Faith, tenacity help firm rise from twin towers' fall

May Davis Group: Baltimore-based brokerage stays afloat despite losing its offices, head trader.

2001 9/11 2002 One Year

September 04, 2002|By Julie Bell | Julie Bell,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK - May Davis Group lives. For now, that is achievement enough.

It has been nearly a year since one of its investment bankers summoned the herculean strength to pry open elevator doors in the burning World Trade Center and escape with his life.

Nearly a year since one of its young brokers dived under a ledge, praying as 110 stories of debris rained down around him.

Nearly a year since its head trader leapt over a desk to save himself from a collapsing ceiling as a plane struck about five floors above - only to die when he stopped in a stairwell to help a man who had given up.

The Baltimore-based investment bank, whose largest offices were on the 87th floor of 1 World Trade Center, lost head trader Harry Ramos that day.

The office's lesser losses included every copy machine and printer. Every computer. Every customer account record. Every fax. Every desk. Every pen. Every phone. Every paper clip.

The posh offices and expansive views that gave Chief Executive Officer Owen May a feeling that he and the firm's 59 employees were winners: demolished.

But not May Davis Group. Twelve of the 13 employees who had made it to work by the time the plane struck their building got out with their lives. Now, in makeshift offices that for months offered the stench and plain view of the trade center's smoldering ruins, May Davis offers up a story of wounded triumph: It has survived a year.

It has 23 employees, including four in its Baltimore office. Those in its relatively drab beige-and-off-white New York offices work on borrowed phone lines, mostly borrowed personal computers and laptops brought from home. Some come to work accompanied by demons.

"Everyone here has nightmares," May said, sitting behind a desk that does not face the window. Battling dreams, he said, is "their own little war on terrorism."

May has nightmares but won't describe them. The stress from the attacks is so severe that he has recently been coming to work just two days a week, requiring firm co-founder and President Kevin Davis of Baltimore to pick up the slack.

The firm once fined male employees who failed to wear ties. But these days, May favors khakis and a button-down shirt. His post-Sept. 11 stress kicks into high gear when he wears business attire.

"You've got to reach down deep to put a suit on," said May, who arrived outside his building Sept. 11 just in time to watch it burn while the second plane hit the other tower. You've got to "reach down deep to put a collared shirt on."

Myriad challenges

The challenges of rebuilding a small company that has been blown to kingdom come are as much personal as logistical. An employee who listened to a co-worker scream about dying in a frantic cell phone call must come back to work and place stock trades for clients. She must do so, for a time, using a phone that only takes incoming calls.

Some employees fear low-flying planes. There aren't enough filing cabinets. A man whose memories include the sound of falling bodies crashing through glass must concentrate on raising money for client companies.

The insurance settlement has yet to come.

But May and Davis are determined that the firm they opened in 1994 won't succumb. They built it from nothing. By June, it ranked 13th on Black Enterprise magazine's list of African-American-owned investment banking firms, with $5.94 billion in total issues.

"I think giving up and not fighting the good fight would be giving in to the terrorists," Davis said. "And that's not something my partner and I are prepared to do."

To last a year after such destruction, May Davis had to have a few employees such as Patricia Senese. The head of the firm's institutional sales operations, Senese is a drill sergeant in heels. Davis jokingly calls her "my boss."

When company trader Dominique Picard thought she would die in the World Trade Center, it was Senese whom she called, screaming on a cell phone. Senese replied with an order: "You get the hell out of there!"

Picard did. But fellow employees described her as too traumatized to stay with May Davis. A number of other employees also were too upset to come back. One attempted suicide, Davis said.

The firm kept them on the payroll for a time. But in the days, weeks and months that followed the attacks, it would be the founders and a small cadre of employees who kept the firm alive. They relied on what they had left: determination, the good will of others, luck and, in some cases, faith.

May suppressed his feelings and began looking for office space. He was determined to get the firm trading again quickly so it could bring in money and prove to clients that it still existed.

David Donovan, the broker who survived by curling up under an overhang in the trade center complex as Tower 2 came down, began calling clients Sept. 12 from his home in Morris Plains, N.J., to reassure them that the firm was in business and that their investments were safe. Some of them cried at the sound of his voice.

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