Posted January 27, 2015
By CAREN CHESLER
In his book, Walden, Henry David Thoreau wrote, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
Bruce Bachenheimer, a former derivatives trader for Westpac Banking Corp., said the book and that quote resonated with him, so much so that years after reading it, he felt compelled to leave a well-paying job on Wall Street to go sailing for two years—about the same amount of time Thoreau spent in the woods surrounding Walden Pond.
“That quote stuck in my mind. I knew that whatever I was doing, I wanted to do it deliberately,” Bachenheimer says.
Bachenheimer sailed from New England, through the Caribbean, to South America for two years on a 36-foot Pearson Cutter sailboat that he named “Deliberate.” He then lived on the boat for another three years, though he kept it docked in Annapolis, Md., where he had found a job training companies how to use a new firearms fingerprinting system.
Bachenheimer says it wasn’t that he was unhappy at Westpac, or even at the Bank of Tokyo, where he had worked previously. He liked trading, he found the process interesting and he was making good money.
“I was an officer at the bank, right on Broadway between Wall Street and Pine Street. It was the 1980s. It was an exciting time to be working on Wall Street,” Bachenheimer says.
But something was missing. He didn’t feel like he was living his life to the fullest. His mother had died of cancer a few years earlier, an event he says only reminded him of the fragility of life.
“In hindsight, my mother’s death may have had more of an effect on me than I thought at the time,” he says. “But that poem had always had an impact on me. Living deliberately. It hit home the way 9/11 made people pursue things they were passionate about.”
Now a management professor at Pace University and director of their entrepreneurship program, Bachenheimer is among those who decided to forgo a large Wall Street salary to pursue a passion—though in Bachenheimer’s case, his passion was to live life more fully, more consciously. For others, that passion was a career or hobby, like art or woodworking.
Nelson Saiers, for instance, left a job in 2014 as CIO of Saiers Capital, a New York hedge fund managing $688 million in assets, to become an artist. Shaun Eli Breidbart, 53, a corporate banker working in fixed-income portfolio management for 20 years, left to become a full-time stand-up comic. In most instances, those interviewed said that while they enjoyed their work—and of course the money—there was something missing, and they didn’t want to die without finding it.
“I started performing stand-up comedy 11 years ago and eventually it led to essentially having two full-time jobs. One had to go. I got rid of the lucrative one in favor of the fun one,” Breidbart says. “Not everybody has figured this out, but happiness outranks wealth.”
For years, Breidbart worked for Republic National Bank and then Bank Hapoalim during the day, while at night he would write jokes for himself and others, including Jay Leno. In 2003, he started performing in clubs and began taking a stand-up comedy course at the suggestion of a friend. He found the comedy helped his business, not only in that he could tell customers jokes, but because they would see his shows—giving him something unique to offer.
“Other people take their clients to comedy shows, but they aren’t in them,” Breidbart says.
But in 2009, he left to do comedy full time. Was it hard to leave finance? Not as hard as he thought it would be, Breidbart says. It helps that he had always saved and invested along the way. He now lives comfortably, he says, though he’s not restocking his wine cellar with vintage champagne, as he used to do.
“I do miss having subsidized health insurance and a 401(k) plan, but not as much as I don’t miss an alarm clock and a boss,” he says.
Ruth Everard left a promising career as a hedge fund lawyer for Clifford Chance, a boutique law firm in London, in order to run her family’s business, a non-profit company that manufactures wheelchairs for disabled children. Everard has been in a wheelchair since she was about two because she was born with spinal muscular atrophy. Her father, an engineer, started the company to sell the chair he’d built for his disabled daughter in order to make her mobile.
Clifford Chance had put Everard through law school, and she worked there for two years after graduating, rotating through its various departments, as all trainees do, first in its hedge fund and private equity fund group, then its derivatives unit and then on to insurance litigation. She says she really enjoyed working with funds and in fact had become a specialist, but when her two-year training was up, there were no jobs available in the funds group. And she said insurance litigation, where there was an opening, just didn’t appeal to her.
She was recruited by Jerome Lussan to work for his firm, Laven Partners, a French consulting firm. He allowed her to work part-time structuring hedge funds and closing deals, the kind of work she enjoyed, while working part-time in the family business.
“As an intellectual exercise, [the funds job] was brilliant, but I knew lots of people who could do it. What I’m doing now, there was only one person in the whole world who could do it, and that was me,” she says, adding, “If I had nothing else calling me, I would have readily stayed and had a lot of fun doing funds, and with hindsight, I left at the wrong point, because Jerome was very, very successful during the credit crunch.”
But she did leave, to run the family business, Dragonmobility, named for her father’s revolutionary “dragon” wheelchair. It was a breakthrough product, Everard says. Prior to that, children had no choice but to use a miniature version of an adult wheelchair, which didn’t give them much mobility and just assumed people would be limited in what they could do, she says.
“My father said, ‘Well, I’ll put my money where my mouth is,’ and he built me a chair that had me mobile by the age of 20 months. And as a result, I’ve had a completely normal, integrated upbringing,” she says, adding, “Well, going to Oxford and working in the city isn’t terribly ‘normal,’ but I’ve basically done everything as intended. I’ve just done it with wheels.”
In Everard’s case, giving up the big money—she estimates her fellow trainees at Clifford Chance are now earning about $450,000 a year—isn’t totally a bad thing. She needs 24-hour care, which is largely subsidized by the state, provided she doesn’t earn over a certain minimum salary, which in her current position, she does not. She always knew that if she did rise above the minimum threshold, she’d have to rise very far above it because she would have to forgo state funds and subsidize her own nursing care, which in her prior career, she would have been able to do. She makes so little now, it isn’t an issue.
Derek Peterson began his career in 2000 at the brokerage firm Crowell, Weeden & Co. and had become a partner before moving to Wachovia, where he helped open and manage branches in Southern California and oversaw a portfolio that at one point reached $100 million. After several years, he moved on to Morgan Stanley, though by the time he got there, he was becoming disenchanted with the stock market and portfolio management.
Peterson says he was frustrated because he was entrusted to manage other people’s money, and yet he had no control over how management ran the companies in which he invested. And their financial condition was becoming increasingly harder to read. Even Wachovia surprised him, a publicly traded company with a good track record and a solid vision for the future, and yet investors woke up one morning to find out the bank’s balance sheet was falling apart and it was going to have to take a buyout or close up shop.
“When I’m putting those companies into portfolios for people, and I don’t have any control, I don’t have much confidence in what I’m putting out there,” he says.
That, combined with the quantitative funds and black pools and systematic trading that can move markets for reasons that have nothing to do with fundamentals, made Peterson yearn for something more fulfilling, where he had a broader measure of control.
“There was a paradigm shift: Stuff we thought was safe and secure, for people who want to allocate assets from a conservative standpoint, is no longer safe,” Peterson says. “The market has become a trader’s market, and I’ve always been more of a fundamentals person. Now you have good news that reacts poorly in the market and bad news that reacts well.”
He began looking at the fundamentals of the medical marijuana industry and found that while retailers like Target generate revenue of a few hundred dollars a square foot, and companies like Apple generate about $3,000 a square foot, medical marijuana enterprises bring in from $3,000 to $5,000 in revenue a square foot.
“That’s what really caught my eye,” he says.
He’d already felt for some time that he wanted to run his own business. He just wasn’t sure what that business was—until he saw that a friend who owned a medical marijuana business generated $18 million a year in revenue out of a building the size of a Starbucks. The business had an EBITA (earnings before interest, taxes and amortization) margin of 30% to 35%, Peterson says.
But the government was unreliable, allowing marijuana growers to prosper one minute and then cracking down on them the next. California approved medical marijuana use in 1996, but an effort to legalize marijuana for recreational use was put before voters in 2010 and failed.
In 2011, there were as many medical marijuana dispensaries as there were Starbucks, but a government crackdown led to many of them being shut down, Peterson says. To address the unpredictable nature of the market, he saw a niche in developing a line of products for hydroponic marijuana retailers that could easily be taken down and moved to another location in two or three minutes, if need be. He founded Terra Tech Corp., whose products include high-intensity lights and carbon filtration systems that get the marijuana odor out of the air. His company has since branched out into hydroponic produce, such as lettuce, basil, oregano, tarragon and mint. And one day, when more and more states legalize marijuana, he plans on developing large-scale, food-grade indoor marijuana facilities, where the product can be grown under controllable conditions, given that the people using it have immune systems that are compromised.
His company now generates about $7 million a year. It’s a far cry from the $400,000 a year and benefits he was earning in the financial sector, but he was so unhappy that he started his marijuana supply company before actually leaving Morgan Stanley. Once they found out, he was terminated.
“I could have gone to another firm, but I was at a point where I was straddling two worlds. We decided I had to be all in or all out,” Peterson says. He opted for the latter and gave up all of his brokerage and commodity licenses.
“It was a good living, but the real reason I walked away is that I just wasn’t happy or connected to what I was doing,” Peterson says.
In 2012, 29-year-old Jeremy Medow left a job as a vice president at J.P. Morgan Securities, where he had been trading OTC derivatives for seven years. He now makes custom furniture, clocks and lamps out of a woodshop in Milford, Conn.
“It just wasn’t what I wanted to be doing anymore. I didn’t find it as fulfilling as I did in the beginning,” he says. “While it was definitely intellectually stimulating, I felt it was lacking in anything other than intellectual stimulation. And I wanted something more creative and constructive.”
Medow says he’s always had a passion for building things, from the time he was a child, playing with Lego building blocks. He began building vintage-industrial lamps as a hobby when he was in college and working at the bank. By the time he left, his tool collection was growing, as were his woodworking skills, and he tried his hand at furniture. But he’s now moved on to clocks and took up electronics last year so he could marry it with his woodworking skills. Today, most of his business, Tungsten Customs, is selling clocks.
Like nearly every person interviewed for this article, Medow says he actually really liked what he was doing. A mathematics major at Brown University, he says he liked creating unique derivatives that involved the bank on one side and either a hedge fund or insurance company on the other. That’s why he did it for seven years. But he found himself losing interest.
“As you get more senior on Wall Street, your job necessarily becomes far more political than it was at the outset, and it becomes difficult to just be a trader, or a quant, or a salesperson. The job becomes more managerial and more political, and that’s just not something that appealed to me,” Medow says.
He took six months off to decide what he wanted to do and then realized he’d always loved building things. It was a risk. He’d never built furniture or clocks before, nor had he owned a power tool. He’d simply built lamps, which he says is pretty easy. He cut his teeth in furniture-making by building a cabinet for his house. He then built a dining room table.
It came at a cost. He left behind a nice apartment in New York City’s Greenwich Village and a steady stream of fancy client dinners for a woodshop in a Connecticut town that he describes as, It’s “not Greenwich.” But he says his company is doing well, and he gets a lot of commissions to build a variety of furniture, which makes the job interesting. Some are custom pieces while others are design-and-build.
“It’s a fun, creative pursuit. And we’ve been able to live on it,” he says. “Quite frankly, in order to make this decision, I had to ignore the financial aspect of it and focus on the rest and see how happy it would make me.”
It was not just a lifestyle change. There’s also a big difference between working for a large corporation and working for yourself—and that was one of the biggest positives of leaving, Medow says. He also left his suits behind in favor of jeans and a T-shirt, which he says is much more comfortable. And he’s now got a closet full of dress shirts that fit him well, from his Wall Street days, which not a lot of woodworkers can say, he says.
“Had the money on Wall Street not been as good, I would have left a little earlier,” he says. “And there were a lot of aspects of the job that I loved. I liked the creative aspect. I liked the people I worked with. But I realized it wasn’t what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.”
Like others in the same boat, he quit. So far, he hasn’t looked back.