13. Worlds I Left Behind

I was on top of the world.

The Beloved Spouse and I were vacationing in San Francisco with our first child – a beautiful baby girl. I had just finished a four-year program of getting a law degree at night while working at the bank full time. My job had been going exceptionally well – so much so that I had just been promoted in title and given a grand new opportunity – I was to be one of the leaders of our institution’s move into investment banking. A huge honor for a guy who was only twenty-eight.

We were staying in a fabulous apartment (today it would probably go for ten or fifteen million) owned by a friend of the older of my two brothers. My six-years-older brother lived in San Francisco; he was stupendously successful (but not so stupendously successful as he would eventually become) in a field few normal people knew about at the time, venture capital. He was one of four venture partners in a groundbreaking firm.

I was planning to play squash with my brother this morning. Wearing street clothes and carrying a gym bag, I headed to his office downtown. It was a work day.

***

I had already done a couple of noteworthy things at the bank. For one, I had saved a major consumer products company – I would bet hard cash that you have at least one of its products in your home today – from liquidation.

That boast sounds like an exaggeration, but it really isn’t one. Our bank was one of the lesser participants in the company’s bank group; the lead was Chase Manhattan. The company had done some dumb things and was deeply in default of its borrowings. Along with my boss, a smart, brawling Irish-American, I attended an emergency bank meeting in which the lead banker from Chase, a woman, declared that her institution had given up on the company. She would be turning the relationship over to workout, which would be pushing for a liquidation. She was doubtful that we – the bank group – would recover much on our loans.

We all went back to our respective institutions to consider our options.

After diving deeply into everything we knew, or thought we knew, about the company, I decided that I thought it could be saved, return to profitability and eventually repay our loans in full. The catch was that giving it a chance to do so would mean extending yet more credit, an act that in such circumstances is generally derided as “throwing good money after bad”. To say that our credit officers would be opposed to such a move – especially since the company’s lead bank was throwing in the towel – would be a gross understatement.

Nevertheless, we got it done. My brawling Irishman boss agreed with my ideas, and he and I bullied the deal through our approval process, simply refusing to take no for an answer. (That was an amazing process; it was when I learned that even much more senior officers have a very hard time saying no to subordinates who have good arguments and ferocious determination). We replaced Chase as lead bank and got the other banks to go along with a restructuring with some new money. The company recovered and thrives today. I emerged from the experience convinced that being a banker was one of the most important jobs in the world – my efforts had been instrumental in saving many thousands of jobs at the company and a great deal of the bank’s money.

Ironically, I don’t think that it was my role in saving that company that got me my highfalutin new role at the bank. Very few people knew about the company’s near-brush with corporate death. What got me my new position, I think, was a simple-but-clever solution I had come up with to a problem that one of our big customers had. I figured out that two and two equal four, even looked at from an unusual angle. For that, I was praised to the skies by senior management, and was about to be launched into a role in investment banking.

In any event, at the time of the San Francisco trip, I was convinced that it was my destiny to run the bank someday – and that I would truly love that role.

***

When I got to my brother’s office, planning on an 11:00 AM game, he told me that something had come up and suggested that I hang out with one of his partners while he sorted it out. I did so; the partner and I were together for quite a while; we talked about lots of things.

A couple of hours later, my brother poked his head into the office where we were, told us he was still in a bind, and said he would take me off his partner’s hands. He then delivered me into the hands of another of his partners; we had lunch.

You guessed it; I never got to play squash with my brother that day. In midafternoon we had a repeat of the scene with the first of my brother’s partners and I was sent to hang out with the most senior guy in the firm; with him, I mostly listened to whatever he was doing, or talking to me about. I was wryly amused by the whole process, but resigned to having had a restful day.

At the end of the day, the four partners got together in my brother’s office. We were in an old 1920s-type building in downtown San Francisco, so I sat on a radiator cover next to an openable window while they talked. I was a little embarrassed to be present in such a private meeting, so I pretended to read a copy of Business Week.

At length, the conversation turned to personnel. They were all too busy, the top man said, serving on too many boards each, not having enough time to really look at opportunities. They would need to plan to add a partner or two in the foreseeable future. What did the others think?

They talked about various junior employees at the firm (now I was really embarrassed); the consensus was that none of them would be ready to step up any time soon. Then the senior partner asked each of the others for ideas. Several were mentioned, and left for general consideration.

My brother was asked for his ideas last. He said nothing, but merely pointed at me. I couldn’t very well pretend not to have seen it, or followed the conversation.

The head guy turned to me and asked: “Well, Mark, do you want the job?”

I thought for a moment, but only a moment.

“No, thank you,” I responded.

 

M.H. Johnston

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