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Felix Sater’s Wall Street Days

Felix Sater

Once upon a time, Felix Sater had a promising career on Wall Street.

Beginning in 1983 as an assistant cold-caller, Sater worked his way up the Wall Street food chain, ending up at Lehman Brothers in 1993, which is where his finance career, at least the reputable part of it, came to an end.

That was the year he went to prison for stabbing a commodities trader in the face with the broken stem of a margarita glass.  Then he got out and joined a Mafia-linked boiler room operation. He got caught, became a government informant, and partnered with Donald Trump to build Trump SoHo and become a figure of endless speculation and fascination.

Long before all of that, here’s what Sater was up to, taken from his employment record with FINRA:

After doing a bit of reading, it seems that Felix Sater’s Wall Street career amounted to making cold calls. Lehman Brothers and Gruntal, the two firms on the top of the list, were famous for their cold-calling.

A junior broker like Sater probably would have spent most of his time on the phone trying to rustle up new clients.  Lehman Brothers had a cold-calling script that was legendary on Wall Street. I couldn’t find a copy but here is a sample of another firm’s scripts that was obtained by Buzzfeed.

Prospective Client:  ”I have to talk to my wife.”

Wall Street Guy: “I’m calling you because you are a successful individual. Your success is the result of years of making the right calls in business. Am I right? Lets be real. You don‘t confer with your wife on your day-to-day business decisions and I’m sure your wife respects your investment decisions.”

It was mind-numbing, soul-crushing work — a white-collar sweatshop. But it was effective. According to Fortune, in the late 1980s, half of new accounts for Lehman’s brokers came from cold-calling. (The numbers dropped after Lehman got censured and fined.) But here’s how it used to work:

At these sites, the initial ”dials” are often made by young kids, many right out of college, who get $5 an hour and lunch for spending their day on the blower intoning, say, ”I’m calling for Martin Shafiroff, a managing director of Lehman Brothers.” Usually the dialers get rebuffed in seconds by the prospect or his secretary. But once in a while they get a live mark and then the dialer hands off the call by yelling to a ”qualifier” to pick it up (”I’ve got Henry Longfellow on line 4”). The qualifier, who is an assistant somewhat higher on the pay scale, collects what information he can about Henry and, if Henry acquiesces, assures him that Martin Shafiroff, say, will be calling him shortly with an idea.

Sater dropped out of college to work at Bear Stearns at age 18 as an assistant cold caller. Several months later, Sater got his broker licenses and then moved jobs to Ladenburg Thalmann, one of Wall Street’s oldest firms. (Bear Stearns and Ladenburg don’t show up on Felix’s official FINRA record, but he testified about them in a 2010 deposition.)

It’s worth noting that Howard Lorber, a friend of Trump’s who brought him to Russia in 1996, became chairman of Ladenberg in 2001 and holds the post of vice chairman today. Lorber is a member of Trump’s Council of Economic Advisers.

Gennady Klotsman, one of Sater’s longtime friends, soon joined him on Wall Street. They both worked at Rooney Pace, although Sater left after a few weeks to join Lehman Brothers, then known as Shearson Lehman following its acquisition by American Express. Klotsman and Sater worked together at Shearson Lehman in 1987.

The following year, Sater made his jump to Gruntal, one of the oldest stock brokerages in America. It traced its roots back to 1880. Gruntal not only survived the Crash of 1929, but when Sater joined the firm’s offices on 14 Wall Street at 605 Third Avenue in Manhattan, Gruntal was approaching its zenith as the country’s 14th-largest brokerage firm, fielding an army of brokers with phones glued to their ears.

But Gruntal was no staid brokerage. Far from it. It was a place for people who “weren’t presentable enough” to work for the big houses, Don Jans, one of the firm’s top earners, told Fortune.

“One of our biggest producers was bipolar,” Jans said. “My old sales assistant is a punk rocker with tattoos and piercings. Who would hire this guy? But he was the best salesman I ever had. Gruntal was the Island of the Misfit Toys. But they didn’t care what was going on in our sick, dysfunctional office as long as we were making money. We had no manager, and it’s illegal not to supervise brokers. I remember doing cartwheels down the hall, drinking beer at my desk, smoking pot, having sex in the stairwell. Whatever!”

Gruntal’s cold callers were, shall we say, a bit loose with the truth. Fortune reported that at one Gruntal office in Manhattan cold callers said they were with the firm’s ”executive services group.”

Sal Lauria, another of Sater’s good friends, joined at Gruntal in 1991 and lasted less than a year. After Sater lost his job at Lehman in the bar stabbing, he and Lauria took their cold-calling scripts and went to work at a boiler room operation involving four Mafia families. The two were prosecuted for their roles in a $40 million pump-and-dump stock scheme .

Gruntal, however, was more than a cold-calling shop. It a powerhouse of analytical talent.

The best example was Stephen A. Cohen, one of the greatest stock traders of all time whose tenure at Gruntal overlapped with Sater.

Steve Cohen

Cohen landed a job trading options at Gruntal in 1978 made $8,000 on his first day and eventually  managed a $75 million portfolio and six traders. Cohen left Gruntal in 1992 to start his own hedge fund, SAC Capital Advisors, which made him into one of the richest men in America.

Steve Feinberg

Stephen A. Feinberg was another Gruntal veteran who worked at the firm at the same time as Sater.

Feinberg joined the firm in 1985 after a stint at Mike Miliken’s Drexel, Burnham & Lambert. He managed separate pools of capital and other accounts until he left in 1992 to start Cerebus Capital Management, which today is one of the country’s biggest private investment firms.

Feinberg is also a member of Trump’s Council of Economic Advisers. In February, Feinberg was reportedly being considered for a post in the Trump Administration, overseeing a shakeup of the United States intelligence community.

Another Gruntal alumnus with ties to the Trump administration is billionaire investor Carl Icahn, who worked at the firm from 1964 to 1968.  A few weeks ago, Icahn announced that he was leaving his position as Trump’s special adviser on regulatory reform. Just a few hours after the announcement, The New Yorker published an article showing how Icahn used his influence to attack regulations that hurt his business interests at oil refineries. 

Update:  Wall Street firms like Gruntal had a practice then of advancing money to their brokers.  Sater had apparently failed to pay back his loan for Gruntal obtained a judgement against Sater for more than $137,000 in 1995.  By that time, Sater was in prison for his margarita glass bar assault.

Since I’m writing about this topic, I feel obliged to point out that if you search around for Sater and Gruntal on the Internet, you’ll run into theories of a giant Wall Street/Mafia conspiracy. The curious can check out the website deepcapture.com.

Deepcapture.com was the subject of a libel trial in Vancouver, Canada. In 2016, a judge found the website was not only libelous but had engaged in a “calculated and ruthless campaign” against an investor, Altaf Nazerali (supposedly a friend of Sater’s, according to deepcapture.com). Nazerali was awarded him damages of more than $750,000. (The ruling can be found here.)

This would normally be the death knell of any conspiracy website. Not deepcapture.com It is backed by the deep pockets of Patrick Byrne, the CEO of Overstock.com. Byrne saw the whole libel case as a lark. The ruling quotes Byrne as saying “It looks like Ali Nazerali wants to go a few rounds. Happy to oblige.”

Byrne has been a critic of stock market practices such as naked short selling. He may have a valid point, but, unfortunately, he has given full voice to garbage reporting on his website. That garbage reporting has found a receptive ear because legions of Trump haters want to believe the worst about him and the kind of people with whom he associated.

The truth was far more mundane.