I was almost 25yrs old, when my boss, Tim, founding partner in a little brokerage firm, asked me to be his partner, October 20th 1987. Wow, partner by age 25. Not bad. Sure, it was a small firm, seat on the Philly exchange, which his ex-wife paid for and he kept in the divorce. At the time, the Philadelphia Exchange had an OTC market (Over The Counter) which later became the ultra-powerful NASDAQ.
October was busy that year. The first weekend in October, we took the sailboat out of Key Largo for the weekend. Two weeks prior, he married my office mate and best friend, Julia. I was Maid of Honor in the wedding. She “retired” after the wedding (bad shoulder from a car accident and began to drink too much) but was adept and understood when we talked business. It was just the three of us for the weekend on the boat.
The wedding was an enormous affair as Tim had a big Sicilian family from Boston (same exact town where Big T was from – in fact Tim graduated from same high school where Big T’s daughters graduated), and Julia’s family was centered in Sands Point, on Long Island. Wedding and reception were in Key West, but relatives lingered for weeks. With all the family gone, this was the weekend we could recoup and get back to business. I was between boyfriends and my boss and best girlfriend took pity on me. Nothing cures the soul like the sea.
As a broker, I was doing well but had a hard time. I was young and a female. Think about it. How many 55yr old guys, Presidents of their own companies, would trust me with their fortune, let alone their company pension accounts? So, I became an IRS code, WHORE. I read everything I could. I kept manuals in my bathroom and bedside tables. I became a technical freak. I knew IRS code better than people who worked for the IRS. And pension law…., oh, I knew it backwards and forwards. I got to a point where other brokers/local lawyers called on me for help when they needed it. My boss noticed…..
Our little firm was doing well, couple hundred million under management and we had returned 28% that year, thus far. Excellent performance for the mid/late 80’s. Tim was nervous and did not want to be greedy. I had never seen him that way before. He was pushing a conversion into all cash. We were down a few points in September and he didn’t want to lose the gains for year end. “Let’s hold and see what happens.”, he said. By the time we brought the boat in and had dinner on the dock, Sunday night, he had me convinced. I helped him sell the idea to the rest of the brokers. We were all moving to cash. That was October 4th, 1987, and I remember driving home that night like it was yesterday. I was disappointed. “Cash” felt like we were giving up.
By Wednesday-Thursday, which would have been October 7th-8th, we had almost everything converted to cash. We sat, farted around, and I started working on year end reports for my handful of clients. Might as well get ahead, right? The following weekend (10th and 11th) was the Columbus Day Regatta. We participated and had a great time. Didn’t know sailing could be so much work…. or that Tim could yell so much. We were competitive, sure, but there was never any chance in us winning. We did make a respectable showing, however. Dinner Sunday night on the dock was for a tired but happy crew.
By mid-October, Tim looked like a genius. The Market was nervous. We went out sailing the next weekend, which would have been 16th-18th, skipped lunch on Friday and bugged out to Key Largo. Jessica McClure (the Texas kid in the well) had been rescued. I recall, we heard the news by radio and everyone was happy. Business-wise, I was bored, sitting and watching a very skittish market, with a couple of deep dives. I had a few funds/companies, significantly down, which I wanted to “poke at”. Tim resisted, “Don’t be greedy, be patient. There’s a lot going on…..”, he kept saying. I didn’t have his geopolitical perspective at the time (The Storm in London or the Iranian Silkworm Missile, which would later be blamed) because I was young and stupid. Yet, by Sunday night dinner, we agreed to buy a few things on Monday. I had a Conch Chowder that night, with the best biscuits I’ve ever put in my mouth. Frozen in my memory. It was October 18, 1987.
Sometimes, when I could not sleep, I used to watch the markets open around the world on PBS, Sunday night, trying to get a jump on Monday. Yet, Sunday night, I slept straight through and had an early breakfast with a diamond dealer. By the time I got to the office, word was out.
October 19, 1987, the market crashed.
The Dow was down about 25% over 600 points. What a day it was……. We were fine, but everyone else was scared as heck. It was a moment in history, and it hung in our throats. No one knew what would happen next. We fielded phone calls in the morning from clients, who were all safe…. the same clients who previously complained about a $25 transfer fee to move them to cash. I left the office at 3:30pm. I’ll admit, as I drove down Brickell, I stopped at a light, and checked the high rises to see if anyone was jumping. I almost never drink alone, but I poured myself a double bourbon and decided to swim off the tension. Dad called and we watched Tom Brokaw together. The evening news was incredible. Blood on the floor.
What would tomorrow bring? We were all scared.
The next morning, Tim asked me to be his partner, October 20th, and we started buying by 10:00am. He needed a right hand and I was it. He was 20yrs my senior, and taught me everything I know about money. He was my second dad, gave me miles of rope to run, and yanked me back, HARD, on occasion. He let me fail spectacularly, and was merciless with his “I told you so.” Many valuable lessons learned. We were a perfect mix of young, highly technical, zeal………. and street smart, fabulous ability to read people, crusty Sicilian wisdom. Our relationship would never be allowed in the era of MeToo, and for that, young women in business are at a sincere disadvantage.
While we were drawing up papers of partnership, we had to assign tasks to each other. I didn’t have a whole lot of gravitas, so, I got the duties which Tim hated. First among my duties was recruiting brokers. It was closely followed by taking tests and updating more licensing in various states so we could grow. Tim insisted I attend any kind of a “mandatory” convention… which he absolutely hated. And he said I had to accumulate more credentials as a partner, so I became the designated test taker. Accounting and reporting, IRS fights, and any fight with a lawyer (a place where I excelled), was given to me, first. Paperwork, the IRS, and fighting with lawyers was easy for me. Okay, fine. But where was I going to recruit new brokers?????
I was a young gun. I wasn’t part of the Palm Beach crowd. My daddy didn’t own a sugar plantation in the Dominican. I wasn’t “old Miami”. What was I going to do? I had no street cred, no trust fund. I called my dad for advice. Dad played well in wealthy circles. He told me to find someone who could “get me in the room” and hire those people. “Figure it out”, he said. Dad grew frustrated with me as I hedged from my own lack of self-confidence, “Get over it”, he said, “You want to hunt lions, you better go to the jungle.”
Well, the jungle was closer than I thought.
The next weekend was the weekend before Halloween. I met a bunch of Bond Daddies for drinks after work in Ft Laud, at the same bar where the “Monkey Business” was docked (Gary Hart/Donna Rice and the election of 1988). The “boys” often took cigarette boats from that dock, and we would head to Bimini for lunch. I swear I still own part of a hotel there….. somewhere.
That night, I spotted a particularly attractive guy and we struck up a conversation, lawyer with a British accent, and I liked him. His friend, however, swooped in and thought I was the cutest thing he’d seen in a while. The friend was pushy and loud. The friend was a tall/big man, looked like a Scotsman, head of a clan. Eventually, the three of us retired to my penthouse terrace, and drank pots of coffee and Bailey’s. By 2:00am, I hired the friend, the Scotsman, kissed them both on the cheek, and bid them goodnight. He was the former Treasury Secretary of Bermuda. My first hire. The lawyer became my new boyfriend. I returned to work on Monday, mission accomplished. Tim was impressed when he actually showed up for interviews, etc. A profitable alliance.
Tim was a favorite invite for local Miami Embassy parties. With his new wife, my girlfriend, down for a few months, I swiped the invitation for the firm, through Christmas holidays, and upped my wardrobe a few notches. I went on to hire Chile’s Finance Minister, a US Trade Rep for Jamaica, did biz directly with the PM Pindling of Bahamas (until I was warned off), several Ambassadors, officials from Bolivia, Panama, Paraguay, and at least a dozen other countries. We doubled the firm, and the firm became a powerhouse. Within our ranks, someone always…… “knew a guy”. The network was amazing.
Bottom line, I figured out third world countries are usually run by 10-20 families. All I/we had to do was gain entry. The families all wanted their money in USD for stability of their family fortune, in case governments were to change….. which happened often. The safety and security of the USA was a natural choice.
Yet, imagine a wealthy family from Paraguay entering a local Merrill Lynch office, for example. I saw it happen all the time, the guys in Miami would make fun of them. The Merrill broker didn’t have time for them, dismissed them, didn’t LISTEN/ask questions about how to save/transfer the money to the next generation. No, 20 million dollars from Paraguay would never taken seriously by a newbie broker from Merrill. The Merrill guy would have signed them up and never called them again. Who wants to be treated in such a rude way? Answer = no one. A little bit of humility and common decency goes a long way.
Friends do business with friends, especially in South America/Latin America/Caribbean. We had the “friend”, and I had the expertise. I was young and an obsessive nut about doing everything correctly. In retrospect, I spent TOO MUCH time with husbands and wives, and their many businesses. It was easy and comfortable, and we dug deeply. Forensic accounting filled my days. We solved problems of patterns in spending. It was a natural process for me, like breathing.
Our new “brokers” were powerful men, but Tim was their equal, and Tim was comfortable in his own skin. In effect, I was the boss as well and thrilled with my new power, little bit of the big head, ………..but that was a disaster, a spectacular fail…… In one meeting, a finance minister introduced me as his new boss. The family was embarrassed for him, and he was shamed as well. The guy drove us both back to the office and was ready to quit, but he knew I obviously meant him no harm. We were at a delicate crossroad. He was humiliated.
I had an idea, “What if I pretended to be your secretary?” The thought wormed through his head for a long few seconds. We got to a stoplight and he looked at me, confused. “Why would you do that?, he asked. The answer was easy for me, “You’re an honored man in your country, storied career, why would I ever want to dishonor you, here?” and “It makes no sense for me to do so.” and finally, paraphrasing, “The only reason I am with you now is because you are new to this ‘factory’ and don’t know the details. I’ve been in the factory for 3yrs, and in 3yrs you won’t need me at all. Yet, from now until then, it can be our secret, and we can work as a team. Whaddaya say?”
OMG, his eyes lit up like it was Christmas morning. Strangely, those men became unbelievably loyal to me. No one touched me, not a hair on my head nor a snide comment anywhere. Wow, that was easy.
Rather than reinventing the wheel, fighting stereotypes, and “gender” preconceived notions, I decided to make the wheel work for me….. I had to put my ego in my pocket, to make a boatload of money, travel the world, and help people, …….. Oh, gee whiz, I can do that…… if you insist.
Therefore, I played the role of mom/secretary and “trainer on details” to my new hires. I hired other gorgeous and talented women to follow them around and pick up their paperwork…. to make them look good. It worked.
Quickly, the day came when I had to board a small plane to a foreign country to meet powerful people on their own turf. I was a little nervous and asked boss/partner Tim about it. “What if something happens to me and I disappear?”, I said……… hands on hips. Tim stopped, peered over his papers, wrinkled an eyebrow for a second, threw his head back and laughed loudly, “No one in their right mind would ever kidnap you!” It was a perfect answer. I was insulted but no longer fearful……. at all.
And off I went to the real jungle, hunting BIG lions.
We had no cell phones back then. Often, I would return and listen to a message on my answering machine from Grandma Della. She would be angry I had not immediately returned her days old call. “Sorry Grandma, I was in Bolivia for a few days…”, did not make her happy. She would call my dad, who would call me, and ask me if everything was okay, if I was doing anything illegal, if I was taking drugs, if I was working for the government…… Dad understood, but to Grandma, I should have been home, making lemon squares and waiting for the kids to come home from school. Only later in life did I learn being a mom was my best job.
Nonetheless, it became commonplace for me to travel to various countries to meet with the “founding families”. It was a whirlwind of grand haciendas, private air strips, small obscure corners of the world, as we dragged hundreds of millions of dollars back to the USA. I always played the role of super-whiz assistant to the big powerful man whom the family already knew. Having me as an American “assistant”, elevated the guy, made him more important (with a wink and nod between us). Of course, all final biz was conducted in the USA, with USA banks, usually in a 5 star hotel or a on a runway tarmac. It was fun, glamorous, and the food/drink/dance were incredible.
Never in my wildest dreams would I have imagined where my job would lead. I never knew I could do the things I did ………. I got lucky…… I picked a good boss, a Vietnam Vet, a noble man who pushed me, laughed at me, insulted me, STILL loves me like a daughter, trusted me, and let me run, all at the same time. I soaked it up like a sponge. I grew. Eventually, we did business with a few dictators, and I had the temerity to tell them, “No, I’m sorry, you can’t do that….” I grabbed street sense in rapid fire, and became gracious but cynical, ….. and I never lost my sense of right and wrong. No, the voice of Daddy sat on my shoulder the whole way.
I learned about places only studied in 7th grade geography class, places I never thought I would go. Most importantly, I learned….. first hand….. how lucky I was to be an American. It makes me tearful to think about how fortunate we are, and how grateful I became for those who fought for what we know as the USA. We take America for granted, for others it is a dream.
What an education it was …. hunting lions. Turned out my lions were Kings of their own jungles, but they were really pussycats when they talked about their love for their wife/children, when I removed the thorn from their paw. People are people, same all over the world.
It was simple but highly technical, tough, and complex at the same time.
I loved it.
Please, don’t ever think there is a job you cannot do. “Figure it out”, as Dad would say. Have no fear, step off and try. Amazing things happen when you try. You will fail, spectacularly, it is a guarantee, but the successes……. The successes are worth the ride.
Be kind, please, but never a pushover. Know when to be humble. Decide early on, where lies your dividing line on ethics, because once crossed, there is no coming back…..
Live your life, drink it in, explore, and try it all.