Faith, tenacity help firm rise from twin towers' fall

Kevin Davis, a co-founder of May Davis Group investment bank, works out of temporary offices in New York. The firm lost its World Trade Center offices in the Sept. 11 attack.
Kevin Davis, a co-founder of May Davis Group investment bank, works out of temporary offices in New York. The firm lost its World Trade Center offices in the Sept. 11 attack. (Sun photo by Elizabeth Malby)
NEW YORK - May Davis Group lives. For now, that is achievement enough.

It has been nearly a year since one of its investment bankers summoned the herculean strength to pry open elevator doors in the burning World Trade Center and escape with his life.

Nearly a year since one of its young brokers dived under a ledge, praying as 110 stories of debris rained down around him.

Nearly a year since its head trader leapt over a desk to save himself from a collapsing ceiling as a plane struck about five floors above - only to die when he stopped in a stairwell to help a man who had given up.

The Baltimore-based investment bank, whose largest offices were on the 87th floor of 1 World Trade Center, lost head trader Harry Ramos that day.

The office's lesser losses included every copy machine and printer. Every computer. Every customer account record. Every fax. Every desk. Every pen. Every phone. Every paper clip.

The posh offices and expansive views that gave Chief Executive Officer Owen May a feeling that he and the firm's 59 employees were winners: demolished.

But not May Davis Group. Twelve of the 13 employees who had made it to work by the time the plane struck their building got out with their lives. Now, in makeshift offices that for months offered the stench and plain view of the trade center's smoldering ruins, May Davis offers up a story of wounded triumph: It has survived a year.

It has 23 employees, including four in its Baltimore office. Those in its relatively drab beige-and-off-white New York offices work on borrowed phone lines, mostly borrowed personal computers and laptops brought from home. Some come to work accompanied by demons.

"Everyone here has nightmares," May said, sitting behind a desk that does not face the window. Battling dreams, he said, is "their own little war on terrorism."

May has nightmares but won't describe them. The stress from the attacks is so severe that he has recently been coming to work just two days a week, requiring firm co-founder and President Kevin Davis of Baltimore to pick up the slack.

The firm once fined male employees who failed to wear ties. But these days, May favors khakis and a button-down shirt. His post-Sept. 11 stress kicks into high gear when he wears business attire.

"You've got to reach down deep to put a suit on," said May, who arrived outside his building Sept. 11 just in time to watch it burn while the second plane hit the other tower. You've got to "reach down deep to put a collared shirt on."

Myriad challenges

The challenges of rebuilding a small company that has been blown to kingdom come are as much personal as logistical. An employee who listened to a co-worker scream about dying in a frantic cell phone call must come back to work and place stock trades for clients. She must do so, for a time, using a phone that only takes incoming calls.

Some employees fear low-flying planes. There aren't enough filing cabinets. A man whose memories include the sound of falling bodies crashing through glass must concentrate on raising money for client companies.

The insurance settlement has yet to come.

But May and Davis are determined that the firm they opened in 1994 won't succumb. They built it from nothing. By June, it ranked 13th on Black Enterprise magazine's list of African-American-owned investment banking firms, with $5.94 billion in total issues.

"I think giving up and not fighting the good fight would be giving in to the terrorists," Davis said. "And that's not something my partner and I are prepared to do."

To last a year after such destruction, May Davis had to have a few employees such as Patricia Senese. The head of the firm's institutional sales operations, Senese is a drill sergeant in heels. Davis jokingly calls her "my boss."

When company trader Dominique Picard thought she would die in the World Trade Center, it was Senese whom she called, screaming on a cell phone. Senese replied with an order: "You get the hell out of there!"

Picard did. But fellow employees described her as too traumatized to stay with May Davis. A number of other employees also were too upset to come back. One attempted suicide, Davis said.

The firm kept them on the payroll for a time. But in the days, weeks and months that followed the attacks, it would be the founders and a small cadre of employees who kept the firm alive. They relied on what they had left: determination, the good will of others, luck and, in some cases, faith.

May suppressed his feelings and began looking for office space. He was determined to get the firm trading again quickly so it could bring in money and prove to clients that it still existed.

David Donovan, the broker who survived by curling up under an overhang in the trade center complex as Tower 2 came down, began calling clients Sept. 12 from his home in Morris Plains, N.J., to reassure them that the firm was in business and that their investments were safe. Some of them cried at the sound of his voice.

Managing Director Adam Mayblum worked through his feelings by writing friends an e-mail, later to become widely circulated, describing his harrowing escape past fire and corpses and a fallout that reminded him of nuclear winter. "My name is Adam Mayblum," it began. "I am alive today."

Mayblum has since left the firm to take a job with another. But in the days after the attacks, Mayblum said, he converted a third of his son's basement playroom into an office, called his clients and began reconstructing a history of their accounts. He did so by getting the information from the company's clearing firm, which - on brokers' orders - moves money from a buyer's account to a seller's and moves the shares in the opposite direction. It keeps a record of every trade.

Senese had asked her secretary just before Sept. 11 to copy the names and numbers of all her Wall Street contacts out of a book that she kept at work. She wanted to ensure that the firm had a second copy on paper, in addition to its computerized records. Then Senese took the original home to Queens and put it in a kitchen drawer.

The day after the attacks - a day on which she needed to ensure that certain trades from the previous week had been settled - she remembered it. "I thought, 'Oh, my God, I've got the book,'" Senese said. "These people helped us clear everything and trade, putting us back in business."

May found space through a friend on the 28th floor at 120 Broadway. National Securities Corp. held the lease on it but volunteered to let May Davis use it for free, at least for a time. About a week after the attacks, the first handful of employees arrived. Some wore running shoes in case they had to escape another attack.

As the stories-high mound of ruins smoked outside National's conference room, May formulated a simple plan.

"The plan was: Do business," May said. "Let everybody know you're still alive."

A coming of age

For May and Davis, the World Trade Center's 87th floor had been more than a pretty place. It marked a coming of age.

It symbolized all the two men had accomplished since they met in biology class at the overwhelmingly white University of Miami in Florida.

May, now 44, got his master's degree in business at Duke University in Durham, N.C., after graduation. Davis, now 45, went to graduate school at North Carolina Central University, then left to take a job at a small Colorado brokerage. When Davis brought up the idea of starting a firm, he was head of institutional equity sales for a small Baltimore-based company, and May was at Lehman Bros. in New York.

They pooled their money and borrowed from May's father-in-law, opening the firm's first office in cramped, stuffy quarters on Baltimore's East Redwood Street, according to a 1997 Sun article. Rents were lower in Davis' hometown, and a business was easier to get off the ground there. But they planned from the beginning to have a presence in New York, the world financial capital, which was teaming with a ready pool of brokers and bankers.

"When we wrote up our business plan, Kevin didn't want to move to New York; I didn't want to move to Baltimore," said May, who preferred New York's frenetic pace to Baltimore's relatively languid one. "We just figured we could hit the ground running with these two geographic locations."

Two months after opening in Baltimore, the company started its New York office. By early

1997, the New York location on Exchange Place had grown to more than 40 people and was bursting at the seams. A broker suggested the World Trade Center, where rents had just been slashed because of tenant flight after the 1993 bombing there.

"Lightning won't strike twice," May thought. Such renowned offices, he figured, could help the company attract top-notch employees. They could also give a sparkling first impression to potential clients, some of whom weren't accustomed to doing investment banking with African-Americans and had stereotypes to overcome.

"You felt like you were a winner," May said about what it was like to work in the window-encased office, which had a view of the Statue of Liberty. "You wanted to increase the level of your game, just be the best. Being in the trade center made you feel good about every day."

Returning to business

But a week or so after Sept. 11, May stood on the 28th floor at National Securities Corp. needing to get his company trading again. His friend and trusted head trader Ramos was dead. For equipment, he had only one borrowed computer and a single, borrowed, hard-line phone. He started by putting a trader on it to make money.

"We gave it to Patsy," May said of Senese, "so she could talk to Kevin down in Baltimore."

In these first few weeks, Davis handled many trades after talking directly to clients. When the New York office had a trade to place on the New York or American stock exchanges, May Davis handled it like this: Senese would call Davis in his Charles Street office, and he would phone another firm to execute the trades. That firm would then call Davis back to confirm.

But the trade center bombing had wreaked havoc with Manhattan's phone service. May Davis' single phone would initially only make calls, Senese said. Later, it would only take them. Finally, Senese said, she simply walked over and commandeered a National employee's desk and began to dial on one that worked.

It was a start. May Davis was like a patient on life support, but it had not given up.

In a few of the months that followed, Donovan did some of the best business of his career. He wondered whether his clients were giving him sympathy business. But, he felt good about being back at work with people who understood what he had been through. It was better than being at home, pacing. Not eating. Thinking constantly about the attacks.

Still, every night for about six months, he would dream about the trade center. In one dream, he was on a plane heading for one of the towers. In another, he was on a floor above where the plane hit. As the fire closed in, he would try to decide: Should I jump, or should I burn?

In a third, he felt horrible that he did not go upstairs to help people. It is a feeling called "survivor's guilt." In his waking hours, he knew there was nothing he could have done. But still, the feelings persisted. When he laughed or smiled, he'd suddenly remember the dead. "Should I be doing this?" he wondered. "Should I be happy?"

He thought about the Rev. Mychal F. Judge, the New York City Fire Department chaplain who was killed during the collapse as he administered last rites to a firefighter. "Why did he die and I live?" he thought. "I'm just a regular guy."

'We both have faith'

Davis sat in his Baltimore office late last month looking over paperwork that describes what his firm needs to do to continue to be an approved broker for the state of New York's pension funds.

Among the requirements are financial statements from the firm going back to 1999. May Davis doesn't have all of them. They are part and parcel of what has been blown away. Some of the firm's lawyers also had offices in the World Trade Center. To make matters worse, many records kept in its Baltimore office had been taken to New York before Sept. 11 to make it convenient for the Securities and Exchange Commission to do a routine audit.

Davis is confident that he can get a copy of the statements from the firm's accountants. But for Davis, it is destined to be just one of myriad reminders over the next few days of the trade center attacks. Like looking at the blinking stock quotes that remind him of how Ramos could make him laugh even when the market was at its worst. Like riding the train to New York.

Davis used to enjoy it, sitting in a window seat on the right side of the train and watching the landmarks come and go. His boyhood home on Mosher Street in Baltimore. The Philadelphia Zoo. And then, from New Jersey, the first glimpse of the twin towers.

Ever since they fell, he has sat to the left as the train approaches New York.

But he still goes. He will not give up.

Is it possible that there could be courage in capitalism? Might dialing a phone to place a trade be an act of bravery? Might riding the train to New York? If you make money, and you feel like a walking shell of a man, could the incoming dollars prove you're alive?

In the macho world of Wall Street, how many points do you get if you are Owen May, blessed with a muscular physique and a booming voice, when you successfully wear a collared shirt?

May Davis Group moved down one floor to the 27th level of 120 Broadway in January. It is subleasing the space from National Securities Corp. There, in the dog days of August, Managing Director Michael "Red" Jacobs sat talking with a visitor about three potential fund-raising deals for client companies. A book called Never Forget: An Oral History of Sept. 11, 2001 sat on his desk. He is in it. He is the man who pulled open the elevator doors and heard the bodies fall through glass.

This Sept. 11, he plans to go to lunch with the people who were in the elevator with him. Then he plans to come to work.

"The markets are open," he said. "We're open."

Across May Davis' thinly carpeted trading floor, Steven W. Charest was putting together a new Web site for the firm. It seemed like good work on a slow day, with clients on vacation and the markets in the doldrums. He had also recently gone over every client portfolio, coming up with a new way to calculate when it's time to get out of a stock.

It was Charest whom Ramos told on the last day of his life that he had jumped a desk to save himself from the falling ceiling. Charest went and looked at the decimated 87th floor trading room before he left the floor.

Next to the trading floor on Broadway, across from two laptop-wielding investment bankers who joined the firm this year, is May's spartan office. Earlier in the day, he and Davis had talked in an interview there about the future. They spoke of the new market niches they plan to enter. "We have a plan," May said emphatically, though he declined to disclose details.

"We both have faith this will turn around," Davis said, leaning forward in his earnestness. "The markets have always come back."

Faith. And something Senese called "an omen."

It sits on the sill of May's office window, the one his desk does not face. It is a sign that was once burnished bronze. It is bent into waves and speckled with a strange, white dust. Like nuclear winter.

The sign reads "May Davis Group: Investment Bankers."

Firefighters brought it to 120 Broadway a couple of months back. They had found it in the ruins of the World Trade Center. They stood in the street and cried as they handed it to Red Jacobs and watched his eyes fill with tears.

It was the sign that had hung at the entrance of May Davis Group's offices on the 87th floor.

It had fallen. It had survived.