Monday, December 1, 2008

Protagonist Profile

Josh Berman grew up on the North Shore of Long Island, a/k/a “The Gold Coast”, a community known for its roster of old money families, flourishing nouveau riche, exclusive country clubs, and where having weekend homes in the Hamptons is as common as having a third car in the driveway.

It’s a culture where children attend the finest public and private schools, and spend their summers at expensive camps and luxury “teen tours” before eventually heading to the country’s leading universities to train for their careers as successful lawyers, doctors or Wall Street sharks. Some are destined to take over long-established family businesses, and others become self-made entrepreneurs in their own right; but not without the resources handed to them on a silver platter. And when everyone was making a right hand turn onto the gold brick highway, Josh made a left turn.

Before Josh had even finished high school, he was wrestling with career paths that he would want to pursue. Aside from having the DNA of a second generation Wall Street trader, and being magnetized to the excitement of the trading floors, Josh’s Dad had gone to great lengths to encourage Josh to go to law school and pursue a “stable career.”

Apart from that path requiring a lot more school, and a lot more ladder climbing when compared to world of trading, Josh did have all of the requisite talents for being a good lawyer, but the concept of ‘stable’ wasn’t something that he aspired to, especially when many of the people he was exposed to while growing up were successful entrepreneurs and risk takers, including his Dad.

While his grades didn’t show it, Josh was always smart, and a creative thinker, sort of like Ferris Bueller. Josh absorbed information like a sponge absorbs water, and he could process it and creatively repurpose it like a Cuisinart, but most would attribute that to having good genes, as both of his parents were world-ranked bridge players (his Mom became a life master before she was 21), and both of them could knock off a New York Times crossword puzzle over a cup of coffee.

Just like apples don’t fall far from the trees, Josh inherited other of his parents attributes; his good looks from his Mom, a one-time debutante who was chased after by every man that she met, and his charm from his Dad, one of New York’s most eligible bachelors who had dated Grace Kelly “back in the day”.

So, he did have the ingredients to be a lawyer, if he chose to. But given that he loved the limelight, factors that no doubt helped him in his landslide victory when he was elected President of his high school class, and even more in the course of the post-election celebration party, Josh had decided that if he were going to be a lawyer, he wanted to be in a practice area where there was action and money, and the field of entertainment law provided boatloads of both.

In a tenth grade social studies class, the teacher introduced “Introduction to Contract Law”, a semester long course where the end of term project required each student to submit a hypothetical contract between two parties. Josh wrote up a 10 page contract between an imaginary, yet famous movie star and a film studio hiring the actor for a major role. Josh’s teacher had not only given the project an A+, but he announced to the class that he was afraid that he would be “blamed by the world” if Josh actually did decide to become a Hollywood lawyer, as Josh’s creativity in preparing the contract was unlike anything the teacher, a former lawyer himself, had ever seen.

With that encouragement, Josh kept his options open, and in college, his interest in entertainment law started to sprout. It was the late ‘70’s, and Wall Street was the doldrums, so Josh figured that if the doors to the trading floors might be closed by his Dad, Josh could ultimately try and stick his foot into the door of his Uncle Lou’s business, which included owning a stake in a Hollywood talent agency.

As fate would have it, Josh’s freshman roommate, also a born entrepreneur, shared a similar interest in the business side of entertainment, as his Dad ran the entertainment industry practice group for a Big 5 accounting firm. Since the roommate had a great appreciation for the money that was minted in that industry, as well as a frequent inside view to the lifestyles of the rich and famous in the world of music and film. Josh and his roommate bonded quickly, and after a few late night bong fests, they decided to become college business partners, and the first order of business included their winning the job of booking the university’s spring concert program.

That was Josh’s first real exposure to the entertainment industry, and it was beset by obstacles. The headline act they booked, six months before the actual concert date, was a rising recording artist that would go to the very top of the national charts by the time of concert and ultimately, a 10 time Grammy winner. Proving that Josh, or certainly his roommate, had a good intuition for talent. But, as fate would have it, the head of the student government vetoed the deal before the ink on the contract was dry. The guy was your typical campus king blowhard, someone that thought he knew everything about everything, but evidently nothing about music talent, and eerily, someone that Josh would cross paths with years later in connection with another entertainment industry contract.

Down but not defeated, Josh turned to his Uncle Lou with the goal of tapping into his portfolio of acts, including an act that was currently at the top of the charts, and whose lead singer was a fast rising movie actor. But by that time, Uncle Lou had started to have his own reservations about his investment in the talent agency, and the act Josh wanted was costing the talent agency an arm and a leg in rehab clinic bills alone, prompting Uncle Lou to tell Josh “Stay out of that business; everyone is either a gangster, a fraudster, or a druggy, and the movie guys are the worst.”

Josh and his roommate ultimately booked a popular East Coast band for the spring concert, but they soon decided to close down their partnership and go back to the drawing board. Josh’s roommate ultimately became an accountant, and then went on to being a business mogul specializing in the bartering industry, and Josh re-focused on Wall Street. It would be years later before Uncle Lou’s advice would prove prescient.

With lots of energy, Josh set out to be like his Dad, who before turning the age of forty, was considered to be an elder statesman in the world of Wall Street trading floors. During an era in which your word was your bond, and before black box trading systems were invented, Josh’s Dad had not only accumulated a small fortune building one of the most prestigious floor trading firms in the business, but his long-respected talent for navigating the most treacherous markets was only overshadowed by his widely-acclaimed reputation for integrity and honesty.

Leveraging both the relationships and the trading strategy knowledge that Josh had developed while clerking for his Dad’s firm throughout high school and college vacations, before he had even graduated, Josh had been offered a job with a New York-based arbitrage firm, a group that owned seats on the New York and American Stock Exchange. The firm tapped Josh to spearhead their expansion to Chicago, the world capital of commodities and futures markets trading, and in short order, Josh had become a top gun at the Chicago Options Exchange, where his sharp mind for math was complemented by his newly-acquired sharp elbows, a necessary weapon when combating in the trading pits of the world famous CBOE.

After a year of minting money for the New York firm, Josh set out to set up his own business, but through a combination of ill-fated events, including two of the biggest stock market crashes in the history of the Wall Street, Josh would only occasionally replicate his father’s long-term success. While Josh had scored big gains trading stocks, options and futures, along the way, he had also incurred hits that were often greater than his gains, and in some cases, had derailed him from the career path that he had coveted.

Typical of many that seek their fortunes in the boom or bust mayhem of the trading pits of the world’s major exchanges, Josh’s career was as volatile as the markets he traded. In a business where success is often measured by P&L, Josh was a better trader than most; but he was a risk taker, and ultimately, like many star pitchers that lose their control mid-game, he’d be sent to the showers more than once.

His life was like a pendulum, and while swinging back and forth across the hub of major financial marketplaces, Josh had been sidelined more than a few times, obliging him to seek jobs away from The Street; paths that exposed him to a wide variety of settings; from corporate boardrooms to the dark side streets of Wall Street, from posh suites in West Hollywood and the Las Vegas Strip, to the enclaves of Boca Raton bandits, all the while encountering a variety of high profile entrepreneurs, as well as a rogue’s gallery of get-rich quick artists, financial scammers, money launderers and con men. And finally, into the bowels of the oxymoronic world of the US criminal justice system.

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