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For Trade Center companies, a year of remarkable, but still unfinished,
By Adam Geller, Associated Press
NEW YORK — People from outside have been gently asking Joel Comer and his co-workers the question for weeks now: Where will they be on Sept. 11?
But inside Sandler O'Neill & Partners, even as the survivors prepare to mark the day they lost 66 colleagues, there's a vague discomfort with trying to punctuate a rebirth that may never reach a conclusion.
"It's not a measuring stick to us. It's an event, a date," says Comer, who has spent the year trying to weave together a fixed income department that lost most of its traders. "The important thing is have we done everything we can, have we rebuilt this company in a way that our colleagues would be proud of us?"
For Comer, and people like him at a handful of other remarkably resilient companies nearly wiped out in the attack on the World Trade Center, the answer is self-evident.
If you want to know how they're doing, the survivors say, you have to know not just how they'll mark Sept. 11, but where they'll be on Sept. 12 -- back at their desks.
"This is our stock," Cantor Fitzgerald CEO Howard Lutnick says. He springs out of his chair toward the big-screen television that fills a corner of his office with flickering ticker symbols.
He points to the ticker symbol for eSpeed, a subsidiary of Cantor, which lost more workers than any other firm hit by the attacks. On this late August morning, the screen shows the stock trading at $10.51 a share.
"On Sept. 10, it closed at $8.69," Lutnick says. "It's really an extraordinary testament to the people of this company."
A year later, that group includes about 150 new hires, along with the survivors. Cantor had about 1,050 workers in offices near the top of One World Trade Center. It lost 658, Lutnick's brother, Gary, among them.
Before the attacks, Lutnick and his company had a reputation for incredible brashness, a take-no-prisoners approach to business. In the months afterward, Lutnick's efforts to resurrect his company made him into something of a pariah when the families of some dead workers accused Cantor of abandoning them.
The Cantor that survives, Lutnick says, has done so by battling for the profitability he so clearly relishes, but doing it in the name of the families.
The viability of both goals was highlighted in January, when the company announced that in its first quarter since the attacks, it had earned a profit just under $20 million and turned over $4.9 million of that to the families -- the first installment in Lutnick's pledge to give a quarter of all profits to those survivors for the next five years.
Cantor has been reborn far more modestly than its first incarnation, with offices that begin on the third floor of a midtown Manhattan skyscraper, not much higher than the traffic lights at the nearest intersection.
With space tight, Lutnick shares quarters with another executive, in an office filled with photographs of their children, and their lost colleagues.
"This is my best friend Doug, hanging with my kids," Lutnick says, reaching for a snapshot of Douglas Gardner, a Cantor executive killed in the attack. "He'll never grow old."
Despite the void, Cantor has gradually inched toward a sense of equilibrium, if not normality. When the company held its annual picnic this summer, 650 people came, half of them workers and their families, about half the families of those who were killed.
"It was just easy, maybe that's the best word," Lutnick said. "There was no tension. Everybody was together."
But even if Cantor and its families have made peace, and the company is making money, that does not mean the rebuilding is done.
"Maybe after five years we'll exhale," Lutnick says. "But between now and then, there'll be no time that we stop. Between now and then, we have a lot to do."
On Wednesday, workers at EuroBrokers and parent Maxcor Financial Group, will close their offices at noon, and walk a few blocks to the East River for a service to mourn their 61 lost colleagues.
But even that moment, CEO Gil Scharf insists, will be partly about what comes next.
Part of the reason he chose that site is because the company, straining to do business in temporary, makeshift office space since last fall, just signed a lease to move to a building looking over the river, just above the chosen memorial site.
"You can't just dwell on the past, you have to look forward," said Scharf said.
Euro Brokers, like many of the financial services companies that did business in the World Trade Center, has been trying to do that despite a slumping stock market, a drooping economy and slackened demand for the services they sell. The bottom line is profits that were still down more than 20 percent from last year, when Maxcor posted its most recent quarterly results in August.
Scharf, though, says he sees his company's rebirth in the longer term. It now employs about 300 people in New York, a few more than it did before the attacks. It has moved ahead with plans to add new types of businesses, working with credit derivatives and Treasurys. And he is proud that it is making money by working for it, rather than by winning it on sympathy.
"We are not a charity case," he said. "We have to provide a service and a good service...Obviously if you do that, you get paid for it. That's what we're trying to do."
As Keefe Bruyette & Woods sought to recreate itself in the past few months, executives grasped for a resource they hadn't really expected -- layoffs on Wall Street.
As most other companies have sent workers home, the investment banking firm has snapped them up. KBW, which lost 67 of its 224 workers in the World Trade Center, will meet the one year mark substantially larger than it used to be, with 257 in its ranks.
Even so, the job of making the pieces fit together will take more time, Vice Chairman Thomas Michaud says.
"You've normally been working with the same person for 5 or 10 or 15 years," he says. "The hardest part of the rebuilding hasn't been getting the talent. "The hardest part has been getting ... the infrastructure in place, getting all the new people on the same routine."
The rebuilding isn't over. The company's revenues are down, but it is adding businesses. It is going ahead with a move into Europe, but still trying to reassure workers who remain shaken by what happened.
"There was no playbook on how to do this rebuild, I'll tell you that," Michaud says. "You just had to trust your instincts and do what was right."
A few months after last Sept. 11, an anonymous donor sent executives at Sandler O'Neill a wooden signboard carved with a pair of American flags and the firm's self-bestowed nickname: "Our Little Big Firm."
The sign hangs on the wall over Sandler's trading floor now, just about the only decoration in a room where workers are still trying to put that firm back together.
Gradually, though, the firm's renewal has taken hold.
Enough time has passed that now Mark Fitzgibbon smiles when he recounts the days last fall when his "research department" was reconstituted as eight guys in a single, borrowed cubicle, four of them sitting cross-legged on the floor balancing laptops.
The department, which lost five of its analysts, has since hired 10.
"I think if somebody who didn't know about 9/11 came into this office they'd say it looks like any other Wall Street business," Fitzgibbon says. "For all intents and purposes we are back to normal."
The company as a whole has hired 80 since September, a year so impossibly busy that executives at one point interviewed 150 candidates for two openings.
It reopened its stock trading operations in January. Soon, the wall bearing that sign will come down, so Sandler can expand into adjoining office space.
But the Sept. 11 anniversary, and all the attention surrounding it, have become another hurdle in the company's efforts to sustain itself.
"A year is a long time and this is helping everybody forward a little bit," says Fred Price, the firm's chief operating officer. "But this is also a step backward. People's emotions are on edge and it's pretty raw."
When Sandler began asking families of those killed how they wanted to mark the day, many said they did not want to be anywhere near Manhattan, that they would do so quietly rather than joining any company event.
In the last few weeks, Comer has been waking up again at 3 a.m. each night, hearing lost voices like Ken McBrayer's, whose friendship was built as much on their mutual love for sailing as their work together.
On Sept. 11, Sandler will open for business, holding a short service in its offices. Afterwards, Comer says, he plans to take his sailboat out on Long Island Sound, and spend a few hours alone, thinking, remembering. Then, he will push the thoughts to the side, and go back to doing the only thing he can to close the emotional wounds -- working.
"If I sit still and think about it, I would literally drive myself into madness at the memory of the loss and I don't want to think about that, he says. "I see their faces, I hear their voices, I wake up in the middle of the night and think I've spoken to them....But it's time to focus on what can be done."