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Vita Sua in a Bygone Mobile

Part 11 in a series: Nobody rings a bell and says, "This is the top of the market. Get out."

Previous installments: 1, 2 , 3 , 4567, 8, 9 and 10.

By A.D.
Mobile Bay Times
Nobody rings a bell and says, "This is the top of the market. Get out."

So we didn't know when the year 1961 ended with the Dow Jones Industrial Average at 731, just four points below its all-time high set just a few days earlier, that we were soon to be caught in the toils of the worst bear market since I had gone into the brokerage field that St. Patrick's Day, many years before.

It was a mercifully
brief bear market,
but it took its toll
in Wall Street.
Some weak firms
failed, some
account executives
were given their
walking papers and
almost no firms
expanded their
operations.

It was a very poor
time to leave an
established
position and move to another firm, even if one found the opportunity.

It was also the year that all of us left XX and moved to another firm. "Us" now included, besides myself, BH, JR, QT, and AR, our forces having been considerably expanded in the bull years of 1958-61.

The wonder of it was that one or more of us hadn't revolted earlier.

Our superior, XX, was a real despot. In a small office such as we had, he should have worked for a percentage of his gross, with an override of perhaps 10 or 15 percent of the profits, depending on what the owners thought his services as manager were worth. Instead he aggregated to himself each year an amount roughly equal to 50 percent of his own production with the others in the office receiving on the average about 25 percent of their production.

This was by no means the worst of it. XX was often "hung over" and, as a consequence seldom arrived at the office before 10 a.m. And he enjoyed perhaps 20 or more days off for fishing, hunting or whatever his fancy dictated. Most of the time none of us were forewarned about these days off and so we had to handle his accounts. And, on the days when he graced us with his presence, he'd leave for the day promptly after the market closed at 2:30 p.m.

It was BH who told the story of one of XX's good accounts who called in, talked to BH at some length, was furnished considerable information and placed an order before BH could tell him, "Would you like to speak to XX?" "Oh, he's THERE?" the reply came back. Probably about 20 percent or more of XX's business was obtained from orders placed by BH or I.

And, although XX could be charming when it suited his fancy, he was often insufferable. Here's an illustration.

C and I received a call late at night from C's brother, informing us that their mother had experienced a severe heart attack and was not expected to live through the night. She was in the hospital at Jackson, Miss. He advised us to wait until early morning before going up there since there was nothing we could do and it would be better to leave the children at home, arrangements for which could not be made in the middle of the night.

It was real tough night for C and me as well.

We got up early
in the morning.
I waited until
about 7 to call
the office. Of
course, XX
hadn't arrived.
I told BH our
situation and
that I would be
out that day and
perhaps the
next. That I
would be back
in touch.

We were just
getting ready
to drive off, about 8 a.m., when the phone rang. It was
XX. For once, he had arrived at the office early.

He lit into me.

"Whatta you mean, you're taking the day off? I expect you
here in this office. You'd just better hope there's a job
for you when you get back."

I was stunned. I knew he was selfish and insensitive to an
appalling degree but I could not believe this. I said, "You
really mean that, XX?"

"Yes, goddamn it," came the reply and he slammed down the phone.

I am not a vindictive person but all the way up to Jackson that day I kept repeating to C, "He'll pay for this."

He was to pay for it but strangely this disgusting incident played no part whatever in the decision which I later made and which did result in XX paying for many of his transgressions. In fact, at the time of the decision, I did not even recall that morning.

XX had apparently forgotten about it when I returned to the office for he made no mention of it. Likely he was badly "hung over" and in a foul mood. Even allowing for that, it's unforgivable that he did not have the decency to apologize for his remarks.

From time to time the five of us -- BH, JR, AR, QT and myself -- talked of seeking greener pastures, particularly in the afternoons after XX had left for the day.

We were handicapped by the fact that we knew very little of industry customs.

XX made it his business to see to it that we did not know the usual arrangements between Wall Street firms and their account executives. He continually told us how lucky we were to be working for such a generous employer.

But I had written a letter to Forbes magazine, inquiring as to the normal compensation paid account executives by different firms. As luck would have it, the letter, with my name below it, was printed in the letters to the editor column. My heart leaped up when I saw it because XX also subscribed to the magazine. However, no doubt he did not see it for I heard nothing from him about it.

The answer was that the larger firms, with big advertising and research outlays, generally paid about 33 percent of commissions generated and the smaller ones, with less overhead, 37 percent or more, some as much as 40 percent.

That was more than a little food for thought. Based on a 37 percent payout, I had been underpaid considerably in 1961 and proportionate amounts in previous years. BH, too, of course, had been underpaid. The new men weren't that much affected since they had been with the firm for a brief time.

One spring day we had a serious session late in the afternoon.

The bear market was well under way and business was tough, so I guess this made everybody a little less happy with his current circumstances.

Our little cabal agreed that we would try to make contact with other brokerage firms and inquire if they had an interest in acquiring a ready-made office in Mobile.
We all agreed to go along with the plan. I really didn't expect that anything would come of it, but just the opportunity to look into a move served as an outlet for some of our indignation.

(Chapter XII: Hopes raised. Hopes dashed. Hope springs eternal.)