Every morning at 7, employees at ISI Group Inc.’s midtown Manhattan office huddle around a green ping-pong table to discuss sales strategy.
The racket-sport theme continues throughout the day at ISI, an investment research provider and broker-dealer, where tennis has become a business tool. It is used to build camaraderie and client relationships at a firm where the company team includes a collegiate championship doubles finalist and a Davis Cup player, a local club champion and a former ATP Tour player.
“A big part of helping with clients’ performance is getting to know them, their appetite for risk, how they trade, their investment style,” ISI President Vinayak Singh said in an interview. “The more time you find to do that, the better your chances of success, and tennis is one way we achieve that goal.”
ISI, founded by Ed Hyman and Nancy Lazar in 1991, is a 200-employee company that made Institutional Investor’s Top 10 All-America Research Teams in October. The magazine also named Hyman Wall Street’s best economist for the 31st consecutive year.
The firm didn’t set out to build a tennis culture, Hyman, 66, said in a telephone interview. It just developed.
“It’s been more serendipity than it has been grand design,” he said. “We’ve done tennis outings almost every year for quite a while to get clients in and play doubles.”
ISI tried to host one of those outings around the U.S. Open in Queens, New York, which ended Sept. 12, associate managing director Zoltan Csanadi said. ISI’s usual pro-am tournament with clients, in which they play during the day and then attend a night session at the National Tennis Center, was canceled after Tropical Storm Irene hit the city.
Csanadi, a 30-year-old Romanian, was a two-time indoor finalist in doubles at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia. During his college years he said he had winning records against current professionals John Isner and Benjamin Becker.
Csanadi sits next to Federico Chavarria, a sales associate who played on three Davis Cup teams for his native Costa Rica and four years at the University of Oklahoma in Norman. He said tennis affords ISI a unique vantage point for client interaction.
“It is valuable one-on-one time, and after you’ve played tennis for a while, people tend to open up in a different way than just their business side,” said Chavarria, 24.
The company also benefits from tennis internally, Singh, 44, said. A few years ago, when managing director Charlie Roberson was playing in Midtown Manhattan’s River Club finals, roughly 100 clients and colleagues came out to watch, Singh said.
“It gets everybody excited, it helps build teamwork,” he said. “Tennis has become something in common to cheer for.”
River Club Champ
Roberson, 33, won the 80-year-old private club’s singles title in 2006 and is a two-time doubles champion. Around the corner from Roberson’s desk sits Francesc Lleal, a 30-year-old managing director who was a hitting partner for the Spanish Davis Cup team in April 2007 and rose to a career-high No. 623 ranking on the ATP Tour.
“A lot of times I am asked where I work, and when I say ISI, they say, ‘Oh you guys have a lot of great tennis players,’” Chavarria said. “Many people associate Ed Hyman and ISI with tennis.”
Jason Pinsky, an equity analyst at Wexford Capital LP, which uses ISI’s research and data, said the firm has a reputation within the New York tennis community.
“They have an impressive group of really good players,” Pinsky, 25, said in a telephone interview. “And excelling in tennis really allows you to excel in the businessplace as well. It’s a great networking tool.”
Pinsky, who was the top-ranked under-18 American before attending the University of Pennsylvania, said many finance companies are interested in hiring former tennis players.
“In tennis, you don’t have teammates to rely on when you’re having an off day,” Pinsky said. “It’s the mental capacity and the discipline that really distinguishes a tennis player, and those characteristics will lead to success in the business world, too.”
ISI’s ping-pong table serves as a desk in the company’s main meeting room and another way to bond with clients and colleagues. The firm had 110 participants on its team in the JPMorgan Chase & Co. Corporate Challenge, a series of 3.5-mile races held on June 15 and 16 in Central Park.
“There is a mutual respect for everyone at ISI, and that starts off by doing things together,” said Singh, who played professional tournaments in Rome before attending college in the U.S. and taught at the IMG Bollettieri Tennis Academy in 1989.
Hyman, the company’s chairman and chief executive officer, served on the board of the International Tennis Hall of Fame and plays regularly. He is the “original master of the tennis culture we have at ISI,” Singh said.
“He’s the guy setting the tone for everything here, especially work ethic,” Singh said. “When you get him on the court he’s one of the scrappiest players you’ll ever meet.”