Today’s Assignment: Steal ALL The Pens From Your Broker’s Desk…

For the better (or worse) part of my adult life I sat at a faux cherry executive desk in a giant Wall Street firm.

Desk Style #357 in the firmwide office furniture catalog to be specific. Complete with black mid-back support chair (item #456). One Dell Monitor. And today’s more modern workstation wouldn’t be complete without one Dell computer running windows XP, with just enough memory to run one spreadsheet at a time.

In the beginning, this desk sat in a cubicle. The Bull Pen — as it’s fondly known among the players. Then I graduated to an office because I’d done enough in sales to justify some privacy now. And when my sales were even more significant, desk style #357 would be reassuringly waiting for me in another, yet bigger office. And with each move the firm generously added from their amazing firmwide stock-artwork catalog to fill my ever growing wall space.

I’d truly arrived when I’d done enough revenue to order the faux cherry bookcase (elegant style #231) from the firmwide furniture catalog.

Each day, clients and employees alike, would walk the faux gold-gilded wallpaper hallways lined with sephia prints featuring the good ole’ days of Wall Street because someone somewhere somehow thought that this design scheme would reassure all of us that the money is safe, conveying strength, protected by a timeless firm in this Class B 10-year leased property with negotiated tenant improvements.

Each comforting day, I’d pass my office-mates, who also had their obligatory pictures on the walls in their offices from the company catalog — that boat in the storm, taking on water. It is not sinking. Or the chart of the history of the market, eventually going up through all of the tragedies of mankind during the 20th century. Some would choose the tranquil hotel-room-like pasteur scene from the catalog. The cityscape pictures were generally reserved for offices located in the middle of the country.

There were people somewhere in New York who decided such important things, commanding equally important salaries and titles.

I’d say ‘hi’ to the people in the cashier cage, behind that bullet-proof glass someone could still climb through because it didn’t actually cover the whole window, or even half. We never handled cash or easily-transferable securities, so I’m not sure why anyone would rob us — but then again none of our offices actually locked, so I suppose the cashiering people always felt a little comfort to know that there was at least some thought going into the security of their station.

I’d exchange morning pleasantries with my operations manager freshly reassigned from corporate; our branch was just another stop in her every-3-year rotation. If she graduated from our branch, she’d make it to a complex. Then regional — that’s the big time. For now, she was a mid-sized branch operations manager. She’d have the same desk style (#357) as the advisors even though her needs from a workstation were completely different. Operations offices generally lacked pictures but always had more plants; plants the new manager has been collecting along their route of office assignments. Watered weekly by the office plant service along with the orchids in the lobby.

An announcement is made over the PA system — we all walk into the conference room with the big screen TV that was probably impressive in 1988. A flat screen was coming soon — we’d never use either except for the annual sexual harassment video. Our manager would be standing behind his church-like podium ready for his sermon. I’d sit in one of the chairs arranged in the semi-circle — the same chairs where the “free” client seminars are hosted — in the chairs that look comfortable but aren’t, at least not for the entire hour of the broker’s presentation. It was the free taquitos you couldn’t resist, I know…

I’d sit there with all of my other colleagues in multi-color fabric conference chair, style #134. We’d sit under the mind-numbing hum of the fluorescent lights while our manager droned on about our numbers and how “motion creates emotion”. The vacuum of the windowless room steeped his words in irony as we sat there, utterly motionless.

Another glossy brochure was passed around, this month’s great fund from XYZ company. One of my colleagues was in the printing business before he decided to try his hand in the new hot growth industry — stock brokering. He’d always tell us how much the brochures cost. “Lemme see…glossy 14 lbs paper, embossed printing, 8 color, double sided…” — like Rain Man, you could watch him run the numbers. “These are about $2.50 a pop! Probably $1.50 for the volume our firm prints…” Then we’d eat pizza or some other large group lunch item — sandwiches, chinese. Or maybe taquitos, for 30 of us. In 800 different offices.

Then I’d stop by my mailbox. John, our mail guy, would pass me all of the other glossy brochures sent by the postal service (probably another $30 in paper, printing & postage) which I’d immediately file  in the trash can.

I’d login to my computer — hoping that I could get it to run more than one program at a time today.

My manager calls my phone, I think — still no caller ID. I answer. “Scott, can you come to my office?” The manager’s office is almost always the most glorious in the realm; to intimidate & remind everyone that the firm still held the pursestrings. Faux leather chairs with brass buttons. A #357 desk with an extension arm, for when we used typewriters — not quite the right height or depth for a computer but exactly the look a busy executive would want to convey.

“…The firm won’t approve the reimbursement for the research service you use.”

“Why?” I ask.

“Because we can’t show how it directly generates revenue, and the firm doesn’t like you using someone else’s research. That’s why…ummkay?”

“But our research sucks…” I’m dismissed.

Hoping for some sunshine in my day, I log into Twitter to see which of the six articles I’m allowed to share today. If it wasn’t for the firm’s social media rules, I could have shared at least 10 other great articles by 9am, but my firm only deems certain things tweetable, and I’m probably too dumb to decide what will be tweetable enough to share with my 69 followers. Even though I manage and converse with millions of dollars each day. I can email articles, I just can’t tweet them. So, someone in New York gets paid to tell me what articles I can share. They probably have an equally important title as well because, “it’s very important we do this right” — vs. that whole 2008-thing or that IPO scandal thing, or the research scandal thing, or bond price fixing thing.

Ok enough with the chit chat — time to really get to work –I’ll make some calls after I check my email — well, after I sort through the 70+ emails from various product specialists at the firm waiting for me about the new position, promotion, reorganization with new synergies, departure, number change, address change, or the latest product focus — which is then also forwarded to me (with see comments below) by my manager, sales manager, regional sales manager, ops manager, regional business development manager, area product coordinator, and internal wholesaler.

And “delete all”…

So– during your next meeting in your broker’s office; that reassuringly decorated big Wall Street firm with the hollow-core doors and leased glitz & glamour. The one crammed with thoughtless design, heft, and people with big titles managing small things very poorly — I want you to steal their pen. Actually steal ALL of their pens (probably with their firm’s name embossed on them for 75 cents a piece). Heck, while you’re at it — take that picture of the sailboat in the storm hanging on their wall too.

You might as well, because you are paying for all of it…


2 thoughts on “Today’s Assignment: Steal ALL The Pens From Your Broker’s Desk…

  1. Bill Winterberg CFP®

    Independent advisors are not impervious to the temptation of gilded office design. I continue to see it, even in the smallest of independent firm.

    We are human beings, flaws and all, and first impressions are hard to ignore. It takes effort and experience to reduce the influence of first impressions.

    The reason wealth managers design offices to impress (though with the shallow façade you describe to a T) is that for some, it still works.Otherwise there would be no reason to continue, in my view.

  2. Anonymous

    I’d actually applaud some gilding if it was thoughtfully done. It’s the haphazard nature of Wall Street’s focus. I’d use Apple’s Stores as an example of thoughtful gilding. Smart in all the right places.

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