Back in March I wrote about visiting the Resolution Trust Corp.'s auction of the assets of City Federal Savings in New Jersey.
I talked about the sad sight of all the typewriters, chairs, desks, and empty offices--all remnants of a day when people worked with pride at those desks and the institution was in its glory.
I received this poignant letter from Thomas W. Charles Jr. of Belle Mead, N.J., a former employee of Citified Mortgage Co.
"I want to thank you for your recent article.
"Rather than the usual condemnation of certain banking practices or the flip-side criticism of the regulatory community, I appreciated your focus on the early spirit of that institution and the people who were responsible for its growth.
"The unacknowledged victims of this ongoing closure process are those same people, the employees who lose jobs. benefits, security, and an exciting work environment.
"Thank you for helping me remember what a great place City Federal was to work at, and what special people made up our company."
Such a letter brings up again the human tragedy involved in our recent banking crisis.
Statistics often hide the personal drama of a crisis. What are the real consequences?
When a newspaper headline reads, "Bank Lays Off 1,800 Employees," I think of 1,800 homes that are now without a first or second breadwinner, of the stores and other services that will get less business, and of the demoralized people in a society in which what we do determines who we are.
I remember going into a Wendy's fast-food restaurant in Hartford, Conn., and behind the counter there was a middle-aged man, obviously well educated, serving salad with panache and enthusiasm not typical of people in such outlets.
I concluded that this was an individual who had lost a middle-management job in the insurance or banking industry and who could find nothing more challenging than his present position.
Watching Your Career Unravel
I also think quite often of what it must have been like to be in front of a trading screen at a Wall Street firm on Black Monday in 1987. Think of watching the change of the numbers trash your firm's capital -- or even put the firm out of business, as happened to L.F. Rothschild, which I had worked with for 22 years up to that date as consulting economist.
"What will you actually do all day long?" is the question I always ask students who come to me for advice on whether they should take a job that has been offered to them.
I think of my students who entered Rothschild and other Wall Street firms with the expectation of brilliant careers watching numbers that day that meant their careers were over, or had at least been put on hold for a long time.
As I read Mr. Charles' letter, I thought of two highly memorable incidents in my own career both of which I have mentioned before in this space.
I had been conducting a class called "Economics for the Thinking Citizen" for First National City Bank, now Citicorp in which I spent an hour each Wednesday teaching economics to tellers, waiters at the bank's luncheon club, car repossessors, and other staff members.
One day after class I bumped into Howard Sheppard, then CEO of the bank, who invited me to ride downtown with him to Wall Street.
Heading a Giant Company
In his car, I asked him "What is it like being head of a giant organization like First National City?
His answer. "It is like being the father of a big family. Everything that happens to one of our staff affects me."
Friends later told me that this was a true feeling -- this was Mr. Sheppard's attitude toward his people.
The second incident Mr. Charles' letter brought to mind was the few minutes I spent alone with Donald Platten, then chairman and CEO of New York's Chemical Bank.
Mr. Platten's first comment to me when we are alone after doing an interview together in front of tape recorders and PR people was this:
"Paul, this bank was started in the early 19th century. My only job is to make sure it is here when I am gone."
A People Business
How many CEOs can look at Don Platten's self-imposed challenge and feel that they have failed to meet it.
We always say that banking is a people business. And we also acknowledge that in the future far fewer people will find employment in the industry, because of downsizing and the failures that followed the halcyon days of the mid-1980s.
To most observers, City Federal and the other banks that have disappeared are merely statistics and history-book items.
Mr. Charles' letter reminds us of the personal tragedy visited on the lives of people who simply tried to earn their livings in an industry that generated vast overoptimism and negligence, and then forced their people to pay the price.
Mr. Nadler is a contributing editor of American Banker and professor of finance at the Rutgers University Graduate School of Management.