Greenhill & Co.’s New York headquarters was the scene of an emotional staff meeting at which tears were shed over the sudden loss of two colleagues, Jeffrey F. Buckalew and Rakesh Chawla, days before the holiday break.
Chief Executive Officer Scott Bok led the “informal and highly emotional” meeting on Dec. 21 at which many employees expressed their thoughts and Chairman Robert Greenhill offered closing comments, Jeffrey Taufield, a spokesman for the company, said yesterday in an interview.
“There was a lot of crying,” he said. Grief counseling is being offered to employees who want it.
Bok, in an e-mailed reply to questions, said he had several messages to deliver.
“First, that our firm is like a family, which is why it hurts so much to lose two longtime members,” he said. “Second, that we should take some comfort from the massive outpouring of support from clients, friends, competitors and others. Third, that we will always remember our two partners, and that we would find a proper way to honor each of them. And last, that we should all take a lot of time with family and friends over the holidays to begin the healing process.”
Buckalew and Chawla, both managing directors, were killed Dec. 20, along with Buckalew’s wife, Corinne, and the couple’s two children, Jackson, 11, and Meriwether, 6. They died when their plane, a six-seat Socata TBM 700 turboprop, crashed on Interstate Highway 287 in Harding, New Jersey, about 30 miles (48 kilometers) from New York City. Buckalew, an experienced pilot, owned the plane and was at the controls.
The bankers were headed to Atlanta for their last business meeting of the year. After that, Buckalew, 45, and his family had planned to fly to holiday gatherings, ending up in Charlottesville, Virginia, their home for the past year, according to Ashish Contractor, his colleague at Greenhill. Chawla, 36, planned to return home on a commercial flight, then travel to Houston on Dec. 21 with his wife and three daughters to visit his family, said Kamal Pallan, a friend.
In the two days since the crash, friends and colleagues of both men have described them as devoted to their families and interested in helping others.
Chawla, the son of immigrants from India, was born in July 1975 in Greenwood, Mississippi, and moved to New Jersey after his mother died when he was 12.
Building a Career
A graduate of the University of Virginia, he worked at Credit Suisse before earning his master’s in business administration at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. He joined Greenhill in 2003 after working at the Blackstone Group. A financial-services specialist, he was involved in Greenhill’s work for the U.S. Treasury in managing its investment in American International Group.
Pallan, a friend from their days in Wharton’s MBA class of 2001, said Chawla saw his success in finance through the prism of fatherhood.
“He had three little girls, and they meant everything to him,” said Pallan, a partner in an investment firm that advises a private-equity fund. “He was ambitious, he had a lot of personal drive, but a lot of what he was doing was for the girls, to make sure they got what he felt was a great education, a great place to live.” His daughters are attending private school in Manhattan.
‘Loved His Daughters’
James Babski, a Greenhill colleague, recalled how Chawla displayed photographs of, and school artwork by, his daughters in the office the two men used to share.
Chawla “loved to be working on important things, loved the thrill of Wall Street, but he loved his daughters, loved spending time with them,” his wife, Cathy, also a Wharton graduate, said in an interview. “He’d make a point to come home before bedtime to see them.”
Through the nonprofit Student Sponsor Partners, the Chawlas helped finance the parochial-school education of two at-risk students. Thinking about his future, Chawla would sometimes talk about seeking a government job, one “more about your impact and less about your financial compensation,” his wife said.
Last Jan. 15, she threw a party at The Harrison, a restaurant in Manhattan’s Tribeca neighborhood, to mark his promotion to managing director. At the event, she toasted her husband for working so hard to provide for his family.
Bok said he was impressed with Chawla’s earnest nature, “which you can read on his face in the photos that have been published.” Chawla’s rise to managing director was “my all-time favorite promotion,” Bok said. “I know that was a goal of his, and I’m glad he was able to enjoy achieving that.”
Since joining Greenhill in 1996 as one of its first associates, Buckalew worked his way up the ranks in mergers and acquisitions in a variety of industries, advising clients including VF Corp., Roche Holding AG, Emerson Electric Co. and Delta Air Lines Inc. A repeat winner of the firm’s annual summer golf match, he made Golf Digest’s list of “top golfers in finance” in 2007.
“Even though Jeff was very driven and hardworking, he always carved out time for his family and for the things he was interested in,” recalled Contractor, a principal at Greenhill who was recruited by Buckalew and worked closely with him for the past eight years. “He wasn’t this kind of cookie-cutter, automaton banker who talked about only one thing.”
More than a successful banker, Buckalew “was a gentleman, and he inspired me and others to be more like him, not only professionally but also personally,” Contractor said.
A pilot who was “obsessed with safety,” Buckalew began flying even more over the past year, after he and his wife changed their primary residence from Manhattan to Charlottesville, Contractor said. One reason for the move was that it gave their son more opportunity to pursue playing lacrosse.
Buckalew was born in November 1966 and grew up in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. A graduate of the University of North Carolina, where he earned both his undergraduate and MBA degrees, Buckalew served on the university’s Board of Visitors and its Arts and Sciences Foundation. He worked at Salomon Brothers before joining Greenhill.
Bok said he was struck by Buckalew’s “great character” as a banker, husband and father.
“He would have continued his rise to the top of our industry and also would have ended up leading important philanthropic organizations,” Bok said. “He was a selfless, generous man.”