We Smuggled Beer Inside Duffel Bags at Lehman Brothers. The Untold Story of Weekend Warmup

Yes, that’s right. Lehman Brothers had a strict dress policy and a very formal work environment. You would rather make a name for yourself at the office being known for working too much and sleeping overnight at the office than taking a break and having fun with your colleagues. Investment bankers are notorious for working 100+ hours in a week, and no one actually had time to get to know each other.  We made it our mission to change all that and to make it fun.

We smuggled beer inside duffel bags and created secret, weekly parties in our conference room to bring our colleagues together. We could have all gotten fired, and everyone thought we were crazy. But, we knew bringing people together and making the office fun was the right thing to do. We created Weekend Warmup and it became a huge hit at Lehman Brothers (it was also at Lehman Brothers where I discovered my interest in fashion). Read the untold story below.

As you might know, I started my career working as an investment banking analyst at Lehman Brothers in New York City. There were about 150 investment banking analysts in my 2005 class, many of whom were the top students from the best schools from around the world. At the time, going into investment banking was one of the most coveted jobs out of college, and investment banking analysts in their first year were making a salary of over $100,000. But for me, I wasn’t in it for the money, I was in it for the experience. I always wanted to be an entrepreneur, and I ultimately wanted to gain how to succeed in business.

At Lehman Brothers, I worked in the Communications & Media Group (“CMG”), the top group of its kind on Wall Street. There were over 100 bankers in our group. I was also in the Mergers & Acquisitions (“M&A”) group.  The Communications-side of the group was lead by Woody Young, a Wall Street legend. Woody is best known for being one of AT&T’s closest advisers, having worked on most of the mergers that created today’s modern-day AT&T. Below’s a photo and here’s an article about Woody Young from the Wall Street Journal.

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The story of Weekend Warmup was inspired by our weekly, Monday morning meetings. CMG occupied the entire 26th floor of 745 7th Avenue (now Barclays Capital), and every week we would have a meeting where all the senior bankers in the group would meet once a week and provide each other updates on all the deals they were working on.

The conference room was huge, as there were 100 CMG bankers at Lehman Brothers. Only the senior bankers could speak and be allowed to sit at the conference room table,  everyone else had to listen. There was seating along the perimeter of the conference room, but if you didn’t arrive early, you would have to stand or sit on the floor for the entire meeting, as there was limited seating in the room.  Most meetings lasted 1 to 1.5 hours. Standing or sitting on the floor in the meeting would also show everyone else that you were late and so you didn’t get a seat. Attendance was mandatory.

When you work in investment banking, you work under deal teams, which consisted of 2 to 5 bankers. Every deal team has a basic structure, a senior banker (a Managing Director or Senior Vice President), a mid-level banker (a Vice President or senior Associate), and a junior banker (a junior Associate or an Analyst). I was an Analyst. The role of the senior banker is to bring in the clients, which would be CEO’s, CFO’s, and Heads of Business Development at the world’s biggest companies. As an investment banker, your role is to do deals, and the deals consisted of supporting corporations with their financing needs, including the sale of stock, the issuance of debt, mergers & acquisitions, corporate restructurings, and more. The role of the mid-level and junior bankers are to help support the senior banker in sourcing new deals, managing client relationships, and executing transactions. Deal teams were organized by client, and some of my favorite clients included Warner Music Group, R.H. Donnelley, and Take-Two Interactive (Take-Two Interactive created Grand Theft Auto and they invited our deal team to do some of the voice overs for Grand Theft Auto IV when it was being created. It got me credit on IMDB!).

Since we worked in teams of 2 to 5 people, we never really knew who everyone else was, as CMG had over 100 bankers.  Further, since investment bankers are notorious for working 100+ hours in a week, no one actually had time to get to know each other.  So, every week at these Monday morning meetings all the senior bankers all go around the table saying how important it was for the group to all get to know each other and how important it was for everyone to spend more time doing that.  The problem was that no one actually did anything about it, even though all the senior bankers would talk about it every week.

Since nothing was done, we decided to do something about it.

It was at Lehman Brothers where I met Mike Niemtzow, President & Co-Founder of WindowsWear. Mike was an Associate and I was an Analyst in the group. We worked together on a few projects and we were good friends. I used to spend a lot of time in his office because he shared it with JP Van Arsdale who I worked directly with on many projects I was involved in.

It was in Mike’s office where we used to dream about doing big things outside of investment banking. How we had to get out into the world and do something big.  It was also in Mike’s office where we decided to do something about this issue we had in the office, making the office fun and bringing people together.  Especially since all our bosses, all these senior bankers would tell us every week at our Monday morning meetings that we should all be getting to know everyone but not actually doing anything about it.

So, we came up with a plan.  We would organize a weekly happy hour in the conference room, every Thursday afternoon, and we called it “Weekend Warmup”.

We decided to buy beer and snacks for our office party.  Bringing in alcohol and organizing a party without the consent of the senior bankers of the group was something completely unheard of at Lehman Brothers.  We went to Gristedes Supermarket which was located at 49th Street and 8th Avenue (Lehman Brothers was on 49th Street and 7th Avenue), and proceeded to buy beer, chips, salsa, and ice.  We stuffed everything inside Lehman Brothers-branded duffel bags (similar to the one below).  The bags were very heavy, but we managed to carry them all back in a couple shifts.

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More importantly, we had to get everything through security, which was no easy task. The security at Lehman Brother is similar to the security at the airport where all bags go through CT scanners and there are security guards have handheld metal detectors swiping everyone who walks inside the building.

During 9/11 in 2001, the headquarters of Lehman Brothers was destroyed and evacuated. After 9/11 and before moving into their headquarters at 745 7th Avenue, the employees at Lehman Brothers were scattered across NYC, and many even worked out of a temporary offices, and few hundred even worked out of a nearby Sheraton Hotel. In October 2001, Lehman Brothers purchased the 745 7th Avenue building and everyone moved into the building by March 2002. Lehman Brothers understood how important security was, and we had some of the most strict security across all Wall Street investment banks.

We managed to get everything through security, and when we got back to Mike and JP’s office, we all celebrated the achievement. We actually were able to smuggle beer, ice, salsa, and chips inside the building!  We hid everything in Mike and JP’s office underneath the computer tables and chairs.

At around 6pm, we went around the office telling everyone we’re having a party in the conference room.  We waited until then, as by then most of all the senior bankers already left home for the day.  Everyone else usually stayed at the office until around 9pm (if you ever left the office before 9pm, the other junior bankers would comment to you sarcastically as you walked past their desk and say “must be nice”).

As we went around to invite our colleagues to the party, most of them didn’t want to participate. The main feedback was they thought they would be fired the next day. They worked so hard getting a job at Lehman Brothers and worked so hard to make a good reputation for themselves.  They didn’t want to be seen grabbing drinks and socializing with their colleagues on the security cameras.

We argued to them that the senior bankers want us to be doing this, as they tell us each week at our Monday morning meetings that we should all get to know each other. Further, we had strength in numbers, and if we all did it, then they wouldn’t just be able to fire us all. The more that participate, the stronger we all are.  Yet, most didn’t participate.

For a small group of people, the feedback was yes, this sounds awesome, and they’ll make it. We were all confident that we would probably get fired, but we all had the attitude that if we get fired for this then “F*ck it”.

We had about 10 to 15 colleagues participate in our first Weekend Warmup.  It lasted for a few hours, and everyone had a lot of fun.  We made sure to clean-up the room when we were finished, and discard all the beer bottles inside bags that we carried outside the building to throw away, making sure we left no evidence behind.

The next day, we all celebrated our achievement.  We planned, organized, and executed a successful event.  We were happy, and we were happy everyone else was happy.  We also didn’t get caught.  We were all elated about the opportunities for the future.

Then, unexpectedly, later that next day, Mike got a call from Woody Young’s assistant telling him to immediately report into Woody’s office.

You don’t just get called into Woody Young’s office.  Woody Young is not the person you get called into a 1-on-1 meeting with, you would be surprised to know that Woody even knew your name.  It is unheard of and extreme for anyone to just get called into the head of the group’s office.  Further, this was Woody Young, a Wall Street legend, whose time was most valuable above everyone else’s in the group.  This is a person who brokers multi-billion dollar deals, and if your time does not involve helping CMG land a multi-billion dollar deal, you are wasting his time.

Mike sensed his days at Lehman Brothers were numbered.  He sensed Woody would single him out and make him responsible for the audacity of us bringing in alcohol into the building and organizing a party.  Still, Mike had to meet with Woody, and face the reality of what we did.

As Mike enters his office, Woody was immediately straightforward and direct, “I heard you had a little party in the conference room yesterday.” Mike, being a former Lieutenant in the Navy, now envisions his ship going down, and like any officer in the Navy, if your ship is going down you would have to go down with it. Mike then responds “yes sir we did.” Mike thought he would immediately get fired at that moment.

But, Woody then looks back at him, pulls out his wallet, and hands Mike $200 in cash.  He tells him “make sure the next one is on me.”  That was the end of that meeting, and it didn’t last for more than a minute.

Mike comes out of Woody’s office, and immediately tells us the news.  Wow!  I we were elated, and everyone in CMG quickly heard about the encounter, and it was legendary throughout the building.

As the word quickly spread, and all the senior bankers were supportive of the initiative, and I went around collecting $20’s and $50’s from all the senior bankers each Thursday afternoon to fund each week’s Weekend Warmup. I would collect about $200 to $400 each week.  I would also have our interns help carry the load from the supermarket to the building.  Each week we would have 30 to 50 bankers participate in Weekend Warmup, and it was a great way we could all get to know each other each week.  Soon after, other floors would organize their own Weekend Warmups as well, and the senior bankers eventually got competitive as far as which floor had better Weekend Warmups.

Here’s a picture of Mike and I from when we worked together at Lehman Brothers.

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Many years after Weekend Warmup, we went on to be co-founders of WindowsWear and our office is located at WeWork (I further love the fact that “Weekend Warmup”, “WindowsWear”, “WeWork” all have the same alliteration with the “W’s”).

This is a story of not fearing doing the right thing, and highlighting the rewards when you take chances.

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