I should have been content with my coveted Wall Street job as a bond salesman, but after 19 years, I decided to recklessly toss tie to the wind for the life of a small business entrepreneur beckoned by my wife's encouragement and a ghost of the past. Some people are built for institutional bond sales and some are able to fake it for a very long time. I should have realized my lack of calling during the interview process. Towards the end of my first year at graduate business school at Berkeley in the mid-80's, I was looking for a summer job and heard of a class trip to New York to visit the investment banking firms. The tour was an open house where we were able to spend a couple of hours at a half-dozen of the Wall Street firms. I knew practically nothing about "the business" and impulsively went along. I simply listened, watched and imitated.
I noticed that several of the students were snagging business cards from some of the presenters to arrange a later interview. It seemed like the thing to do, so, I asked for a business card from a bond trader named Howard who had presented for Lehman Brothers. That afternoon, I phoned Howard from a phone booth bank at the bottom of the World Trade Center.“
Hello my name is Kurt Jordan. I was at the presentation you gave to the Berkeley Business School and would like to meet with you if you have a moment to see about how I might arrange an interview with your firm.” I marveled at how well my scripted line flowed until I heard a long silence, then a voice answering back, “Ah Jeezis. Who are you?”
“Yeah, Jurt. Look, I’ve had a bad day, in fact, I’ve had a bad week. You give me one good reason why I should let you up here. What’s your story?”
My script ran out. I was completely off guard. Everyone interviewing with the investment banks knew what “your story” meant, even me. It was a sort of sales pitch you were supposed to give explaining why Wall Street couldn’t live without you. You had three minutes to demonstrate your ability to earn gobs of money from your accomplishments and communication skills. Somewhere in the monologue you were to explain that you’ve wanted to be “in the business” from the moment you tossed your first newspaper, how you would be willing to live anywhere on the planet, and found it personally fulfilling to work eighty hours a week.
Just as I began stuttering some nonsense, there was a clicking sound coming from the phone’s earpiece and then a computerized voice, “please deposit 60 cents….please deposit 60 cents for….3 minutes.” Never in my wildest imagination would I have ever guessed that it was a toll call to phone from the lobby of the World Trade Center to the 65th floor of the SAME building. As I rifled through my pockets, all I could hear was “Ah Jeezis!” interrupted by clicks and some computerized bitch who was destroying my shot at the big time, until …….dial tone.
Had I any real Street sense, I would have relied on the short attention span of a bond trader and tried again in a day or two with a slightly different intro, but instead, I gathered every bit of loose change I could find and called him right back, “Yes sir, Kurt Jordan, sorry about that….”
He quickly interrupted, “Listen, son. I give you credit for having the "bleeps" to call back after that "bleeping ableeption" of a phone call, but it ain’t gonna happen. You gotta get your story straight. Think about it. I know you’re in there somewhere just find it then call me back, but not before next year.” And in one breath, Howard the trader violated every one of my altar-boy sensibilities while reducing me to rubble.
Eventually, I got my “story” straight and successfully ran the gauntlet of interviews at Salomon Brothers. Before I knew it, I was working with one of the most powerful bond trading teams on Wall Street. My first bonus was a divine sign that I didn't really fit in.
It was a handsome $30k bonus for a 27 year old and more than I deserved. I remember going out on my back deck, master of the universe enjoying the moment while smoking a cigar and sipping on Port wine envisioning my charmed future. The sweet Port attracted some yellow jackets that I slurped into my mouth just as I was daydreaming my kinship with Rockefeller and Vanderbilt. The bees stung me about 12 times as I jumped, danced and kicked like some crazy mosh pit dancer. The next day, I came back to work with a swollen tongue and could barely talk. Of course, I kept my story to myself.
Whether on the desk or attending outside events, I always felt like a square peg in a round hole when it came to the culture of highly determined AAA-type personalities. I felt privileged to work with so many brilliant people, but even the brightest knew deep down that the sand was dripping through the hour glass and chances were good that one day that a fateful tap on the shoulder would come telling them their career has reached a cul-de-sac. And, on Wall Street, you either grow or rot like a dead fish.
When cornering most colleagues in personal discussions, I was surprised at how many like-minded people pined away for something more personally fulfilling. So many talented people, good at their jobs who seemed to resent the huge carrots and scrutinizing perceptions that could strangle a career at any moment. Most, when pulled aside will tell you of a secret desire to do something else, but back on the desk, we bayed at the full moon as was expected. But despite the intensity, no one dares to leave while the golden cow still has pistol-gripped udders.
After four firms and a handful of morally challenging predicaments, I was ripe for the change while I still had my integrity, but; I lacked the courage to actually leave. My wife, Elizabeth encouraged me to pursue a business idea we shared, but leaving the security was terrifying.
One day, while visiting my parents in Redondo Beach, I was rummaging through a box of old photos trying to get a grip on who I really was and where I belonged on this planet. I was surprised to come across a letter dated, 1947, written by a Captain Oliver Orson to my grandmother after the second war. He described how he knew her husband, Sport Jordan, as a civilian oil driller prior to the outbreak of war in the Philippines.
The letter described how the Japanese eventually overran the Philippines and both men were captured together spending three and a half years in prison camp. As the allies retook the Philippines, the Japanese put 1,619 POWs aboard a hell ship named the Oryoku Maru and set sail for Japan under the cover of a typhoon. When the storm cleared, the unmarked ship was repeatedly bombed by allied planes and eventually my grandfather, Sport Jordan, was killed. In his letter, Captain Orson mentioned a fancy silver belt buckle that my grandfather hid from the Japanese for 3 1/2 years in prison camp. A Lt. Scott took possession of the buckle upon his death and promised to return it to the family.
The letter was an excellent template for which to research the experience of my grandfather, complete with dates and locations. Before long, I was deep into a research community of relatives searching for answers.
I asked my father about the belt buckle and what he remembered of his dad. My father described the depression as the happiest childhood a boy could have. Sure he ate frogs and beans but he adds, “Think about it. You’re ten years old, your dad isn’t working and you both spend the day together on adventurous food gathering expeditions. What could be better than that? ”
“Your grandfather was a dreamer and an optimist” my father wistfully said. “He had two adages, “Worry about today and let tomorrow worry about itself. And, there’s no such thing as courage without fear.” When things hit rock bottom, as they often did, dad could smile like a millionaire. We belonged to the richest family in the world.”
Sport Jordan was a horseman and rode in amateur rodeos. On one occasion, he won the bronc riding contest and the silver rodeo belt buckle he later protected as a POW. It was one of the last times father and son would ever see each other again. Sport Jordan finally landed a dream job drilling oil wells in the Philippines in 1941, a job that would deliver his family from the hardships of The Depression. Little did anyone realize that he was headed into the teeth of a Japanese juggernaut.