'We should all take the first vaccines that are available to us': Emergency physician
Jon Corzine was about to leave his Upper East Side apartment at 7:25 on Wednesday morning before his wife, Sharon, stopped him.
“Your mask,” she reminded the former head of Goldman Sachs Group Inc. Corzine, who’s now running the hedge fund JDC-JSC, stepped into the elevator and out onto Fifth Avenue to walk to the midtown Manhattan office where he spent nine months alone. But things are changing. A trader joined him in March, and next week he’s going to take his first in-person meeting since COVID-19 began ravaging New York more than a year ago.
Since then, the pandemic has killed more than 32,000 people in the city, though government help and a whirlwind of trading has helped deliver record windfalls to Wall Street. Much of that work was done from home or mostly emptied offices — but not for long. New York is lifting capacity restrictions next week, when JPMorgan Chase & Co. is opening its U.S. buildings to all workers. The country’s biggest bank wants its employees across the nation back by early July, and Goldman’s bosses told its American staff to be ready to return by June 14. With 37 per cent of the city fully vaccinated, Manhattan’s finance industry, slowly, is getting back into the office.
It's a reopening that's finally taking hold after months of fits and starts, with the city firing back up and masks potentially set to drop away. Yet corporate life isn’t snapping back to the way it looked before. Many companies are letting workers stay put for now, and several finance firms will have staff rotate between office and home even after the pandemic ends.
From executives to shoe shiners, advisers and trainers, some people across the landscape of Wall Street are itching to get back into the flow of office life after it screeched to a halt 14 months ago. Others can’t wrap their minds around returning to the same old shared space when the industry has been making so much money mostly from the comfort of home. Many are veering between anticipation and annoyance, enthusiasm and dread. One boss won’t leave his toddler behind for an office he no longer fully believes in, a pair of private equity titans are ready to do lunch and the couple that runs the coffee cart outside one big bank can’t afford to relive last year.
Corzine — also a former New Jersey governor and senator, and head of MF Global when the brokerage collapsed in 2011 — turned east at the St. Regis hotel. Lately, from his office building on Third Avenue, he’s been staring out at nearby skyscrapers that seem dead. “They are empty,” he said before stepping into the lobby. A woman walked past him at the door into the building. “Here we go,” Corzine said as two other men went inside. Across Manhattan, the day was just getting started.
On the first morning that Power Breakfast returned inside the Loews Regency Hotel, Alexandra Lebenthal sat at a table eating berries. Two men talked about initial public offerings at the table to her left while, to her right, Andrew Tisch, whose family owns the place, ate a bagel with butter.
Lebenthal’s been coming here for decades. Over the past year, when she’s walked by the dark restaurant, she felt “this kind of sadness.” Once she realized she simply had to be here on the first day back, part of her “was feeling kind of embarrassed.”
She’s in her first year as a senior adviser in the financial-sponsors group for investment bank Houlihan Lokey Inc., where she’s leading an initiative to provide banking services to female entrepreneurs. She saw the office in October, went back last week and is planning to start coming in about twice a week.
“Once people are doing things on a regular basis, other people will follow,” she said. It was a “big sign” when Jamie Dimon told JPMorgan staff they’d be returning to the office. “Word came from on high.”
The room around her was mostly quiet, with staff members outnumbering customers at one point. “It’s going to take time,” she said. Breakfast ended. “The day is started.”
Inside the hotel, hair stylist Julien Farel was beginning a day of back-to-back appointments. His first client works in finance. “Gordon Gekko is back,” Farel said. Bankers “are no longer looking for slicked-back styles, but now have added beards to shape,” he said. “We have started to do a lot of color to camouflage the white hair.”
The night before, a hedge fund client cancelled on Darryl Bennick, co-founder of the Tribeca gym the Live Well Co. “He was knee-deep in some work,” Bennick said. That was out of the ordinary for the financiers he trains through squats, pull-ups and Turkish get-ups. “They're people who do keep their appointments, they're driven, they're meticulous, they're serious about getting results.”
Inside the gym, conversation has shifted from the pandemic, which still rages in many parts of the world. “Now it’s resumed to what's on Netflix, how the Mets are doing, what are you doing this weekend,” he said. “The buzz around here is that people are getting called back to their offices. I think the fear of COVID is gone.”
Ryan Stepanian, a senior vice president at Brookfield Asset Management Inc. who works on raising capital, was standing on the upper deck of the ferry to the Wall Street pier from Hoboken, New Jersey. There were 76 people on the boat.
“It certainly seems like there are more and more,” he said. The number has been inching up since mid-March, according to NY Waterway, which carried between 1,500 and 2,000 passengers daily last week on boats headed to Brookfield Place and Wall Street.
“It's certainly in line with reopening comfort,” said Stepanian, clad in a blue suit. “And just understanding that the office is a good place to be.” Brookfield, where he works, is a top real estate investor.
Porter Braswell’s daughter Mia was crying with the seriousness and heft that only 1-year-olds like her can muster. He picked her up. “It’s OK,” he cooed. “You’re going to music class today.” She fell silent. Braswell is the chief executive officer of Jopwell, which helps tech, finance and other companies with diversity recruitment.
The company got rid of its offices in Manhattan months ago. He works from his Lower East Side kitchen table if he can, on a dresser in his bedroom when Mia gets loud, and at the dining-room table when she’s away.
“We’re now starting to think about what does it look like to come back to work” he said, but that probably won’t be until next year. Something rumbled in the next room. “That’s Mia trying to walk,” he said.
Braswell worked at Goldman Sachs before co-founding his company. “If banks mandate that people come back, they’re going to lose a lot of talent,” he said. “I don’t know how banks are just going to assume that they can just go back to business as normal.” They’ll have to give a “compelling reason” for why it makes sense to return, he said. “Why are we coming back? What are we trying to do?”
He thinks he won’t work five days a week in an office ever again. “I’ve experienced living and working and seeing my daughter grow up. Nobody’s taking that away from me.”
Jenny Gomez had taken the 7 train from Queens to shine shoes inside Grand Central Terminal. The train was busy, and that felt good. In her first three hours at work, she had six or seven customers — up from the typical three or four a month earlier.
“I'm spending 10 to 15 minutes,” she said, wearing a floral mask with Louis Vuitton's logo over her cheek. She tries to do “a very good job.” A shoe shine costs US$6, and she gets tips of US$3 or US$4. “Everybody is so polite.”
Evangelos Spanoudakis has been running the coffee cart at the corner of 48th and Broadway since 1995. Morgan Stanley’s headquarters are just a few feet away.
“We are seeing more and more people,” said the 69-year-old Spanoudakis, who runs the cart with his wife, Edith. “But a lot of them come in for one or two days a week, and then the following week again. It feels more normal, but it still isn’t normal.”
Morgan Stanley traders start rolling in around 5:30 a.m. Black coffee is the most popular item, followed by bagels, muffins and donuts. The couple started seeing some favorite regulars stop by again around January. Sometimes the vendors burst into tears.
“For us, one year was forever,” Edith said. “We cannot relive it.”
Since late February, the couple has been offering company employees free breakfast. In return, Morgan Stanley pays them a monthly stipend.
“They went out of their way to help us,” Evangelos said. “We were going down.”
Kathy Wylde, who runs the nonprofit Partnership for New York City, had just finished a Zoom call with almost two dozen groups that want New York’s businesses booming again.
Wylde, whose board includes Citigroup Inc. boss Jane Fraser and Carlyle Group Inc.’s Kewsong Lee, had been back since July in an office that overlooks New York’s harbor, where she sits in front of a rack of photos that show her with Bill Clinton, Andrew Cuomo and other power players.
The goal of the hourlong call, which included Union Square Hospitality Group’s Danny Meyer, was to coalesce around a list of recommendations for the city's next mayor and the current lot governing New York. The group on the Zoom call clamors for public safety and federal funds — they also want the government to listen more closely to hoteliers and other industry heads.
“I'd rate the reopening as being halfway there and on a good track,” Wylde said after the call ended, “but headed for long-term fiscal disaster."
Euan Rellie, wearing a four-letter monogram on his shirt breast, sat inside the conference room of the Rockefeller Center office of BDA Partners. The banking advisory firm, where he’s managing partner, focuses on Asia.
Four of the office’s 12 people were in another room. He wants his younger employees to be here as much as possible.
“It’s really, really important to be physically present together — probably less important for me personally, but really important for the analysts,” he said. “They are the engine room, the heirs of our business.” Rellie was still in his 20s when he co-founded the company. “If you’re sitting in your studio apartment in Williamsburg or Hoboken, you’re not going to learn our business the same way.”
“I’ve told people, this month, I kind of feel we should be getting back to normal,” he said. “I’m not going to tell you, ‘You have to be in the office every day.’”
Rellie’s been coming in two or three times a week over the past few months, and is “gradually ratcheting it up.” He often takes calls from his home in the West Village, and also spends time at his family’s beach house in Bridgehampton.
“I think I need to be an example for the rest of the team, so it better be four-ish days a week,” he said. “I can’t ask my team to work hard if I’m not working hard. But I’m conscious of the fact that my clients don’t really care whether I’m sitting in Bridgehampton or midtown Manhattan.” Rellie said he’s still figuring it out, and he’d like the company to be “meaningfully kinder.”
He got up because he was late for a lunch at Michael’s nearby. When he got there, old friends who work mostly in finance were around a table. The restaurant, decorated with paintings by Jasper Johns and David Hockney, had reopened only about three weeks ago, and everyone was in a warm and jovial mood. The place wasn’t packed, but it hummed.
Rellie and his friends laughed about Dogecoin, SPACs, regulation and taxes over white wine and shared plates of Korean steak tacos, beer-battered softshell crab, mushroom pizza, sea bass, salad and fries. Every now and then, a waiter came around with a pitcher to refresh their iced tea.
Joyce Chang, JPMorgan’s chair of global research, was sitting in a room at the bank’s Madison Avenue skyscraper with Gloria Kim, the firm’s head of index research. Across the street, the bank’s new tower is rising. The building they were in once belonged to Bear Stearns, before the firm collapsed and JPMorgan took it over.
After a planning session for an annual research report on the environmental, social and corporate governance sector, they spoke about Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage month.
“I’ve been a New Yorker for most of my life, so obviously I’m used to looking over my shoulder,” Kim said. But attacks on Asian-American New Yorkers have made her wonder how she should get to the tower after arriving at the Port Authority Bus Terminal from New Jersey. “Do I walk? Do I take the bus?” She’s been wearing a mask with sunglasses and carrying Mace spray. “Ready to press,” she said.
“I’ve been coming in for a while, so I haven’t felt that way,” Chang said.
“If you’re just coming back, you’re not quite used to it yet,” Kim said. “It’s more of a heightened awareness.”
Executives at Blackstone Group Inc., the world’s largest alternative-asset manager, were inside their Park Avenue office talking about lunch. Verdun Perry, the firm’s head of strategic partners, had brought in a smoked turkey sandwich with provolone on rye from home. President Jon Gray ate chicken in the office.
“Tomorrow I'm going out to lunch,” Gray said. “I think I'm at Casa Lever.”
“I'm at Casa Lever next week,” Perry said. “By the way, lunch with you and the team. We're going to have sushi.”
On Monday, Blackstone asked its U.S. investment professionals to return to the office full-time in early June if they’re vaccinated. After Perry left, Gray said the firm feels “an awesome sense of responsibility,” because clients are mostly public pensions. “It's firefighters, it's police officers, it's teachers, nurses, and they've had to work throughout this pandemic.”
Blackstone, he went on, doesn’t have “the secret formula to Coca-Cola — we have a bunch of very talented, very driven people who are connected by our culture. Maintaining that culture — and trying to do that through a screen — is really, really hard.” The firm, he said, has invested more than US$20 million “to try to make this environment as safe as possible.”
Paula Luff started earlier this year as the director of ESG research and engagement at DSC Meridian Capital, an investment firm that specializes in distressed credit. She sat in a conference room with Jay Blount, the firm’s director of business development and investor relations. Both of them have been coming into the office Monday through Thursday.
“I’m really happy to be working in person,” she said. “I’m someone who’s hyper-social.”
But the building, on Seventh Avenue near Central Park, has seemed lonely. “I haven’t ridden the elevator with someone — except someone in my office — since Labor Day,” Blount said. The neighborhood had been so quiet that earlier this year they had Sweetgreen to themselves.
“Now the line is out the door,” Luff said, “which is a beautiful thing.”
Blount had an in-person client meeting last week that was his first since February 2020. He doesn’t have any others lined up.
Michael Kink, executive director of Strong Economy for All Coalition, a group of unions and community organizers, was sitting at a desk by himself near Wall Street. Decades ago, the Broadway building was filled with employees of Chemical Bank, now part of JPMorgan.
Kink was in a nostalgic mood. He thought about where he was exactly 10 years ago — at a Wall Street protest that became a precursor to Occupy Wall Street.
“It was a blast — it was angry in principle, but it was also one of these opportunities to get all different kinds of regular working people to fight,” he said.
He was also feeling energized as he worked, with other groups, to plan a Thursday press conference for a campaign called “Not a Game.” One of their goals is to stop hedge funds from buying sovereign bonds if the aim is to sue countries.
“I just don’t think we can survive as a country with that dynamic of extreme inequality,” he said. “Organizers, activists, labor unions and community groups all recognize the desperate need to take action against Wall Street.”
Near City Hall, below the Beekman hotel’s nine-story Victorian atrium, Gregory Tomicich stood by the entrance to the Bar Room in a dark suit and a white shirt.
The director of restaurants for Crafted Hospitality said his bar is starting to see some people coming back into the office and then for drinks after work.
As guests walked in, he took their temperatures.
“Prior to the pandemic, this bar would be full by 4 p.m.,” Tomicich said. “Wall Street is coming back slower than we’d hoped — but coming back.”
—With Max Reyes, Sridhar Natarajan, Misyrlena Egkolfopoulou, and Hannah Levitt