Wall Street's bust knocks fast-track careers off rails

Layoffs: Many young professionals' frenetic ride to the top, fueled by a 20-year boom, comes to an unexpected end during a three-year decline.

January 21, 2003|By Marego Athans | Marego Athans,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

NEW YORK - They had grown accustomed to the life, rising in the dark, arriving at work before 7 a.m., spending their days in frenetic trading rooms and management offices in the glow of a 20-year Wall Street boom.

Amy Kong had traveled to 30 countries on business by the time she was 30.

Chris Stavros had been ranked the industry's No. 2 oil and gas analyst by The Wall Street Journal for his 2001 stock picks.

Scott Cunningham had just moved his young family into its dream house in Long Island, a neighborhood of homes valued at $500,000 to $1 million.

For their generation - all three are in their 30s - a high-intensity career on Wall Street was the path that seemed to guarantee a comfortable future.

Never did they imagine that the ride would end so suddenly. All three lost their jobs.

Three consecutive years of stock market losses have led to heavy layoffs in the financial-services industry and its sharpest percentage drop in employment since a Middle East oil crisis ravaged the markets from 1972 to 1974.

Since employment peaked in April 2001 at 786,100 jobs, the industry has lost 77,800 positions, a decline of nearly 10 percent, according to preliminary November figures from the Securities Industry Association.

In many cases, those forced out of work were senior-level employees, investment bankers, even star strategists and economists from Wall Street's largest firms.

Unlike the downturns of 1990 and 1987, when the market rebounded relatively quickly, this protracted slump has left many people unemployed for months, even a year or more.

"This is the first time that people will not only be leaving a major brand-name firm and going to a regional firm ... but in many cases, people will be leaving Wall Street and never be working on the Street again," said Terry Ebert, managing director of the Ayers Group, a recruiting, consulting and outplacement service in New York.

Surprised, not dejected

When Amy Kong was laid off in November as a director in marketing research after 8 1/2 years at Merrill Lynch, she immediately began contacting friends and colleagues. There were only two people she couldn't tell: her parents.

"They'd worry about me more than I worry about myself," Kong, 32, said of her parents, Chinese immigrants - her father a retired cook, her mother a housewife - who never learned English.

"They're not corporate people. They don't understand severance or outplacement. If Dad lost his job, that was it. He'd always say, `Merrill Lynch is a good company; don't do anything stupid.' They don't understand that in these rounds of mass layoffs, it's not the employees who are jeopardizing their jobs."

Kong isn't someone you'd expect to be looking for work. An energetic woman who grew up in Sunnyside, in the Queens borough of New York City, she earned a degree in architecture before turning to Wall Street, landing a job in Merrill's technology training program in 1994.

Starting then, her rise into the executive ranks of the nation's largest brokerage firm was rapid. Along the way, she traveled to 30 countries, from Brazil to South Africa to the United Arab Emirates to Taiwan, training overseas brokers in the use of technology to develop their businesses. At one point, she managed a staff of 10.

She says she has at least 40 business suits in the closet of her one-bedroom Brooklyn Heights co-op, which she bought 4 1/2 years ago largely because it was close to work.

"I love corporate America. I want to be there," she said, chuckling.

How much of her identity is wrapped up in Wall Street? In some ways, she said, the hustle and bustle does create the person.

"When I got the job at Merrill eight years ago, walking through the World Trade Center plaza, past the fountain, looking up at the towers, it was of a feeling of `I made it.'"

It was almost prophetic that a week before Kong was let go, she and her mother were chatting over coffee at Starbucks when her mother said she had been reading about Merrill's problems in the Chinese newspapers.

"How secure do you feel your job is?" her mother asked. "I said I don't think any jobs are secure," Kong recalled. Everybody should be looking."

The morning of Nov. 19, Kong was called in to speak with a representative for her manager, who was out of town, and handed a severance package that - along with her savings - would support her for about a year.

She was surprised, but not dejected, she said. "I'm the kind of person who says if you can really change something, move on."

When she was working, Kong rose at 5:30 a.m. "If there was sunlight, I knew I was late," she said.

She'd set her BlackBerry electronic device to go off at 6 a.m., then answer e-mails from people in various time zones on the seven-minute train ride to work, or while she was walking. By 6:45 a.m., she was at her desk on the 35th floor of the World Financial Center.

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