A Bear of a Time Keeping Talent

By Staff Report

Apr. 9, 2008

Before it became the poster child for the collapsing subprime mortgage market, Bear Stearns was known for its smart, rough-edged, aggressive brokers who rolled up their sleeves each day and made money.

Following the company’s brush with bankruptcy and with a takeover by JPMorgan Chase looming, Bear Stearns’ top talent probably will head for the door.

JPMorgan may be powerless to hold on to them—even with a retention bonus reported to equal 100 percent of annual revenue for brokers making $500,000 or more.

“That’s not going to stop the best from going because competitor firms would certainly be prepared to offer more than one times revenue,” says Jo Bennett, a partner at Battalia Winston, an executive recruiting firm based in New York.

Bennett’s corporate clients are eager to land some of Bear’s several hundred brokers.

“We’re networking like crazy,” she says.

Bear brokers are probably responding.

“These are people with big egos,” says Peter Cappelli, professor of management at the University of Pennsylvania. “They’re used to having lots of options.”

The situation isn’t so bright for the vast majority of Bear’s 14,000 workers, who are likely to be spit out when they’re devoured by the 180,000-employee JPMorgan.

Bear financial advisors are marketable, even in the midst of a downturn for the financial industry, because of their relationships with rich clients.

“There’s a lot of loyalty to the individual broker,” says Barry Miller, manager of alumni career programs and services at Pace University in New York and a career consultant.

That gives Bear brokers freedom to flee JPMorgan. Many have probably suffered devastating financial losses because of the low-ball price JPMorgan offered for Bear stock. About a third of Bear employees own company shares.

JPMorgan proposed $2 per share before raising its price to $10. By contrast, Bear traded at $77 on March 3. It fetched about $160 in early 2007.

Such a precipitous drop takes a psychological toll on Bear employees and adds complexity to the takeover, according to Alan Johnson, managing director of Johnson Associates, a New York compensation consulting firm.

“They’ve just been through a calamity, and a lot of them aren’t going to be able to function for the next six months or a year,” Johnson says. “It’s like a death in the family.”

JPMorgan will bear the brunt of that shock.

“The unique problem for JPMorgan is dealing with the enormous anger and frustration,” Johnson says.

JPMorgan can address the resentment by assuring top Bear performers that they will fit into the new company, according to Barbara Herman, a senior consultant at Diamond Consultants, a Chester, New Jersey, executive search firm.

“They need to demonstrate how they’re going to support a Bear Stearns financial advisor during the transition,” Herman says. “They have to provide meaningful information in a timely way. They have to keep their promises.”

JPMorgan chairman and CEO Jamie Dimon’s plea for other financial companies to stay away from Bear staff “will be honored for now,” Herman says, because of Dimon’s stature. “But it can’t go on indefinitely.”

—Mark Schoeff Jr.

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