By Heather Timmons
TEARING DOWN THE WALLS
How Sandy Weill Fought His Way to the Top
of the Financial World...
and Then Nearly Lost It All
By Monica Langley
Simon & Schuster -- 446pp -- $27
Introducing the Tasmanian Devil CEO. In Tearing Down the Walls, Citigroup (C ) chief Sanford I. Weill is often captured in mid-fit. When he's not screaming at an underling, vein throbbing in his forehead, he's hurling policy manuals of newly purchased companies in the trash or cursing violently or slamming down the phone or inhaling vast quantities of food and drink.
Author Monica Langley spent three years assembling what was anticipated to be the definitive biography of one of the most accomplished figures of modern finance--and it shows. Through some 500 interviews, she has dug up rich details to flesh out well-known tales of the stocky Brooklyn Jewish boy who rose to the top of the world's largest financial institution. There are no bombshells here, but Langley's treatment is a well-written, fast-paced read that does the best job yet of explaining who Weill is.
Start with unfocused ambition and mix in resentment. It's hard not to feel sympathy for a shy, chubby young Weill who was an "easy target for bullies." Following his lackluster college career, Weill was deserted by his father, who went out for a pack of cigarettes one night and never came home. Weill's dad had also secretly sold the family steel business, leaving Sandy without an expected sinecure. Channeling his pain into determination, Weill then spent months pursuing a Wall Street post and being rebuffed because of his "Brooklyn accent, cheap suits, and perennially sweat-soaked shirts." Langley follows his career from its ignominious start at Bear, Stearns & Co. (as a broker, his first client was his mother), through his success as the head of brokerage house Shearson, his ouster from American Express, and his comeback with consumer-finance company Commercial Credit.
Langley skillfully reconstructs dialogue and describes characters' emotional reactions, giving the book a novelistic feel. (Also captivating: the photo section, complete with a snap of a handsome, trim Weill in his Carter, Berlind & Weill days and a shot of him wearing bedouin garb and a goofy smile while visiting Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal.) His complicated relationship with onetime protégé Jamie Dimon is particularly well-rendered. The two are so in sync that, at some points, they're completing each others' sentences, then suddenly, they're screaming curses at each other.
But because the book fails to answer some of the questions it evokes, Tearing Down the Walls is ultimately frustrating. Weill's notorious thrift where others are concerned-- and his extravagance in rewarding himself--are amply described but inadequately examined. As Weill purchases various companies, he eliminates perks ranging from employer-subsidized bus passes to company cars. He transfers to Commercial Credit a pension-fund surplus that might have stayed in the fund as a cushion. And rather than fix a fountain at the Hartford (Conn.) office of newly acquired Travelers Property Casualty Corp., Weill's minions turn off the water and plant a pine tree in it.
Meanwhile, Weill and colleagues celebrate successes with elaborate repasts and fine wines. Fearful of commercial flying, he insists on a private jet. And after turning around Commercial Credit, Weill sets up shop in a Park Avenue penthouse and has a white marble fireplace installed. How does he rationalize such indulgence? Langley doesn't say.
And Weill's ever-gracious wife of more than 40 years, Joan, remains an enigma. To Weill's peers, she is "Saint Joan," and observations on their lengthy marriage tend to some variation of "Weill's best merger ever." Breaking no new ground, this book presents Joan as a constant, soothing presence. She prods Sandy to get over his shyness, whips up endless batches of chicken salad to fuel his troops while they're hammering out deals, and tries to tease Weill into civility. The latter isn't easy: During a social call early in their marriage, for example, the constantly grazing Weill downs a handful of what he thinks is an appetizer out of a bowl on a piano--and promptly spits it out, howling with disgust. "Well, Sandy, you're not supposed to eat the potpourri," Joan tells him.
Such details are great--but Joan's portrayal feels two-dimensional. Meanwhile, Weill's relationship with his son, who abruptly left Citigroup and was later reported to be suffering from drug addiction, goes unexamined--which is odd since Langley has hitched so much of Weill's early ambition to his abandonment by his own father.
Perhaps the largest question left hanging, though, concerns Weill's latest trial. The author takes pains to explain how Weill first made a name on the Street via the strength of his own research into the insurance industry. But when he and the giant bank he has created face a government probe over allegedly compromised research by Citi's analysts, Langley treats the matter as a PR problem. The obvious ironies go unaddressed, and later chapters seem to go out of the way to flatter Weill.
To be fair, Langley must have faced daunting deadlines--her final chapters run through December, 2002. Unfortunately, though, the result is a less-than-penetrating recitation of recent events.
The book closes with New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer announcing that Weill will not be investigated. And in the book's final line, a relieved Weill triumphantly declares: "Let's get back to work." Langley doesn't add that many Citigroup clients who invested retirement funds in accordance with the bank's discredited advice have little choice but to do the same thing.
Timmons covers banking.