September 15, 2008 / 9:39 PM / 9 years ago

Lehman's NY staff angry, Merrill's shell-shocked

5 Min Read

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Stunned and angry, Lehman Brothers' employees packed their bags at company headquarters in New York, with some bitterness over the 158-year-old company's failure aimed at Chief Executive Richard Fuld.

By 6:30 a.m. ET (1030 GMT) on Monday, dozens of Lehman employees had hurried into the building, located a few blocks from New York's Times Square. Some wore suits, while a handful were dressed in casual clothes and flip-flops.

Many carried what looked like empty duffel bags, backpacks and suitcases into the building, with some walking out soon after, toting full bags.

They shared a sense of anger and dismay that between Friday evening and early Monday, Lehman could not find a savior and instead had filed for bankruptcy protection during a bruising weekend for Wall Street.

"Dick always said he takes care of his people," said Leslee Gelber, a staffer in Lehman's mortgage unit, referring to Fuld. "If he really wanted to do something earlier, he could have. Ultimately it is his fault."

Gelber stood outside Lehman's entrance, where its name is affixed in metallic letters on black walls. Big screens on the building's facade flashed videos and the company's name.

"I have been here 14 years," Gelber said. "I don't know what to do."

Trying to help staffers channel their anger into art, artist Geoffrey Raymond invited them to scribble and vent on a painting of Fuld outside the building.

The mood among Lehman staffers was a marked change from last week, when they were wary of the days ahead, but still optimistic.

While New York staffers appeared to gather their belongings, they seemed unsure about their future at Lehman, which has about 26,000 employees worldwide.

"We just don't know what to prepare for," said one staffer, who did not want to give his name. "Apparently we are still officers of the firm."

One London staffer said headhunters were already calling Lehman employees there. News was hard to come by in Hong Kong and Tokyo, where Monday was a holiday, while only a trickle of staff showed up at work in Singapore, dodging reporters.

The sidewalk outside Lehman in Manhattan had a paparazzi-like atmosphere as reporters and cameramen dashed after staffers.

Several staffers complained about the attention, and security personnel dubbed reporters "cockroaches."

"It's horrible, it's horrible," said a Lehman employee. "It is like a stab in the heart. You guys have to sensationalize everything."

'Shell-Shocked' Across Town

In downtown Manhattan, Merrill Lynch & Co Inc's employees struggled to come to terms with a deal to sell itself to Bank of America Corp for $50 billion late Sunday.

"Everybody has been shell-shocked," a Merrill trader said on his way into the company's New York headquarters. "Nobody thought we'd be bought by Bank of America in a million years. At least we won't be bankrupt."

A support staffer on the trading floor said it was packed about an hour earlier than usual.

Though the deal creates the nation's largest bank by far, Merrill employees had trouble deciphering what it meant for their personal fortunes.

"On Friday, there was a meeting in which they said everything was going to be OK," said 37-year-old Tara DeMarco, a Merrill sales associate who has been in the same team for seven years.

"I saw the news flash on Sunday night, and at first I was panicked, but our team should be OK. For the whole industry, it's a scary time right now."

Some mocked the timing of a luxury car expo Monday at the World Financial Center, where Merrill is housed.

"The car show is a bit of a slap in the face," said another trading floor employee.

Many employees were concerned about the difference in cultures between Merrill, an investment bank, and Bank of America, a commercial bank.

"It'll be a change. Bank of America is a great company," said a Merrill employee. "But we will see how great they are integrating the cultures. Nobody is ever ready for this."

Others found a glimmer of optimism in the news.

"Generally, the feeling is it could have been worse," said a female Merrill employee, smoking a cigarette outside 4 World Financial Center.

"We could have been Lehman."

Additional reporting by Denny Thomas in Sydney, Brenda Goh and Luke Pachymuthu in Singapore, Narayanan Somasundaram and Yogesh Sapkale in Mumbai, Umesh Desai, Tony Munroe and Michael Flaherty in Hong Kong, Olesya Dmitracova in London and Franklin Paul in New York; editing by Jeffrey Benkoe

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