Exclusive Interview: Media Entrepreneur, Philanthropist Todd Harrison Talks With Morgan Stanley
Here, a Q&A with Minyanville CEO and founder Todd Harrison about his book, his philanthropic projects, and his memories of working at Morgan Stanley.
For the uninitiated, the fact that amid the drumbeat of sobering markets coverage, thousands of investors receive daily commentary and trader trends from an animated bull and bear might seem far-fetched. In the nine years, however, since Todd Harrison introduced Hoofy the Bull and Boo the Bear as the voices for Minyanville, the irreverent financial media site he founded to educate investors has won him an Emmy in the business and financial category, and draws more than 1.3 million unique visitors a month. "Toddo" is a must-read for legions of fans or self-described Minyans, and as a frequent guest on Bloomberg Television and MSNBC, Todd's audience is accustomed to his candid take on conventional markets wisdom.
His recently released memoir, The Other Side of Wall Street: In Business It Pays to Be an Animal, In Life It Pays to Be Yourself, continues his theme of unflinching candor, tracing his journey from Morgan Stanley's derivatives desk, where he was one of the firm's youngest vice-presidents at 26, to running Jim Cramer's hedge fund before devoting himself full-time to the mission of financial literacy and education for his one-time colleagues and for the next generation of investors. We spoke to Todd about his book, his philanthropic projects, and his memories of Morgan Stanley.
If your new book has an overarching message, it seems to be the perils of confusing "net worth with self-worth." You're completely open about how parts of your past now strike you as arrogant and excessive. How have you managed being honest in such a public way? How's that been received?
My experiences shaped my reality, even if I wasn't particularly proud of some of those actions or mindsets, and that resulting consciousness made me a better man; a more aware man. And I've always been honest; I suppose the mainstream distribution of my message, and the inherent sincerity-sometimes right, sometimes wrong, always honest-struck a chord with the audience.
"Do what you love with people you respect while serving the greater good" is what you describe as "professional nirvana," a takeaway of your book and your story. How do you apply that to the Wall Street you knew and what you see now?
I was passionate about my role at Morgan Stanley when I joined the firm in 1991; the derivatives department was best in breed, and the talent was second-to-none. I also believed we were greasing the wheels of capitalism and facilitating our customer transactions, which is how I justified serving the "greater good" at the time.
Now, the dividends of my work are entirely more tangible. Minyanville Media has a mission to effect positive change through financial understanding, from the ABCs to the 401(K)s, and we won an Emmy Award for our work in 2008. The Ruby Peck Foundation for Children's Education has raised monies for a multitude of worthy causes, from helping to rebuild libraries on the Gulf Coast after Katrina to assisting Japan following the tsunami to helping rebuild the Joplin High School Library following the recent tornadoes.
You paint a vivid picture of being thrown into the deep end on the derivatives desk at MS, a highly addictive and stimulating environment. Younger people who aspire to a star trader career must ask you for advice – what do you say?
The business has changed, as has the perception of the industry, but the ground rules of success remain constant: Do what you love, stay humble, trust those you work with and for, and never cut corners in an attempt to get ahead.
You left Morgan Stanley to become managing director of derivatives for the Galleon Group, where eventually you were told, "You don't have what it takes to be a partner here." Did you find yourself regretting leaving Morgan at some point? You've referred to the Galleon verdict as being the cumulative effect of "many years of living beyond our means." Do you think that's endemic to our culture, especially in banking?
I don't regret leaving Morgan Stanley; it was my time, and the writing was on the wall for me to transition to the next phase of my career. To be clear, I've never referred to the Galleon verdict as the cumulative effect of many years of living beyond our means. I've opined that the financial crisis, as a whole, was the cumulative effect of many years of living beyond our means. And yes, that was -- and in many ways, remains -- endemic of our immediate-gratification culture, much of which can be encapsulated in banking as a function of the outsized pay packages, relative to say, a teacher.
Like many other New Yorkers, you consider 9/11 to have been a watershed moment for your career and life's goals. Could you talk more about the effect of it on you and whether you've seen any similar changes among former colleagues?
9/11 was the genesis of my personal transformation, although I didn't know it at the time. I was mired in depression for years after witnessing what I saw, and channeled my energy, as well as most of my money, into the vision that would one day become Minyanville. I can't speak to other people's experiences, as that is a personal and independent introspection. I will share, however, that I saw many turn to drugs or alcohol in an attempt to self-medicate, some get married or divorced and others transition to a livelihood that wasn't bookended by bells. We all did what we could; we each did what we had to.
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