A glimpse into Lehman Brothers

Lehman Brothers. A Germanic last name forced upon a Jewish family that then emigrated to America. Starting with a tiny shop for cotton pickers and moving into financing railroad infrastructure, Lehman rose to be the fancy player on Wall Street for over a 150 years. The name Lehman is now synonymous with the 2008 financial crisis. A shorthand for excess risk taking.

I worked for Lehman in New York in 2001/ 2002. It was my first real job post university. Since this is the 10th anniversary of Lehman’s collapse I thought I’d share some of my lasting impressions of “the firm” as we used to call it.

I was terrified of running into senior management in the elevators. Imagine having to endure 34 floors standing next to Dick Fuld. What if he asked me what I did? It took my a few years to realise they probably had their own elevator to separate themselves from us peasant workers.

Not a wasted second

Lehman took efficiency a few steps further. For example I was Java programming their trading operations, bringing the flow of a trade into the 21st century. My job was knowing the programming end of things. Much of the existing operations were on snarly Excel spreadsheets. Every time I ran into an Excel problem, there was a button on my desk phone I pressed. Very soon one of my homeboys from Madras would appear and solve the problem instantly so I could move on. How many times since then have I wasted a half day or more in other jobs trying to figure out a simple Excel issue.
 

Deadly efficiency

I was told that there was another team across the floor with the same identical mandate as the team I was hired into. Instead of putting $1 million into one team and coping with missed deadlines and cost overruns, Lehman put $2 million into two teams creating the same thing. We had a year to execute and then the team that lost got fired. I never figured out if this was a way to scare new employees or true.

Genius or evil? You decide.

Incentives

Lehman gave their employees many benefits, one of which was that your annual bonus was managed by Lehman’s own internal asset management team. If you took part of your bonus in Lehman shares, you received a bigger bonus. Who could say no. As of early September 2008 I was keeping in touch with people I know who still worked there. None of them thought the firm would go under just days before it did. There were a lot of eggs in one corporate share price basket.

At least I wasn’t this person.

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