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Turning Crisis into your Defining Moment

While my last name is obviously Polish, I am actually half Irish. My wife, an O’Brien, is also half Irish, which means our three children have way more Irish in them than anything else. St. Patrick’s day has always been one of my favorite days of the year. Some of my fondest memories of college, living in Boston, and living in NYC can be tied back to March 17th. However, some of the scariest days I can remember also fall on the same date of 3/17.

I started my career in financial services. Like many people who grew up in the 80s and 90s I had visions of working on ‘Wall Street’. I declared as a finance major out of the gate when I went to college and from day one knew what I wanted to do- or so I thought.

Immediately out of college I went to work for Fidelity Investments. After one year in Boston I moved to NYC to be closer to my girlfriend (now wife), and continued with Fidelity as a part of their brokerage operations group. My role was more of a corporate finance function but I saw it as a way to learn everything there was about a broker dealer, how trades worked, and how the actual market functioned behind the scenes. One of the books I read to get up to speed on the industry was After the Trade is Made. It’s the how-to book on the industry and I was learning everything I could so that I could eventually make my way to a trading floor in some capacity.

I was working at the World Financial Center in NYC, overlooking what was still a hole in the ground at the former World Trade Center site. The walk from the subway to the office everyday was a serious reflection moment and I often remember looking up to the sky and trying to comprehend what had happened at that location on 9/11. That’s a blog for a different time.

Back to St. Patrick’s Day. On Sunday March 16th, 2008 I was in midtown Manhattan at an Irish pub on the east side, one block from JP Morgan and the beautiful Bear Stearns building. As I was enjoying my corned beef and cabbage sandwich and black and tan with some of my closest friends, I remember hearing the news that Bear Stearns had declared bankruptcy and JP Morgan was acquiring them for $2 a share, which was less than what their office building was worth (yes, great real estate move by JPM).

For those of you that remember, Bear Stearns was one of the most prestigious Wall Street firms. They were as tier one as any of the other firms. The city was in shock and I remember the gasp in the crowd at the bar. Things in NYC changed overnight. For the next few months I remember sitting at my desk and watching the people around me get tapped on the shoulder, brought into an office, and escorted out of the building. Layoffs were commonplace. Basically every person around me was laid off as I continued on as a naive, no major responsibility, young professional.

The cycle continued, followed by the collapse of Lehman brothers, and the great financial crisis of 2008/09. I continued to take on more responsibility and realized it would come without more pay, but figured that it would benefit me in the long run. Long story short, I was made aware of an opportunity at a small boutique investment banking firm that was coming out of the financial crisis faster than others and hiring some of the best talent on Wall Street. I joined Pali Capital on October 5, 2009.

The first 2 months at Pali were exceptional. The atmosphere at our swanky 52nd and 5th office – culture, people, atmosphere – could not be beat. But then things tightened up. Much of this was happening before I even joined the company- again, I was young and naive at the time. By the time Christmas and New Years hit, many of the traders had left the business and the balance sheet was so tight that we could not meet our capital commitments to hold positions.  So basically a firm doing $250M of revenue went to zero over night…

The next few months were a whirlwind. I was one of the few employees retained to help with the wind down of the business. During those few months I dealt with traders trying to reconcile their commission checks, FINRA, and the SEC. My remaining coworkers and I tore down the trading desks, returned the Bloomberg terminals, and sold the office furniture and art work off the walls. It was a surreal experience.

One of my last days in the office was March 17th, 2010. New York City always has their St. Patrick’s Day parade on 3/17 unless it falls on a Sunday then they move it to that Saturday. It is one of the biggest parades of the year and marches right down 5th avenue. My father in law (O’Brien) has been marching in the parade for close to 50 years as part of the Ancient Order of Hibernians. On that day, my fiance at the time (now wife, you get it), called in sick to her NYC teaching job and joined me, a few coworkers, and some friends in the office at 52nd and 5th, which overlooked the parade route. We were on the 5th floor, found a way to open the window on what was a 60 degree sunny day, and take in the parade and festivities. It was one of the best days I’ve had in NYC. It was also one of my last days in the office at 52nd and 5th.

Shortly after, I took a new job at Bloomberg, but knew that I wanted to find my way out of NYC and out of Financial Services. I found my way to Dyn in August of 2011 which was eventually acquired by Oracle at the end of 2016. By the way, Christy (now my wife, Thanks Christy!), talked me into taking the job with Dyn vs. another financial services job. I did 24 interviews for the other job, they paid for me to come up to Boston multiple times, put me up at the Boston Harbor Hotel, and actually presented a better offer.

I went to the interview at Dyn which at the time was about a 25 person startup but growing quickly. When I met with Gray Chynoweth for my first interview, he asked why I was wearing a suit- he was in jeans and a t-shirt and the desks in the office were folding tables with folding chairs. It was quite a different office than what I was used to in NYC. When I walked Gray through my career, he cared most about my time at Pali Capital. Even though it was a short period of time, he focused on what I had done and recognized it as the absolute best skill set for a startup!

Fast forward 10 years, this St. Patrick’s day, I enjoyed corned beef and cabbage and Guinness with my wife and 3 children. It was not as ‘festive’ as years in the past. This year we are faced with tremendous uncertainty as we deal with COVID-19 and social distance, work from home, and avoid public places. We are in unprecedented times and are quite frankly scared. The amount of data, news, and information that flows in from multiple sources every day is too much to handle and hard to make sense of.

At York IE, we have many startups in our portfolio who are being faced with tons of uncertainty and trying to figure out where to go from here. York IE launched in September and we’re a startup too. While we figure out our work from home environments and utilize Slack, Zoom, and other collaboration tools I think it is important to remember that while these feel like uncertain times, it will serve to be a period where you can develop, grow, and differentiate yourself beyond your years and experience.

This is the time to stay focused, positive, and continue down the course. The skills and experience you gain over the next few weeks to months will be some of the finest moments in your career. While you put your head down and focus on execution over the next 30/60/90 days, just know that you are setting yourself up for extraordinary opportunities in the future because you have now been there, done that. Seeing the cycle the second time around doesn’t make it any easier, but it makes me want to be even better through this period, which will prove to be exponentially impactful in the future.

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