Not All Money Is Green

I use to be part of a team that sold emerging market bonds for a bank. We consistently made millions of dollars annually. Yet, in many ways, our team was not well respected. In fact, there were other traders and sales people who made less money, contributed less, and were paid more.

It always use to bother me that even though my efforts created more value for the bank other people were paid more. It was as if the money I made was not “green enough” for the bank. I came to learn that in corporate America, pay is not only dependent on technical skills but on political skill as well.  Given the clients I handled I had no political power.

The golden boys at my firm had gone to the best schools and were groomed by the bank to handle the biggest accounts. Their careers would typically start out having them act as back up traders for large accounts and, as they matured, take over those accounts and even larger ones. To their credit, those guys were super smart, worked super hard and did well for their accounts.  In turn, the firm loved them because they maintained a steady flow of income for the banks.

What they did was not particularly hard. They were given the keys to the kingdom. Their real job was simply to not mess up.

My colleagues talked and traded with PIMCO, Fidelity and Soros. They traveled to California and played on some of the best golf courses throughout the U.S.  Meanwhile, I was shlepping around the streets of Bogota, Colombia visiting local brokers trying to successfully close small trades.  The search for those deals had me traveling to some pretty remote places. My hunch had been that there were a lot more deals to be done with some of those financial institutions because they were not being properly engaged and serviced.

The compliance department, the traders and management hated me for bringing these accounts. It was simply outside their wheelhouse and comfort zone…not to mention lacking in the requisite social standing. I traded with family offices in Venezuela, pension funds in Jamaica and trust companies in Trinidad.  Then, after a few short years, I was doing some of the largest trades in my firm with, admittedly, the oddest account list. That’s when I got noticed. It took me years but the money I was earning suddenly became green.

My story is not unusual.

If you study the historical development of the Jewish community in both the legal system and on Wall Street, you see the same story play out. The reason there are so many Jewish lawyers working in mergers and acquisitions on Wall Street is due, in large part, to the fact that early on those positions were looked down upon. None of the banks, or golden boys, wanted to do the grunt work in the legal space. This resulted in that market not being served. Given that many Jews could not get into the top investment banks, they were left with covering the scraps of the “fine print” on deals. Guess what happened?  As that area became in high demand, the only firms that could service the deals were Jewish law firms. (If you want to find out more about this evolution, check out Malcolm Gladwell’s, David vs Goliath).

Even in my current business dealings, I witness firsthand how people are looked down upon when they are perceived to lack the right pedigree. Just recently, I was in a meeting with some pretty high powered people for a capital raise and, by far, the wealthiest man in the room was the most humble and least ostentatious. The manner in which he spoke and his attire suggested that he did not have the means to even be in that meeting. During a discussion round table following the capital presentation, a banker asked this unassuming attendee if he was familiar with a certain well-respected and high ranking bank in the city in which the humble man lived. His reply was, “I am that bank. I own it.”  You could have heard a pin drop as the room went silent. Suddenly, a man who had been previously humored for his questions and comments was the authority in the room…whose every word had the undivided attention of all those present.

After the meeting, I asked him what had driven him to own a bank. He proceeded to tell me that earlier in his career he had lost everything because the bank he used would not extend him credit on the real estate deals he had done. Their refusal   forced him into bankruptcy. He vowed it would not happen to him again. With whatever funds had survived bankruptcy, and what he was able to bring to the table, he bought one of the worst banks around for a fraction of its worth and grew it into what it is today: lucrative, well-respected and top rated. In a room full of lawyers, wall street financiers and tech whiz kids, this man was by far the most successful and least assuming. How had he done it? He saw potential, embraced what others judged as worthless, and then did the hard work.

The famed real estate developer Frank McKinney, who builds only million dollars homes on speculation, got his start buying apartments in the worst parts of Florida. The locations were dangerous and his margins small; but, over time, he grew and transitioned his talents to high end real estate. His success stemmed from the fact that he was willing to do the job no one else wanted to do. When he told his peers about his low end real estate deals he was looked down upon. I would characterize their reaction as “his money wasn’t green enough.” But the experience he gained doing jobs that others would not do propelled him to the heights of his profession.

These stories have a common thread and timeless moral.  Career capital was amassed from a series of unusual opportunities…opportunities shunned by most for their “appearance sake” yet ultimately the source of enviable value for those who could see past appearances and who were willing to do the heavy lifting.

Steve

sleeclark@gmail.com