Home » Opinion » From the “On the Contrary” column – Looking evil in the eye 

From the “On the Contrary” column – Looking evil in the eye 

“All I want from 2024 is a new government.” Luke the Dude had the floor at the local Pub & Grill for the year’s first convention of convivial conversationists …

“Wait a minute!” interrupted Miss Lily. “Let’s not solve the problems of Mzansi and the world yet. Some of us still look tired and emotional after two weekends lasting till the middle of next week!”

“What do you suggest, my dear,” asked The Prof soberly. “Should I rather tell you a true story of overcoming terror and destruction?” 

“Just what I need,” beamed Miss Lily and so said all of us. We ordered a round just to be sure and handed the floor to The Prof:

This is the story of Jimmy Dunne of Sandler O’Neill and Partners, told by business journalist Joe Nocera in his book Good Guys and Bad Guys, published by Penguin in 2008. 

We take it from September 2001, when Dunne and two close friends were steadily building up an investment bank they had started in New York. Now in their 40s, they had offices in the heart of the financial district with a growing staff of 171, about half at head office. Yet, Jimmy was getting itchy. He had met this challenge.

And so it happened that Jimmy was not in his office on the 104th floor of the World Trade Centre on 11 September; he had taken time off to qualify for a golf tournament. Of the 83 people at the office when Al-Qaeda terrorists flew hijacked passenger aircraft into the towers, only 17 survived. Jimmy Dunne was the sole founding partner alive.

On top of the tragedy of lost human lives, everything was gone – no office, no computer systems, no documentation – no record. Was it even possible to continue? But Jimmy Dunne was a changed man. In writer Nocera’s words, “There was something so raw about him then, so fierce, as if his life truly depended on rebuilding Sandler O’Neill.”

He was everywhere, from comforting the families of the murdered, finding and hiring skilful equity traders to squashing rumours and asking competitors for help. The firm WILL survive and the families of killed staffers WILL be supported.

With the remaining non-founding partners, two decisions were made that later marked the rebirth of Sandler O’Neill.

One. For the remainder of 2001, all salaries and bonuses would be paid as if the terror victims were alive. Families of deceased partners would be repaid all buy-in capital. Outstanding income from all deals departed staffers had worked on, would be shared with their families. 

Two. For five years, affected families would receive full company benefits. The firm would also cover psychological counselling and set up a foundation to pay for the education of the 71 kids who had lost a parent. 

As it happened, at the end of the five years, benefits were extended for another three years.

Jimmy Dunne’s determination and loyalty inspired and energised the people of Sandler O’Neill and the bank recovered to reach new heights. Two decades later, in 2020, it merged with Piper Jaffray to form Piper Sandler Companies. (NYSE: PIPR) Jimmy Dunne is the vice-chairman and senior managing principal.

He looked evil in the eye and defeated it.


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