Recall the best job you ever had. Think about the best company you ever worked for. What made them so memorable?
I’ll bet the characteristics of terrific jobs and terrific employers are similar across industries, geography and job rank. They include knowledgeable management that’s firm, fair and generous, a culture that fosters growth and taking reasonable risks and an environment that encourages you to stretch and contribute.
I was reminded of these qualities when I attended a recent gathering of alumni of Burnham & Co., the predecessor of – and now a successor to – Wall Street’s Drexel Burnham Lambert. I worked at Drexel for a short time on the eve of its collapse a decade ago. The firm created and dominated the high-yield/junk bond market before it was found guilty of violating federal securities laws in connection with financing some of the hostile takeovers of the 1980s.
While the fiery collapse of Drexel attracted so much attention, most people are unaware of how its predecessor, a tiny, relatively inconsequential brokerage begun in 1935, was able to become the nation’s fifth largest investment bank. As his colleagues recounted at the recent gathering, the reason for the firm’s growth was the leadership of its founder, I.W. Burnham, now 93.
Burnham, known by his childhood nickname of Tubby, borrowed money to start his business in the depths of the Depression. Burnham noted that by today’s dot.com tycoon standards he would be considered a failure – his net worth barely reached $1 million after more than 25 years on Wall Street.
But colleagues recalled how special they felt working at his firm. Burnham would say goodnight to everyone before leaving each day. If an employee, regardless of how high or low on the totem pole, were having problems, Tubby would round up senior managers and find a way to help. When the firm was having a rough time and losing money, Burnham ordered 20 percent pay cuts for senior partners, 10 percent cuts for everyone else – and a 30 percent cut for himself. At Christmas, Burnham personally handed out bonuses to every employee. And he always encouraged hiring creative, hard-working people, regardless of their backgrounds, which led to Drexel’s success in junk bonds and other, less-well-known areas.
At the time it ceased operations, the firm had grown to almost 11,000 employees, only a small percentage of whom were involved in junk bond activities. The thousands of Drexel employees went on to other jobs. Some – like Goldman Sachs market guru Abby Joseph Cohen – are famous and extraordinarily well paid. But most have been hired and fired, employed at good jobs and bad, and risen and fallen on the status and money ladder just like everyone else.
Many of them share the sense “there will never be another place like Drexel Burnham.” That’s why hundreds of men and women attended a reunion at their own expense; to reminisce with former colleagues and to honor a leader who demanded a lot, gave a lot and made them feel that they and the place they worked were special.
Article – Copyright 2000 Evan Cooper. Syndicated by ParadigmTSA