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One Wall Street and my most embarrassing professional moment

Fashionable address now a reminder in stone

UNconventional Wisdom is a periodic guest blog, where authors hold up the so-called conventional wisdom to a fresh perspective, or apply common principles in new ways. To propose a guest blog, email Steve Cocheo scocheo@sbpub.com, executive editor & digital content manager.

I can't pass One Wall Street without it evoking memories.

Some are pleasant, others involve valuable lessons that were painful--well, embarrassing as hell--at the time.

In fact, one memory ranks as my greatest professional embarrassment.

I happened to walk past One Wall Street recently because once or twice a day I leave my desk to get some air and some fresh thinking. Recently Banking Exchange moved to the Wall Street area--the rents are much better than in our old neighborhood.  So my new stomping ground takes me past icons and landmarks of finance.

One Wall Street for years was the headquarters building for Irving Trust Company, which was the lead bank in its day for the Charter New York Corp. The rest of the banks Charter owned were north of New York City.

My earliest recollections of One Wall Street involve my grandmother, Bessie Cocheo. When Bessie returned to the workforce, she wound up working at Irving Trust. Back in those days, nobody called it that. I only ever heard it called, "The Irving," the way people used to refer to mutual insurance companies, large mutual savings banks, and other New York institutions that were not quite private but not quite public either.  Her stories always began with "Down at The Irving..."

The "The" always seemed a term of respect and permanence-like you were speaking in granite. Permanence, though, was not to be for the Irving.

Grandma retired long before Irving succumbed to one of the few successful open unfriendly acquisitions for a banking institution, in the late 1980s. Today, the building bears the nameplate of Bank of New York Mellon, successor to The Bank of New York, which had made the acquisition.

Mentally bankrupt

So much for the fond memories, of Grandma. One of the other memories brought back by seeing One Wall Street goes back to the very first article I reported for Banking Exchange, back in 1979.

I'd started the article as a freelance writer when I was in college, and the only reason I'd taken it on was because I was too darn stupid to know how much I didn't know.

I had been introduced to Harry Waddell, then editor-in-chief of ABA BJ, and the old newspaperman was reviewing my scrapbook of published articles. He spied one that mentioned, in the most passing way, the phrase "the new bankruptcy law."

Now, this had appeared in an edition of Dun and Bradstreet Reports magazine, a  house organ I worked for while in college. It served commercial credit managers--the main users of D&B credit reports. I did a column each month called "The Credit Roundtable," where credit managers addressed a common theme. The particular one he'd spotted concerned challenges for the year ahead.

Well, the phrase "the new bankruptcy law" constituted the four words I knew, actually, about said law.

But Harry had spotted them, and wanted someone to write an article about it. He picked me.

Being young, confident as hell, and willing to take on almost anything for a byline or money, I wholeheartedly agreed-especially since Harry was offering both.

Sources by the pound

Harry realized I would need help with sources, not knowing any bankers. He began reeling off names and numbers, from memory or from directories. I hurriedly scribbled on my pad.

Then he rummaged in one of his two desks--Harry was an infamous packrat--and his voluminous bookshelves. He bestowed at least 15 pounds of banking books on me.

One of the bankers he told me to interview was X, who, as I recall, was chief of the credit committee at Irving Trust, and a crony. Harry had come to know X through an ABA credit committee.

Well, I was still in college and busy with classes and more. Relying on my youthful abilities to cram, and a newspaperman's ability to get up to speed on a story quickly, I left far too much of my prep for the night before.

I did all I could, and then trusted to my "intrinsic ability" to delve to the heart of a matter with anyone.

Well, that might have worked for a routine newspaper story. But you don't become a student of banking in one night.

Confident and cocky, I left my Manhattan college's campus and made my way down to the Irving. Soon I was ushered in to meet Mr. X, who asked to be remembered to Harry, my boss.

Reporter in search of a question

One of Grandma's jobs had been getting the boardroom ready for meetings of the Irving board, which to me was interesting given that years later I began writing Banking Exchange's sister publication, ABA Bank Directors Briefing. I mentioned my grandmother's name, and there was no recognition.

Awkward. There's nothing quite so clumsy as trying to establish common ground where there isn't any.

So I launched into my questions, and, before long I had demonstrated two things.

First, I only understood the first inch of the pool of the bankruptcy law. And it's a deep pool.

Second, I knew even less about commercial lending, especially in a big, traditional institution like "The Irving."

The banker knew quickly how green--and unprepared--I was.

And I knew that he knew.

And he knew that I knew that he knew.

Pretty soon I realized that I was wasting the man's time.

A friendly Wall Street banker

Inexcusable. But he was kind to a damn-fool kid. He filled out the appointment telling some anecdotes, and recounting a story from a famous old book about bankruptcy, Ten Cents On The Dollar: The Bankruptcy Game. I still periodically tell a joke cribbed from this classic, written by rag-trade reporter Sidney Rutberg.

The other day, after passing One Wall Street, I went to our bound magazine volumes from 1979 to try to remember what the banker's name was.

Unfortunately, it looked like his material wound up being trimmed. Harry Waddell had had his work cut out for me with this article. It started as freelance, and I wound up being hired, and found there was so much I had to learn to do the story right, it led to many interviews, much learning about credit, and a good deal of pain.

The original draft was huge. Harry, and Joe Kizzia, executive editor at the time, helped me distill months of research into something that fit a reasonable space.

I learned from it all, and, with 35 years hindsight, see how generous many of the bankers and lawyers were, with whom I worked on the story. I knew next to nothing. I received a lot of help.

So, Mr. X, whoever you are and wherever you are since you left "The Irving," thanks for not roasting a kid who had to learn the hard way that one shouldn't try to fake things, in life.

Steve Cocheo

Steve Cocheo’s career in business journalism has taken him to all 50 states and nearly every corner of banking in institutions of all sizes. He is executive editor of Bankers Exchange and digital content manager of www.bankingexchange.com. Previously he spent 36 years on the staff of ABA Banking Journal and 22 years concurrently as editor of ABA Bank Directors Briefing. He is the only journalist to have sat in on three federal banking exams, was a finalist for the Jesse H. Neal national business journalism awards, and a winner of multiple awards from the American Society of Business Publication Editors.

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