Wall Street Workers Find New Niches, or Move On

Not everybody on Wall Street is a millionaire, and as the turmoil in the markets spreads, it is as much a pandemic of the everyman as it is of the Hamptons set.

For every Porsche-driving trader, two to three people at these companies answer the phones, keep the computers running and shine the floors. Their pay was not in the same league as the traders’ and investment bankers’, but they were paid more than they would have been paid for similar work in a different industry. And they shared in the reflected glow.

Wall Street
Wall Street

Some were like Sanjeev Naraine, who was 22 when he walked into Bear Stearns’s headquarters in early 2000 for the first time and felt as if he was walking onto a movie set. Fast-moving, self-assured traders and bankers, top-of-the-line computers, a juicy steak dinner on the corporate account and a Town Car to drive him home. Mesmerized, he quit college to join the technology support staff.

Now, Mr. Naraine says, for him, going to work is like going to a funeral. He is part of the “transition team” in the fallen company’s merger with JPMorgan Chase , and he wistfully counts each day leading up to his last one, Oct. 31.

Across the river from Lehman Brothers’s headquarters, in Jersey City, the company’s support staff has mixed feelings about their more highly paid colleagues.

“You can’t help but look at what’s gone on in Wall Street with lending and with derivative securities and you can’t help but be kind of upset,” said a technology worker, who asked to remain anonymous because he did not want to be fired. “You guys have tanked our economy, you guys invented these things to get rich, and it backfired on us all.”

It will be many months before it is clear where Wall Street’s downward spiral will stop. Already, more than 120,000 jobs have been cut across the industry, and some analysts bumped their estimates upward by 10 to 20 percent last week after two investment banks, Lehman and Merrill Lynch, lost their independence. One rationale for mergers, like Merrill’s marriage to Bank of America , is to cut expenses and overlapping jobs.

The storyline has already played out at Bear, which was acquired by JPMorgan in March for $10 a share. The bank hired just about half of Bear’s 13,500 workers and kept about 600 in short-term transition teams. JPMorgan also tried to help Bear employees find new jobs through what it called its Talent Network and has now offered to share the network with Merrill and Lehman. “I think people feel generally relieved to be here given the market turmoil we’ve seen,” said Jeff Urwin, a Bear employee who became the head of JPMorgan’s investment bank.

Some from Bear say now that they feel fortunate to have fallen first, before the job market deteriorated further.

“Who’d have thought we were the lucky ones by going down first?” said Vincent Van Pelt, a Bear executive who is now the global head of equity derivatives and commodities for Standard Chartered, a British bank with a large presence in Asia, Africa and the Middle East.

One Lehman employee who works in London said: “A lot of people have put their heart and souls in these companies. They feel betrayed by a number of factors: the market, the management, the regulators.” The employee, who did not want his name used because he did not have permission to speak with the media, added, “A friend of mine who was at the Bear sent me an e-mail saying, ‘I don’t have to imagine what you’re going through.’ ”

The Friday before Lehman filed for bankruptcy, Sept. 12, should have been an unabashedly joyous day for Lance Bylow, a senior vice president in Lehman’s private investment management business. His wife, a part-time event planner, gave birth to their second child. But Mr. Bylow’s job at Lehman remained in question until Monday, when Barclays Capital added it to the units it purchased.

Mr. Van Pelt, the Bear executive, said London was home for him and his family, but he was so shaken by Bear’s collapse that he was receptive to an offer to move to Singapore. He sat down with his wife and three children and they jointly made the decision.

“If you’re some place for a long time, you just kind of get used to it,” he said. “This opened up our vistas.”

One Bear worker who tried to play it safe was Doug Pugliese, an investment banker who said he saw trouble on the horizon beginning in 2006. He and his wife believed the easy credit could not last forever, so he purchased a house in an area in Pennsylvania that was less expensive than the New York suburbs. It meant nights away from his family, but a paid-off house.

Then, in March, even Mr. Pugliese lost out. His Bear stock holdings crumbled, and a hedge he put on to short financial stocks became a wash when JPMorgan acquired Bear. With newborn twins and a toddler on his lap, Mr. Pugliese, 43, quickly pushed aside notions of leaving the industry. He now works at a valuation consulting firm called Marshall & Stevens.

“The thing about investment banking is it’s so grueling that you are always daydreaming about going off and doing something interesting,” Mr. Pugliese said. “Your heart is crying out, but your wallet is telling you there’s nothing else out there that is going to have this kind of payoff.”

Captivated by Wall Street

In New York, where nearly a quarter of earnings last year came from financial jobs, nerves are fraying around kitchen table conversations. The situation is all the worse because employees at nearly every level received part of their pay in company stock. Lehman’s stock is now virtually worthless, and the stock of nearly every other Wall Street firm has lost much of its value.

“Have people’s psyches been shaken so badly that they will never contemplate working in this industry again? Or are they going to find God? I truly don’t know,” said Janet Hanson, a former banker and the president of 85 Broads, a women’s organization that is trying to help Lehman employees connect with one another. “You’re going to have to sit down and have five drinks and really try to get your head around this.”

Religion did help Andy Neff, a 20-year Bear worker. Mr. Neff, a former technology industry analyst, said he often thought about taking a year off to study the Talmud and other Jewish texts. But at the end of good years, he would not want to miss the next good year. And at the end of bad years, he felt too nervous about his finances.

And so Mr. Neff, now 51 and father of four, says he views what has happened as a blessing. He has become a bit of a folk hero to financial workers since June when he delivered a speech about his experience at the Yeshiva Gedolah of Teaneck, N.J. His talk was posted on several sites and forwarded among Bear workers.

“Is this comfortable? No, it’s really not comfortable, it’s disorienting,” Mr. Neff said in an interview. “But I find it unfortunate that people tend to focus on how much they lost. Coming out of every situation, you need to focus on what you have, not on what you lost.”

Some of Mr. Neff’s colleagues have already left Wall Street. Jessi Walter, a 27-year-old Harvard graduate who used to research credit products at Bear, is now running children’s baking classes through a company called Cupcake Kids. George Raab was the finance officer for Bear’s investment banking unit, and he is soon to start as chief financial officer for New York City’s public school system.

Life for other Bear alumni has not changed all that much. In Greenwich, Conn., 16 members of Bear’s mortgage trading team still work together within a larger group at RBS Greenwich Capital. Nearly every one of the 50 or so people who worked for Bear’s mortgage desk already have jobs around the Street, said Scott Eichel, co-head of mortgage and asset-backed trading at RBS.

“We’ve been here for two months, and I already feel like I’ve been here for years,” Mr. Eichel said. “It’s human psyche when something happens to think the universe is ending. The one thing that someone said to me is, they can never take away your talent.”

Moving past shock has been a slow journey for Mr. Naraine, the technology worker who dropped out of college to join Bear. He is now running two Web sites meant to connect Lehman and Bear Stearns alumni with others from those fallen firms. He started WhoKilledtheBear.com in the spring and is in the process of setting up ForeverLehman.com. He recently decided to go back to college in January.

“I couldn’t understand: How come me? How come me?” Mr. Naraine said. “I was just this average Joe, but I became captivated by Wall Street.”