The Weekly Quill — Housing Sage Ivy Zelman: From Bubble to Trouble

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Hell hath no fury like a daughter scorned. Or so the saying almost goes. On rare occasions, I make a personal appearance in a Quill. Most recently, it was to relay my experience of living in Venezuela before Chavez rose to power and destroyed the country in the process. By pure happenstance, this week marks another one of those moments.

In the fall of 1987, at the age of 16, my dreams came true, or so I thought. Would you believe writing was in my bones and had been recognized by my teachers? New York University had already accepted me to its journalism program; I was to be one of several hundred freshmen that next fall. Weeks earlier, I had flown there to interview to be one of the school’s scholars. For the 15 chosen, each summer of the program entailed study abroad, embedded in the life of a foreign correspondent. Russia was to be the first adventure. In addition to half my room and board, the full cost of summer studies was to be covered by scholarship funding. I was over the moon…for but a moment in time. Informed of the good news, my father informed me that he had not filed his taxes for years. As such, I was ineligible to apply for student loans and should consider community college.

I had no choice but to do just that. I worked my way through, full time, year after year. There was very little writing, which I missed but swore off for some time. But there were numbers. A gift for accounting was identified in business school when I eventually made my way to the University of Texas in Austin. But it was an informational interview at Salomon Brothers that left the biggest mark. A position at Arthur Anderson demurred, it was off to the bright lights of the big city, albeit with one Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette, which was bought out by Credit Suisse. As for that writing, a few years into my career, after the market closed, I’d rush to the west side and hop the 1/3 line up to 125th Street. I finally got that journalism degree, this time at Columbia. Today, I write, quite a bit…about that world I discovered peering down onto that two-story trading floor in 1994.

A similar set of circumstances surrounded Ivy Zelman’s leaving the nest: “When I was about 17, my dad rocked our world. He was an extremely successful international banker. We had lived in the suburbs of London for three years when I was 12 to 15. Unfortunately, when he came back to New York, he wound up losing his job. Similar to you, his tax returns showed that we were not going to in fact, qualify for any type of financial aid. So, I was pretty much on my own and I wound up going to a city college in New York called Baruch and working full time for a home healthcare company my father had started. After a year or so at night school in the city, which I loved, it was a lot of fun with New York City as my campus, I fell in love. And, you know, you do a lot of things when you fall in love. I had met a young man from Northern Virginia, and I moved there though my parents were totally against it and continued my studies at what’s called Nova a community college, just like yourself.”

Two more years of working full time and attending night school lead to a transfer to George Mason. All in, Zelman’s ungraduated studies spanned six years over which time she’d racked up student loans. A gift for numbers, Arthur Anderson seemed an ideal place to land. Except being a bean counter was not, apparently her forte: “I kept asking everyone that worked there: Do you like your job? I’m majoring in accounting because that was what my dad did. And figured I’d get a job that way. And they’re like, ‘Oh, you don’t want to be an accountant. It’s like the worst job ever!’ That blew up my whole future. I wasn’t sure where the hell I was going to go. And they said go to Wall Street. So, I started just networking and, it wasn’t that easy.”

A fated informational interview at Merrill Lynch changed everything though only because Zelman’s next stop was a real interview at Salomon Brothers. The interviewer at Merrill, a friend of someone from her gym in Virginia asked me who the CEO of Saloman Bothers was and I pronounced John Gutfruend’s name wrong and he loudly corrected me. He proceeded to go on a rant that all but blew her away: “Salomon’s the brains, Merrill’s the muscle! Where’s your Journal? Are they in it? Is there any tombstone of Salomon’s today?” After the interview, Zelman quickly procured that day’s Wall Street Journal, which did indeed confirm that Solly had just led a $200 million senior note offering for UPS. As her subsequent interview at Salomon Brothers was ending, she said, “By the way, congratulations. I saw the $200 million UPS senior note offering. The guy touched his chest and said, ‘That was my deal.’”


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