet, eyes blinking.  Milner sipped his water, swallowing hard without worrying about that crinkly sound he made.  One of the keys to his humble roots that Mary Claire always cast him a disapproving eye about at dinner parties.  He didn’t have to try to impress these guys.

Mickey said, “Mind if I ask why?”

Milner saw Jack look sideways at Mickey, as if to try to shut him up.

“I don’t like the business anymore.  Any schmoe who can sign an “X” on a mortgage application can buy a house he can’t afford.”

Jack said, “Yeah, a real bubble mentality.”

Milner nodded.

Jack said, “This round of musical chairs won’t last very long.  Better pick your seat before the music stops.  Remember when the internet stock bubble popped?”

Milner felt himself smile beneath his hand, knew it was showing in his eyes.  This was Jack at his best:  always selling.  Milner would miss Jack and Mickey in a way, but they’d become his chaperones on a trip to the dark side.  Churning out deals together that just moved pieces around on the table; they were all making piles of money but not creating anything.  He’d made a commitment to himself that he’d go back to building companies again, not this “financial engineering on steroids” crap the magazines lauded him for.  Even that kid in the lobby only talked about his deals that busted up instead of built things.  Milner looked over at Mickey.  “Mickey, whattaya think?”

“You want to sell it to a corporate buyer, or do an initial public offering?” Mickey asked.

“Take it public-–the IPO.”

“The IPO market’s still shooting out deals like a baseball pitching machine,” Jack said.  “And homebuilding stocks are red hot.”

“Everything’s hot.  Maybe too hot,” Milner said.

“Yeah, white hot.  All the more reason to unload a chunk of Southwest onto the public,” Jack said.  Why did Jack make even the right answer sound like bullshit half the time?

Mickey said, “It’s worth about $1.5 billion.  How much do you want to sell?”

Milner put down his fork, rested his elbows on the table and put his hand over his mouth, taking his time.  He glanced over at Jack and saw him observing.  Milner said, “All of it.”  He saw the muscles in Jack’s jaw flex.  Then he saw Jack inhale, sensed the animal arise beneath that bespoke tailoring.  Okay, Jack–-ready, shoot, aim. 

“We can sell 100%,” Jack said.  “A number of 100% IPOs have gotten done lately.  And with home prices setting new records each month, and getting a mortgage as easy as eating popcorn, the public markets are bidding up homebuilders’ stocks like crazy.”

Milner said, “I’ve noticed.”  He looked at Mickey.

Mickey said, “In general, Jack’s right.  But if you sell it all in the IPO you’ll take a major discount versus selling, say, half.  If you sell it all, people ask:  ‘What’s wrong with it that he doesn’t want to keep any?’”

“I know.  But I like the idea of selling it all.  How big a discount would I take?”  Milner felt his stomach tighten.

Milner saw Jack and Mickey take time to look at each other.  Milner felt himself smiling again.  He had to admit he loved watching these guys, had since the beginning.  Back and forth.  Jack trying to urge Mickey with a glance and body language, Mickey considering his answer, blinking, contemplating.

Mickey said, “I’d say at least 300 million dollars.”

Jack didn’t move.

Milner shrugged, then nodded.  “Done.” 

Jack looked over at Milner with his best shit-eating grin.

Milner looked down, observed his hands again.  In a way, he’d get to be a carpenter after all.  And put in an honest day’s work.


#


In LeClaire’s office, Richard settled into a reproduction of the Chippendale antique chairs in the lobby.  He looked around.  It was a real office, not some eight-by-twelve hole.  Mahogany desk and credenza, Oriental rug, textured fabric wall covering, and tasteful print curtains.  LeClaire was a Senior Vice President, which had its status, but his title aside, what Richard had heard was right:  Walker, privately-held, still had the appointments of an old Wall Street firm that even Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley had given up years ago.

Richard hoped to exchange some small talk, loosen himself and LeClaire up.  He checked out LeClaire’s desk.  The guy was a neatnick, ordered piles of documents on either side, more on his credenza.  A pencil holder with a dozen or so sharpened #2s.  Pictures of his wife and it looked like three kids.

“Can we get right to it?  I’ve got another conference call in an hour and I need to prepare before it,” LeClaire said. 

“Sure,” Richard said.  This is it; don’t blow it.

LeClaire held up Richard’s resume.  “Here is what this tells me:  nice middle-class kid from the Midwest; public high school, including the obligatory sports.  Undistinguished undergraduate school–-Michigan State was a choice I would like to understand—then on to a successful career track in advertising . . . how am I doing?”  His thick French accent had a cadence that emphasized the syllables on the up-beat.

“Okay, you’re getting to the part that should be more interesting to you, I . . .”

LeClaire talked over Richard, “You say you had some successful campaigns.  ‘Wow! What a Whopper’, ‘Morton steak sauce sizzles!’, and the Michelin tire ‘Baby’ campaign—I do not recognize any of those.  And you won some award.”

“A Clio isn’t just ‘some award.’”  Jesus.  That was like saying Institutional Investor’s “Deal of the Year” award was like a gold star in grammar school.  Who does he think he is?

LeClaire now put Richard’s resume down on the desk and looked at it.  “But it was not sufficient to achieve one of the top American business schools that Wall Street gets its real talent from.  Do you disagree?”

“I see a different picture.  A hard-working kid with solid Midwestern values excels in public school . . . . ”

LeClaire interrupted, “Have you ever met anybody from your American boarding schools?”

“A few, but . . . “

“It is my experience that they are better educated.”

The hell they are.  Could this guy be more of a stiff?  “Public schools teach people how to think, too.  Besides I’ve met some boarding school types who may know how to say the right thing, but haven’t had an original thought in their lives.”

“Point taken.  So why are we here, thinker?”  He was sitting up straight in his chair, hands clasped and resting on his desk blotter.

Richard leaned in toward him for emphasis.  He felt himself starting to breathe faster.  “Because I gave up a promising career in advertising . . .”  He heard his voice rising.

“How much were you making?”

“A hundred and twenty thousand.”

“That is considerable for advertising.  They pay poorly.” 

“I know.  I was worth more.  But I still gave that up to—”

“To crunch numbers until 2 a.m. most nights, put together pitch books for people like me you will perhaps learn to hate, and if you are very, very lucky, carry bags for senior officers such as Jack Grass and Mickey Steinberg?”

“No, to learn the business.  To be like Jack Grass or Mickey Steinberg, or if I can pull it off, like the guy they’re outside having breakfast with, Harold Milner.”

“That is ambitious.”

“I am ambitious.  And Milner’s only one of the deals guys I studied, who got me interested in this business.”

Richard realized he had leaned in so far forward that his hands were on the edge of the desk.

“Today it is my job to see if you are ambitious enough.”  LeClaire slouched in his chair and smiled for the first time.

Richard now felt perspiration on his upper lip and realized his pulse had quickened.  He used the pause to settle back into his chair.  He’d let this guy get under his skin right away and he was disappointed in himself.  Calm down, this isn’t gonna get it doneYou need to get past him.  He smiled back, then tried to lighten it up.  “So did I get past the first hurdle?”

“You did that two weeks ago.”

Richard raised his eyebrows as if to ask how.

“You beat down the door.”

“I guess I was a little persistent.  It took a few calls.”

“Six.  So, my young friend, let’s talk.”

This time he smiled like he wasn’t afraid it would make him soil himself.  Maybe it meant LeClaire had just been testing him.  But ‘my young friend?’ Gimme a break.  The guy was barely 35.  At least he didn’t call me ‘old sport.

Then he said, “You know what?  I have time.  Would you like something to drink?”

“Coffee would be great.”

LeClaire seized the phone handset and chattered in staccato French to someone named Marcel.  He turned back to Richard.  “So how is it going?”  Now warm, like they were colleagues.  Richard couldn’t figure this guy.

Richard said, “I haven’t got the job offer I want and it’s mid March.  Two fallbacks.  Corporate finance offers from BFGoodrich and Procter & Gamble.  Good jobs, but backups.”

“Why do you think that is?”

“You said it yourself.  My resume doesn’t fit the mold and I didn’t go to a B-school that’s a main Wall Street feeder.”

“Your resume has neither a comfortable, aged patina nor crisp, institutional packaging.”

Richard chuckled at that.  “That’s one way of putting it.” 

LeClaire laughed, too.  “Something I wrote down from an article on recruiting.  It sounds even stupider said aloud than read.”  Finally starting to let his hair down?  LeClaire said, “You have no idea how sick I am of seeing these pretty boys come in here and fill me full of perfectly useless theories and impractical business school nonsense.”  His face softened, like he really was loosening up.

LeClaire continued, “But when it comes down to this business, real financiers feel something in the pits of their tummies when they think about money and bonds and stocks.  That has nothing to do with business school theory.”

Somebody knocked on the door.  “Who is it?” he called.

“Marcel,” came the answer in heavily accented English.  A demure woman in a white outfit entered and served them from a tray.  It was real china.  Richard took a long, grateful swallow of coffee and noted that LeClaire had chosen tea.  LeClaire seemed to go someplace else as he took his first sips.  He turned and admired the photos on his credenza.

“Three kids?” Richard asked.

LeClaire swung back, looking like he’d been caught.  “Yes.  Girls.  For years I did not bring any pictures of my children to the office because I was afraid I would never get any work done.  I thought I would just spend all day staring at them.”  He seemed embarrassed, then straightened his back and went on, “When I said institutional packaging earlier, I meant, of course, the right Ivy League undergraduate school, then two to four years of an Analyst position at an investment bank, prior to attending one of the top business schools.”

“Uh-huh.”  Richard was wondering where this was going.

“Let me tell you my primary role as head of recruiting.  The elite schools are easy.  The recruiting infrastructure, the inertia takes care of itself.  My real job is to research people from the second-tier schools, ferret-out the good ones and convince them to join us.  Are you one of the good ones?”

Of course he was.  But how to convince this guy?


#


The more Jack watched Milner, the stranger he thought he was acting today.  It wasn't like him to just blurt out that he wanted to IPO Southwest like he did.  Milner was anything but impetuous.  And if Jack didn't know better, he’d say Milner was actually nervous.  He'd never sold anything on this scale before.  Hell, it was 15 to 20% of his empire, and he’d sell at a discount, no less.  What was up?

Yeah, Milner was acting strange today.  But Jack would think about that later.  Right now he was doing his own math.  Walker & Company’s fees were close to $100 million for selling all of Southwest.  That 100 million bucks would do a lot for his budget this year.  Not to mention the 5 percent of Southwest that he and Mickey got as part of the fee for helping Milner buy it years ago.  They’d each make 35 million bucks on that when it went public.  Jack felt his fingers tingle, then his balls. 

“Might be one of the year’s hottest deals if we play it right, Harold,” Jack said.  He looked at Mickey.  “The scarcity and exclusivity value of a Harold Milner deal.”

“Jack, I’m already sold.  You trying to convince Mickey or yourself?”

Mickey said, “Not himself.  You know Jack.  He believes in everything.”

“God help us all.  A man who still believes his own bullshit.”

Jack laughed along with them but he was thinking about the fees again.  And what they would do to the bonus pool, and his bonus.  And there wasn’t anything Sir Reginald Schoenfeld could do about the $35 million each he and Mickey would make.  Sir Reginald had put an end to taking pieces of deals instead of cash fees shortly after the foreign partners invested their $250 million into Walker & Company four years earlier.  Looking over at Milner, thinking about Sir Reginald struck him:  what a contrast.  Milner knew how to become somebody, big time, but still be a normal guy.  He was someone you could have a mano-a-mano with.  But this Brit, Sir Reginald, born into it, running Schoenfeld & Co. after his old man died.  He was a fourth generation idiot who inherited his living instead of hitting the streets to make one.  But he walked around all haughty like he earned it and deserved it.

Milner sailed right through Jack’s Peter Luger Steak House test; Sir Reginald flunked it before he even got out of the car.

A year after doing the Caldor deal with Milner, Jack and Milner drove over the Williamsburg Bridge from Manhattan into Brooklyn and up to Peter Luger in Milner’s Mercedes 500 series.  “They’ve got valet parking,” Jack said, as Milner pulled up to the restaurant.  Milner watched the lead kid come around to the driver’s side.  The kid was wearing a tan shirt, black slacks, black bow tie, same as Jack set it up when he was 16.  Jack was watching Milner.  Milner was looking at the kid, smiling, probably wondering is this kid even old enough to drive, and how’s he gonna see over the wheel of this big Mercedes?

Milner didn’t flinch, not even glancing at Jack with a questioning look like most guys.  He rolled down the window.  “Good evening, sir, welcome to Peter Luger,” the kid said.  The kid had it down:  polite and respectful, in the tradition, doing Jack proud even though the kid had no idea who he was.  “You gentlemen can get out and we’ll take it from here.”

They got out, Jack still watching Milner, Milner handing the kid a few bucks, then seeing a different kid, the car hop, jog up and get into the car.  Then Milner asking the lead kid, “Don’t I get a ticket?”

“No, sir, we take it to the lot and then bring your ticket back to you in the restaurant.  After dinner you can pick your car up yourself or one of my boys will bring it back to you.”

Milner shrugged.  “Alright, my man, we’ll be inside.”  No fuss, no attitude, not talking down.  Passed.

The valet parking routine was the same as when Jack hatched the idea with Mickey “Splits” Duncan, Lionel Preston, Booker T. Wilson and Moravian White, buddies from the neighborhood in Canarsie.  It took Jack three weeks to work the deal out with the maître d’ at Peter Luger, selling him on the virtues of a ‘seamless entry for his clients,’ pitching himself as ‘in the process of earning my diploma.’  Then he lined up the four surrounding parking lots.  What a pain in the ass, three different parking companies, days to find the managers, get them to agree.  One of them even insisted he meet the Peter Luger maître d’, who was off that day, and came back three more times before clinching the deal.  Then Booker T. saying, I ain’t wearing no bow tie.  Jack telling him, Then you aren’t in the deal.  Then Booker T., seeing that the other three car jockeys cleared 200 bucks between them the first weekend, even after Jack took his 25% off the top, finally joining in.

The lead kid trotted up to the front door as Milner and Jack walked toward it, held it open, Milner smiling back and thanking him.  It was the same as when Jack used to hold the door and watch the mob guys pile out of their Cadillacs, the young ones flashy with gold chains and parading girls from New Jersey with big hair.  The old mob bosses were quiet and classy except for their ugly ties and shirts and smelly one-dollar cigars, and sometimes those shiny sharkskin suits.  And usually they had young babes on their arms chewing gum and looking cheap with their tits hanging out of skimpy dresses.  Jack knew he didn’t want to be like them.

He didn’t want to be like the lawyers, either.  The partners were abusive, never making eye contact, lousy tippers and their shoes scuffed and suits wrinkled.  The young lawyers looked whipped, eyes lowered, cowed in front of the partners.

It was the Wall Street guys he liked to watch, learn from their subdued movements.  Not the young ones, they were assholes—loud, like saying ‘look at me, see how much money I make, how big I tip,’ making a display of it.  They treated Jack and his boys like pieces of car parking machinery.  And they always had newspapers and sweaty workout stuff on the back seat—loose, not even stuffed in gym bags—candy wrappers on the floor, sometimes cigarette ashes and butts, real slobs.  You could tell a lot from how they kept their cars.

But the older ones from Wall Street, they were established and comfortable inside their skins, walking erect but relaxed, like they didn’t need to impress anybody.  Suits with smooth fabrics that hung like silky elegance on their bodies:  super light-weight worsteds in the spring and summer; lush, beautiful cashmere in the fall and winter.  Their shoes were always shined like glass.  Those were the guys he studied, went to school on.  They had something to show him.  They glided with the understatement of power.  Sure, some of them were arrogant, barely noticed him.  But the ones who did speak to him didn’t try to act all friendly and chummy like the young mob kids, or disdainful like the young Wall Streeters.  And every once in a while one of them would stop and strike up a conversation, shoot the shit just to pass the time without being condescending.  And always, always they were good tippers.  Sometimes they arrived in cabs or limos, but usually because it was Brooklyn they drove.  And those cars were clean; big Mercedes, BMWs, occasionally Cadillacs or Lincolns and even sometimes Rolls-Royces, but always spotless, chrome shining and no papers or shit lying around inside.  And when they brought their wives, they were classy with good perfume, tasteful jewelry, modest but elegant dresses.  And polite.  Even when they were tight-assed bitches they were at least polite.  That’s what Jack was shooting for:  Wall Street.

And Sir Reginald, when they were negotiating the deal for the Brits and the Frogs to buy into Walker & Company, sitting in the passenger seat of Jack’s BMW 760, name-dropping all the way out to Brooklyn.  And as they pulled up in front of Peter Luger, saying, “My goodness, they’re using child labor.”  Then when Jack stopped the car and without hesitation got out, handed the lead kid his key and five bucks, then headed for the entrance, Sir Reginald saying, “You’re just going to leave the car with him?”  Jack turning back to see Sir Reginald get out of the car, the lead kid already around to open his door, Sir Reginald looking through the kid like he didn’t exist; no ‘thank you,’ nothing.  Jack knew then that this guy Sir Reginald was a douchebag.  But Sir Reginald Schoenfeld and Philippe Delecroix, Walker’s other foreign partner, just happened to have $250 million they were willing to invest in Walker & Company.  Sometimes you just had to suck it up and live with it.

Jack came back to the moment, how strange Milner was behaving.  Leaving over a quarter of a billion of value on the table just wasn’t like him.  Clients acting out of character meant busted deals, usually at the eleventh hour.  He looked over at Mickey, see if he noticed anything.  Mickey and Harold had already started jawboning each other about stereo equipment, their perpetual argument.  Solid state versus tubes.  Vinyl records versus CDs.  Stereo schmereoA couple a big kids.


#


Richard felt as if LeClaire’s question had given him his first opening, like this trip to New York hadn’t been a waste of time.  “I was doing great in advertising, but . . .”

“Richard, my friend, I accept that.  But why are you here?”

Richard glanced at his watch.  This was his shot.  “I told you I’ve been a student of deals.  And deals guys.  I’ve read just about everything on James J. Hill, Harold Milner, Carl Icahn, Sam Zell, even J.P. Morgan and Jimmy Walker.”

“What about Donald Trump?”

“A comb-over windbag who licenses his name to real developers.  Are you kidding?”  Richard saw LeClaire smile, a genuine smile this time that showed his teeth, his face losing its angular lines and dissolving into roundness.  Richard went on, “The guys I mentioned were the ones that convinced me to go back to business school.”

LeClaire said, “But I’m still waiting to be convinced.”  He lounged back in his chair, cradled his teacup in both hands and settled down as if to wait for Richard to make his case.  “Just tell me about money.”

“I see money as the true medium of the financier.  It has an allure and an intrigue of its own; money begetting other money, compounding upon itself.  It’s a fascinating notion that almost defies the idea that matter can neither be created nor destroyed.  You stick some in a little company, add brains and sweat and before you know it you’ve got a big company.”

“So how do you feel about making money yourself?”

“I’ve never had enough of it and I can’t ever imagine having too much.  If I get there I’ll let you know.”

“What do you know about being an investment banker?”

“From a day-to-day, get-the-job-done standpoint, not much.  But on a broader level, I’m more a student of deals than anybody at Michigan, and that’s given me a grounding in reality for the concepts I’ve learned in my finance classes.  I don’t think my classmates understand the idea of ripping a company apart and putting it back together as more than when you started.  I do.”

LeClaire looked at his watch.  Richard felt his stomach drop, thinking he was going to cut the interview off.  Then LeClaire started talking.  “I should tell you something about us.  Starting with me, I’m a graduate of Ecole Polytechnique in France, was on a fast track at Groupe Credit Generale, then sent by GCG to Harvard Business School, graduating first in my class.  I was then secunded by Philippe Delecroix himself to Walker shortly after the amalgamation of Walker, Schoenfeld & Co. and GCG.  I am a living example of how a motivated, young banker can excel financially and in creative and career development at Walker.  I am on track to be the youngest Managing Director ever elected at Walker, except for Jack Grass himself.”

Richard stayed quiet.  Interviewers who did a lot of talking always felt the interview went well.

LeClaire continued, “And you know what?  If you work hard and focus the intelligence you obviously have, you could be a member of this elite group.”

Richard felt a tickle of excitement.  Now he’s selling me.

“Now let us take Walker & Company itself.  We are one of the hottest firms on Wall Street today.  Four years ago, street-savvy Walker & Company amalgamated with Schoenfeld & Co. and Groupe Credit Generale.  The old-school establishment English connections of Schoenfeld & Co., one of the last great English private merchant banks.  The powerhouse financial clout of Groupe Credit Generale, my first employer and our French partner, the largest bank in France.  The deal that Jack Grass and Mickey Steinberg put together was an amazing coup.  They got Walker access to Schoenfeld’s and GCG’s prestige and capital without giving them control.  They got them to put up 51% of the capital for 40% of the vote.  In the four years since the amalgamation, Walker has catapulted from a mid-tier firm to a top ten rising star on the Street.”

LeClaire paused, as if to say ‘What do you think of that?’  Richard didn’t want to kill his momentum, just nodded.

“Look,” LeClaire said, leaning forward like he was letting Richard in on a secret.  “Sir Reginald Schoenfeld runs Schoenfeld & Co. like a personal fiefdom, hand-picking his people, preserving the unique culture of the firm.  GCG, despite its scale, is carved into individual profit centers run by aggressive entrepreneurs.  Philippe Delecroix is on GCG’s Board of Directors, and heads two of GCG’s most entrepreneurial profit centers:  the investment banking business and the merchant banking subsidiary that holds GCG’s investment in Walker.  Do you know why Sir Reginald and Philippe sought out Walker?”

A question LeClaire would obviously answer himself.  Richard didn’t dare even nod this time, afraid he might stop.

“Because they wanted Walker’s DNA.  Because they know it is their unique DNA that drives their own organizations.  What we are looking for, Richard Blum, is exceptional people with that same DNA.”

“I know what you mean,” Richard said, seeing an opening for his final pitch.  “I really believe I was born to this.  I know I have it in me and I can make a major impact here at Walker.  But I won’t come in here with the notion I’m entitled to it; I’ll work my butt off, learn the business from the bottom up.  Give me a shot.  I won’t let you down.”

Now LeClaire smiled again, broadly, his face rounding out.

Richard sensed it was coming to an end and didn’t want to screw it up at the last minute.  He stayed silent.

“You are sharp,” LeClaire said.  “You are not full of sheet and you seem to know how to work hard and you definitely have the business under your skin.  I like you, Richard.”

Richard felt he’d scratched part way through the surface.  LeClaire was still smiling.  Close, shut up and leaveThe guy just said he liked you.

“I like you too, François,” Richard said.  He felt relieved when LeClaire looked at his watch again.

“Well, I need to get ready for my call.  I will get back to you.  It will be tough, but I will see what I can do.”

Richard got another toothy smile in the lobby as LeClaire escorted him to the elevator.  Richard left with the feeling he’d passed the initial grilling, then connected.  He felt a rush of relief, then a spasm of tension in his guts.  It ended well; but well enough to be finally breaking in?


#


Richard got his callback to New York for a day of second-round interviews a week after he first met with LeClaire, and then didn’t hear anything until mid April.  When he did, LeClaire’s voice sounded ominous on the voicemail message.  Richard’s heart was thumping as he called him back, sitting on one of the benches outside Sam Wyly Hall.

“Hello, my friend,” LeClaire said, “we are hoping you will join us as a member of Walker & Company.  Tell me what we need to do to convince you.”

Richard felt his body go numb where it touched the bench, the sensation he was floating above it, and then a feeling like laughter rumbling up from his guts.  He said, “You don’t have to do anything.  I accept.  I can’t tell you how happy I am.”

“Excellent.  So let me just give you one element of our offer upfront before I lay out all the details.”

Richard heard the change in LeClaire’s tone and now got a different sensation in his guts, like someone punched them.  He was also aware that his butt had landed back on the hard slats of the bench and his legs were rubbery.

LeClaire continued, “I remember telling you in our first interview that it would be tough.  I fought hard for you but got significant pushback.  So here is what we propose:  join us as an Associate in this year’s class on a probational basis.  That means you have six months to prove yourself.  If you accept, we will drive you hard.  We will ask you to do things that may make you uncomfortable, even squeamish.  We will test you to see if you are Walker material.  But the other terms of your employment will be no different from any other Associate’s, and none of your classmates will be aware of your probational status.”

Richard cleared his throat, thinking on his feet, trying to put his interviewing hat back on.  “I have no concerns about my ability to succeed.  Of course, I accept.”

Richard listened to LeClaire walk him through the other elements of the offer, feeling the strength coming back into his legs.  Probation or not, he was going to Wall Street, even if they could throw him out again within six months.  But as he told himself there was no way he was gonna let that happen, he couldn’t shake the sense of a dull thud in his stomach.


#


Washington, D.C.  Roman Croonquist, Director, Division of Enforcement of the Securities and Exchange Commission, sat at his desk, feeling as if things couldn’t get any better.  Yesterday he’d returned from New York, where he’d acted as government spokesperson at the sentencing hearing in his best insider trading bust since becoming the SEC’s top cop six years earlier.  In the Ceremonial Courtroom of the U.S. Courthouse on Pearl Street, where Bernie Madoff got 150 years, twenty-eight-year-old investment banker Matthew Kowalski got the maximum:  15 years, plus disgorgement of his share of his 13-member ring’s $14 million in illegal gains, plus a $500,000 fine.  Croonquist didn’t think it was enough for the slimebag, but that’s all the sentencing guidelines allowed.  Kowalski, the little creep, had also passed inside information to his father, who traded on it through his niece’s brokerage account.  Pathetic.  At one point during the hearing Kowalski’s mother appealed to him with her eyes to help her son.  Like hell.  Croonquist had felt nothing but contempt.  The kid knew exactly what he was doing.  So did his old man.  They’re only sorry after they’re caught.

And even better than that, today, the SEC’s new $780 million MarketWatch system was officially on-stream, finished with its two-month benchmarking process.  He typed a few keys and watched the symbols appear on the LCD screen on top of his desk, new dots in a blizzard of market trading statistics.  The screen was one of 250 new MarketWatch terminals.  Croonquist had been hand-picked by SEC Chairman Green and Croonquist’s old boss, Phil Johnson in Surveillance to get MarketWatch up and running.  It monitored trading activity worldwide through electronic surveillance of all major stock exchanges.

Now the bad guys really don’t stand a chance.  He cracked open a pistachio nut and popped the meat into his mouth.

Croonquist looked up and saw Charles Green, the SEC Chairman, walking toward his office.  He leaned back and smiled.

“Charlie, what a surprise.”

Green sat down facing Croonquist.  “Yeah.  But it’s never a nice surprise when your boss just drops in unannounced, is it?”

“I don’t know, you tell me.”  Croonquist didn’t have any reason to feel uncomfortable.  He leaned forward and moved the picture of Ellie and the girls to the side so he could see Charlie, then settled back into his chair.

“You keep eating those things, you’ll get gout,” Green said, pointing to the pile of pistachio shells on Croonquist’s desk.  “I won’t beat around the bush.  I just got back from the Hill, and it wasn’t lost on those guys that you just pulled off the sexiest insider trading ring bust of the decade.”

Croonquist patted himself on the back.

“Time to stop celebrating.  Now they’re all asking, ‘what have you done for me today?’  And that fat bastard Carmichael from North Dakota actually referred to the cost of MarketWatch as a ‘bad case of gas bloating the SEC budget.’”

“The guy does have a way with words.”

“You wouldn’t say that if he was sticking them in your face.”  Green leaned forward and put his forearms on Croonquist’s desk.  Croonquist now started to get a more ominous feeling about this visit.  “I need something to take back to them.  The Appropriations Committee is squawking about MarketWatch running $280 million over budget—and I know that wasn’t your fault, you did a great job—and the fact that the Kowalski ring bust didn’t need any fancy technology.”

Croonquist nodded, thinking about what he might have.

“So if you don’t bring in a big fish with our new pole damn quick, I think we’re both gonna land in the drink, my man.”

Croonquist let that sink in for a moment.  This not only wasn’t a social call, but he now saw that Green was breathing heavily, and the big guy was hard to rattle.  Croonquist thought for a moment.  He saw Green give him a look that said, “Well?”

“I’m thinking,” Croonquist said.

“You don’t have anything?”

“Christ, Charlie, it’s only been two months.”

Green sat back in his chair and shook his head.

Croonquist said, “We benchmarked 5,000 deals against 10 known insider trading deals with MarketWatch.  It was a lot of numbers crunching, but that’s what the big Crays that MarketWatch runs on are for.  Some interesting things popped out,” and he turned to point at a pile of computer printouts on his credenza, “but we’re still analyzing them.  It’s premature.”

“What’s all this benchmarking give you?”

“The ability to correlate recent deals with known insider trading patterns.  And if anything looks suspicious, then trace it back to the people who did those deals.  Then analyze it.”

“You’ve had two months of correlating and analyzing, my man.  We need a big bust, and fast.  How long?”

“Christ, I don’t know.  You know as well as I do that catching one of these characters isn’t much different than any other form of police work.  You have to have a hunch, a great lead, and then trace every piece of information until you find what you’re looking for.  The only difference between today and two months ago is that we’ve now got the means of tracing the data trail based on all the trading activity in a stock.”

Green pointed to the pile of printouts.  “What’s the one on top?”

“Walker & Company.”

“Why’s it on top?”

“Eight suspicious deals in four years.  High correlations with previous insider trading deals.  I’ve got a gut feeling about this one.” 

“Good.  Squeeze it until it talks to you.”  Green stood up.  “I’m counting on you, Roman.”

Croonquist watched him leave, then picked up his phone to call his computer jocks.  He pulled open the bottom desk drawer and fished into the bag for another handful of pistachios.

Copyright 2011 © by David T. Lender

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