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Wall Street headhunter becomes a hand-holder

Laid-off executives, investment bankers and hedge-fund wizards look to her for golden jobs. She used to be flush with multimillion-dollar offers. Now she doles out sympathy.

July 03, 2009|Walter Hamilton

NEW YORK — Jeanne Eslinger Branthover leans in and listens intently as a laid-off Wall Street executive describes how she's coping in a miserable job market.

The woman, blindsided by her layoff from a big investment bank, tells how she puts on a business suit every day and diligently commutes into Manhattan to look for work.

"Good girl, good girl," Branthover says. "At the end of the day, things are going to get better. You're going to get employed. It's just when, and don't give up on it."

As the nation's unemployment rate continues to climb, Wall Street is suffering some of the deepest cuts. Banks and securities firms have shed 35,100 jobs in New York since August, more than 12% of their workforce.

More bad news came Thursday as the Labor Department reported that the financial services sector shed 27,000 jobs nationwide in June, the 23rd consecutive monthly decline.

As a financial-industry headhunter here, Branthover has become an unofficial cheerleader and therapist to scores of crestfallen investment bankers, derivatives traders and hedge-fund wizards whose egos suddenly have turned as brittle as their careers.

"My job is so much harder than it used to be," said Branthover, 53. "I'm so much more of a counselor -- like really a counselor. I'm so much more of a hand-holder. I'm so much more of a best friend."

Despite recent signs of improvement, she knows that only a relative handful of Wall Street's jobless will find work any time soon, and many may never again take home the gargantuan paychecks they had come to view as a birthright.

Some pockets of Wall Street are doing well, and superstars continue to draw gilded paychecks at premier firms such as Goldman Sachs Group.

But overall, Wall Street belt-tightening won't end until early 2011, after 10,000 more jobs are cut, consulting firm Moody's predicts.

"There are some people making millions, and then there are plenty that are not," Branthover said.

Branthover, who heads the financial services practice at Boyden Global Executive Search, is retained by banks and hedge funds to recruit investment bankers and traders. For much of the last decade, that meant persuading in-demand financiers to accept her clients' multimillion-dollar job offers.

With the industry now widely reviled for the chicanery that helped trigger the financial crisis, many Americans might find it hard to feel sorry for people who lost their jobs in the collapse. In 2007, the average Wall Street employee made $385,000.

But Branthover feels empathy, borne partly of angst in her own life. She went through the painful breakup of her 30-year marriage last year just as the financial crisis put a chokehold on Wall Street hiring.

At Boyden's New York office, which Branthover owns, revenue plunged 60% in January from the same month in 2008. She cut costs by whittling down her staff to 17 people from 22, mostly through attrition, and toiled long hours to win new business.

To win a potential client whom she couldn't get in to see in New York, she flew to Europe hoping to catch him on a business trip. When that failed, Branthover asked a friend who served with the man on the board of a New York private school to talk her up at a dinner party. She eventually got the meeting -- and the client.

Conditions have improved, but the office's revenue last month was still down 29% from June 2008.

And the executive search industry overall remains glum and fearful, said Tom Rodenhauser, editor of Executive Recruiter News, a trade publication. In good years, partners at big search firms made Wall Street-like money -- $1 million to $3 million a year, he said. It's a different picture these days.

"Just like in the banking industry, where investment banks went away overnight," Rodenhauser said, "it's very likely that some major search firms could go away overnight."

When cutbacks first struck Wall Street last year, layoff victims assumed they'd rebound easily. But fear supplanted swagger as they realized their center of gravity had shifted.

"For the first time in their lives, Harvard MBAs -- fast-paced, fast-track people -- were unemployed," Branthover said. "They are freaked. And they are [saying], 'Please help me get my act together because I can't even go on an interview.' "

The tension was apparent as Branthover met on a recent day with half a dozen laid-off Wall Street workers. They all wore well-rehearsed smiles, but a nervous cast in their eyes broadcast anxiety. The threat of prolonged unemployment, lower salaries and permanently clipped lifestyles is a barely spoken undercurrent.

Valerie Gavora, the laid-off investment bank executive who still puts on a suit each day, sat in Branthover's cream-colored office with its views of the Empire State Building.

Gavora spent 25 years climbing the ladder at the bank -- until she was laid off last year from her job as a vice president in the finance division. Friends were full of advice, she said, not all of it helpful.

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