Memoirs of a Minyan: Animal House
The purpose of the journey is the journey itself.
Chapter 2: Animal House
I walked on to the Syracuse University campus knowing nobody but excited for a fresh start. There were a few familiar faces from Great Neck but no one I would consider a friend. That changed the opening day of school when I attended my first class.
Sociology 101 was held in Maxwell Auditorium in a fishbowl-style classroom. I was on a work-study program and made a commitment to myself that I was going to take my studies seriously.
As I sat in my first college class, my eyes drifted toward the shaggy-haired kid with a Zeta Psi hat sitting in front of me drawing a picture-perfect Tasmanian Devil. "That has to be traced," I offered as we gathered our books. "Nope, it's freehand." he said with a smile, "I'm Kevin Wassong, sophomore-damned glad to meet you."
We walked out of the building and continued to talk as I watched him exchange pleasantries with other students. He had a way about him, an infectious energy somewhere between Andy Dufresne in The Shawshank Redemption and Kevin Arnold from The Wonder Years. He was instantly likable.
Our friendship grew that semester, and I pledged his fraternity in the spring. The following year, we lived together and continued to build our bond. When he graduated in 1990, he headed west to work at Creative Artists Agency. His passion was entertainment, and he set out in search of his dream.
While he was at the Newhouse School of Communication and I studied business, we used to talk about one day going in to business together. 20 years later, we would do just that.
I edged my way through Syracuse University but wasn't sure which career path to pursue. I enjoyed accounting, but finance was entirely more exciting. I reminded myself that if I wanted to make money, I needed to stand near the cash register.
The deepest drawers were on Wall Street, I knew, but I didn't have blue blood or any means of infusion.
I was a solid student and took my academic career seriously despite an active commitment to collegiate hedonism. I was competitive -- perhaps because I felt I had something to prove -- and when I began to view my course load as a contest, I excelled in kind. I was obsessed with success and the empowerment that came with it.
Dean's List felt good, so I kept making the grade. After waiting tables my freshman year, I took a bartending class over the summer and worked at several bars before landing a job as a bouncer at Harry's, one of the more popular hangouts on the hill. I had no interest in standing in the Syracuse chill, but it was an opportunity to get my foot in the door and I grabbed it. That, too, would be repeated throughout my career.
One night, when the regular bartender called in sick, I was asked to fill in. Under the watchful eye of the owner, I was "high ring," putting more money in the till than the older, more experienced pourers. I joined the rotation, and with each successful night, was given more latitude. In a few short months, I had my choice of shifts.
There I was-bartending at my favorite pub as I excelled in school, enjoyed fraternity life and did the sorts of things college kids should be doing. I had it all, yet I wanted more, the fatal flaw of a classic over-achiever.
The Ace of Spades
During my junior year, I aced my finance midterm and blew the curve. Pride would have been the appropriate reaction but I studied my few wrong answers and loathed the lack of perfection.
That was my style-set the bar too high so if I missed, I was still ahead of the crowd. It wasn't the healthiest approach; while it pushed me to bigger and better things, it never allowed me to feel a complete sense of accomplishment.
After that midterm, the professor called me to his office. I allowed myself a rare moment of satisfaction as I rushed across campus to accept some praise. When I arrived, he grilled me with questions and after a few minutes, I realized what was happening.
"You think I cheated?" I asked, humbly at first but then with increased agitation, "I busted hump for this class and you're going to accuse me of cheating?"
Following an intense discussion, the conversation eased into a healthy dialogue. He ran the Department of International Programs Abroad (DIPA), and there were several internship opportunities overseas that summer-most of which were geared to MBAs-and he began to gauge my interest.
I asked him what was available and he listed them in kind. Manufacturer's, Hanover. Saatchi & Saatchi. Morgan Stanley (MS).
"Morgan Stanley?" I asked, recognizing the name of the biggest cash register on the Street. "If you can get me the job at Morgan, I'll gladly hop the pond for the summer."
When I accepted the internship at Morgan Stanley, I had no idea it was the only paying position. That's good news for a young kid living abroad and staring at tens of thousands of dollars in college loans. I packed my bags and headed to London for the summer of 1990 between my junior and senior year.
I was placed in Operations Control and was the kid who told the producers on the trading desk there were errors in their accounts. As an intern, I was low man on the totem pole. Given that I worked in Ops Control, I was low man on the lowest totem.
I lifted weights in college and had the muscles to prove it. That was helpful in the bar but provided little utility in business. I felt very small when I stepped onto the trading floor each day and wove my way through the verbal barrage. It was scary yet exciting, unlike anything I had ever experienced.
By the time August arrived, I was physically drained, emotionally spent, intellectually challenged and completely sold. Yes, it's safe to say that by the time I returned to the states, accounting was no longer an option.
I didn't want to crunch the numbers. I wanted to create them.
The Relationship Business
My senior year was supposed to be the best time of my life, the final episode of innocence before embarking on a career. I had the college experience perfected and looked forward to my Syracuse finale.
The stage was set-I bartended at my favorite spot, belonged to an awesome fraternity, and my GPA was on cruise control. I had one eye on the future but my other body parts were firmly committed to squeezing every ounce of life from my remaining time in upstate New York.
The weekend after I arrived home from London, I was lounging at my girlfriend's home in New Jersey, wasting away a summer day. It was raining, there wasn't much on television, and we had already eaten, among other things. Bored, I randomly decided to call my aunt, who lived nearby.
Karen was my mother's college roommate and my father's cousin. She introduced the two of them, which would explain why she always took an active interest in my well being. As we caught up, she told me of a friend of hers who worked at Morgan Stanley. "You should give him a ring," she said, "He's a great guy and a close friend."
I called Chuck Feldman, who I later realized was a legend on Wall Street. He pioneered the equity derivative business and ran the show at Morgan Stanley. He was the quintessential old-school trader who worked his way to the top and ruled the roost.
His high-pitched voice was extremely soft-spoken on the phone. That's the first thing I remember about Chuck, how soft-spoken his voice was. It would be the last time I ever had that thought.
He lived in a neighboring town and invited me to swing by. We met for a half hour and had a pleasant enough conversation. He wasn't a large man, but his presence cast a long shadow.
There was no way to know that it was thirty minutes that would forever change my professional path.
It was thirty minutes that handed me the keys to the cash register.
The Fast Track
I was preparing for our annual toga party after the first semester of my senior year when my phone rang.
"Hey Todd, its Chuck. Listen-we have an opening on the desk and I need to know if you're interested."
I was surprised at how noisy the trading room was in the background. "Uh, I'm very interested," I said, holding the phone in one hand and a Heineken in the other, "but what about school?"
"You can finish up by mail." he shot back in his patented pitch.
He paused to bark an order at someone. His voice was anything but soft-spoken.
"Let me know if you can start next week!"
That was my chance, I thought-a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to bypass the rigorous two-year training program at a top-tier firm, which would then spit me back out to get my MBA, and sit on one of the best trading desks in the world.
I spent the next day chasing professors, pleading with them to shift my course load so I could start at Morgan and still graduate with my class. One by one, they agreed and by the next day, I was set. My girlfriend cried in the background as I picked up the phone to deliver the news to Chuck
"I'll be there Monday morning," I said in the most confident tone I could muster, trying to mask my nervousness.
There was silence.
"Hey kid," he finally said, "Why don't you finish school and call me when you're done."
I didn't know what that meant-was I getting the job? Did I do something wrong? Did he change his mind? All of these thoughts raced through my mind before I realized he already hung up.
I continued my senior year, occasionally sprinkling a random call to Chuck with hopes of staying on his radar. Each time he was cordial, but at no point did he renew his offer. I tried to enjoy the remainder of the college experience despite the uncertainty that lingered.
Finally, a few days before I graduated with my class in the spring of 1991, I got the wink. "Come in kid, we'll see what we can do."
To this day, I don't know if Chuck's initial offer was a test to see how badly I wanted the job or an impetuous gesture he later second-guessed. It really didn't matter-I had my foot in the door and head in the game.
The following Monday, as my friends left for Europe and I nursed a wicked post-graduation hangover, I paced the pristine lobby at 1251 Avenue of the America.
I could almost smell the money.
Check here for the next chapter of Memoirs, "Let the Games Begin!"
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Todd Harrison is the founder and Chief Executive Officer of Minyanville. Prior to his current role, Mr. Harrison was President and head trader at a $400 million dollar New York-based hedge fund. Todd welcomes your comments and/or feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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