This is a short story about continuity and change, about a defining moment. It’s a true story. It takes place in the investment world. But I think the take away can apply in pretty much any arena.
When I was a rookie first-year-broker, I spent my days in the cube farm bullpen at Morgan Stanley Dean Witter. That first year, before the existence of the Do Not Call list, most of my time was spent cold calling, going through a Cole’s directory and calling strangers to offer them financial services. This is how most brokers cut their teeth. But I also got to work personally with a few individual customers. One of them was a memorable man named William T. Sherman. The first time we met, he invited me to call him Bill. My interactions with Bill were quite a while ago, now. But he left me with a lesson that shaped the way I would approach my business as a rookie and forever after.
Bill was an older man, probably about seventy. Bill required a lot of “hand holding,” so was passed off to me by a senior broker who wanted to be finished holding hands. Given the misery involved with my daily cold calling routine, I was more than willing to entertain Bill whenever he came in.
Bill was a proud man. You know the type. The staples of his wardrobe defined his straightforward approach. Bill always arrived at the office in grey sweatpants, pure white Reebok sneakers, with his navy blue Korean War Veterans cap settled resolutely on his grey head. He always shook my hand firmly and regarded my opinions with deference, despite our age difference. Bill took up a lot of my time, probably too much time, for the type of investor he was. He maintained only a modest account, and he did not know much about investing. But he liked to have a seat, and discuss investments and other financial topics. Although he was always a little gruff when he first came in, Bill was not a negative guy. In general, he carried himself with the confidence of a man who knows he is part of something greater than himself, and because of this clarity, has nothing else to prove. So I pretty quickly deduced that his initial brusqueness masked a lack of assurance in his financial knowledge.
July 2001: One Friday afternoon around 4:00 o’clock, Bill came in for his weekly deposit and discussion time. I read once that you should “never call your broker on Monday.” While I agree with that, a higher priority statement would be, “don’t even consider walking into your broker’s office unannounced on a Friday afternoon.” But Friday or not, a visit from Bill was still better than cold calling. My memory of our conversation that afternoon is vague. It was something about preferred stocks and municipal bonds. But what I vividly remember is Bill describing why he liked dealing with me. I was only two months into my career, and I was certainly not a financially savvy advisor yet. I finally asked him on this Friday visit why he kept coming back to me. He replied, “Well, when you find someone who will give you the straight scoop, you stay with them.”
What a telling statement. Bill’s pronouncement made me feel confident about how I was being perceived as a professional. His words also made me consider closely what type of racket I had gotten myself into. Did brokers just shmooze and say anything to make a sale? Or was Bill just a skeptic?
Two months later, our world exploded, changing everything, including our expectations of the financial industry. Shortly after September 2001, I left that job at Morgan Stanley, left behind the Cole’s directory cold calling, too. But I took with me that conversation with Bill, and have carried it everywhere I’ve gone since.
Fast-forward to 2016: Here we are eight years after one of the worst financial disasters in US history, fueled largely by corporate malfeasance, fraud, and greed. I watch the CEO of a large bank being grilled on Capitol Hill. He tries to explain how his bank allowed employees to open two million fraudulent accounts for trusting, unsuspecting customers. I sincerely doubt this executive truly knew the details of his bank’s negligence, but it will be his legacy nonetheless. After more than forty years in the financial industry, all he is left with is this blackened reputation.
And I can’t help but think of Bill. In a single sentence at 4:00 o’clock on a Friday afternoon, he impressed upon me indelibly how important integrity and trust are when it comes to making your way in the world. Our world has changed immensely since the last time I saw Bill, and it will continue to. But some things never change. And the value of giving the “straight scoop” is one of them.