Boardroom Or Ballpark, Success The Bottom Line

LEE AMAITIS, chief executive of BGC Partners and widely regarded as one of the biggest players in the City, looks quite a lot like Robert De Niro. He speaks with a strong Brooklyn drawl. When he looks at you, he holds eye contact with an unblinking gaze. If I worked for him I would turn up on time, never leave early and make as few errors as possible in between.

As yet, though his presence and persona suggest being at the top comes naturally to him, a big part of Amaitis wishes he was still on the trading floor, not set apart in his spacious management office. Using the first of many baseball metaphors, he explains that shifting
away from the coalface felt like retiring as a player and becoming a coach. “I was batting .300 (the benchmark for a good batter) as a trader, so it was tough to hang up my bat,” he said. “I’ve got to be pretty good at management to justify the switch.”

Businessmen and sportsmen often have an intuitive understanding. They share so much: hunger, ambition, accountability, clarity of direction and an essential degree of selfishness that must exist within the context of a team. I have heard several businessmen (and
sportsmen) talk of success as if it is a door out of a crowded room: only one person can get to the door first, and it is going to be them. “Trading is a game, you’ve got to understand that,” Amaitis said. “You’re competing for every trade. And no matter how good you were yesterday, you start the new day at 0-0.”

That is something I have been told hundreds of times at the start of a day’s cricket, especially if yesterday went well. But Americans, especially American businessmen, do sporting metaphors like no one else. Quirky ideas come from left field, the best of which they hit for a home run, maybe right out of the ballpark. Business, the saying goes, is the business of America. But it wears a sporting uniform. We are accustomed to hearing how American sports are run ruthlessly as businesses. It could just as easily be argued that American businesses are run as unsentimentally as sports teams.

That includes performance-related pay and a clear understanding of exactly who brings in the big-match deals. “That’s the way the scorecard is kept here. You can’t coast in this game,” Amaitis said. Throughout our conversation, he talks about moneymaking “producers” — he was once one himself — with the kind of reverence that great sportsmen use to talk about “performers”. That is the essence of the game: producing revenue, performing on the pitch.

Amaitis was a racehorse trainer before moving to Wall Street and now the City. “One of the things I learnt through racehorse training was that you need good assistants, other pairs of eyes to watch on your behalf,” he said. “A lot of the game is about your relationships with those people — that is a central issue if you want to be any good at leadership more generally.”

Racing is an abiding passion. He talks about the legendary racehorse Secretariat as though it was almost a mentor. “And Seabiscuit (the 1930s champion horse which overcame being written off, ridden by an injured jockey and trained by the unlikeliest of heroes), well,
Seabiscuit was a focal point for millions of Americans who were looking for some inspirational news during the dark years of the Depression.”

Amaitis has known dark times himself. The whole trading floor of Cantor Fitzgerald, the firm that was to be subsequently rebranded as BGC, in New York was wiped out on 9/11. It operated on the 106th floor of one of the Twin Towers; there wasn’t a single survivor. He lost 740 friends and colleagues, including some of the people he cared most about. It was possible that the business would go under completely.

“I wouldn’t presume to guess what the motivation was for other people in the company during those days after 9/11. They worked literally day and night,” he said. “But I know for me, the motivation was simple: I’m not letting these people — whoever they are — beat me. We’re not going to lose.”

To mark the anniversary of 9/11, Amaitis donates one day’s entire profits to charity. Last year the figure was about $4 million (about £2.1 million). This year — the nearest day is Monday — there is also a close sporting connection. He has invited leading sports figures to help to publicise the event, including Gary Lineker, Barry McGuigan, Zara Phillips and Eddie Jordan. Others who cannot be there on the day helped out in advance. It is a testament to Shane Warne and Kevin Pietersen that, despite being central performers in one of the most exciting and exhausting Test series of all time, they managed to find two hours on Tuesday to visit the trading floor as a precursor to the main charity event.

It is great that cricketers do such things; great also that cricket has reached the level where it counts. A few years or even months ago, cricket might have been completely alien to Amaitis. “But even I couldn’t help getting into the Ashes,” he said. English cricket has scaled some unusual heights this summer. Now it is even on the radar of a boxing-obsessed Brooklyn chief executive.

That sport can make a positive difference is central to his philosophy. Amaitis usually sticks close to the bottom line, but he does allow a hint of sentiment to enter his voice when discussing his time as an amateur baseball coach in New York. In the early 1990s, he and a
trading friend took on the responsibility of coaching a team of Harlem street kids. “It was rough but great fun,” Amaitis said. “There was no grass on the field, just dust and glass. We had to donate the uniforms and gloves, which worked fine until one of the kids sold them.
They were streetwise, clever, great to work with.

“One day we invited them down to Wall Street so they could see our world too. Their questions were, ‘How would I go about doing this? How do I get here?’ If even one of them discovered a new ambition and achieved it, then the whole thing was worthwhile.”

Amaitis has so far talked fast, effusively and with seeming indifference about whether I take notes. This is the only time he asks to include something in my piece if I can: “The name of the other trader I used to coach baseball with in Harlem was Vince Abate. He died in 9/11. I named my son after him.”

There may be another reason for the emotional connection with that street baseball team. He, too, came from a tough neighbourhood where you had to be able “to run fast or fight well; I could do both”.

Amaitis’s office is covered in sports photos of horses, baseball plays, boxing bouts — photo finishes, stolen bases, knockout blows. Man as pugilist is man as he most admires him. So is there ever a time in the money game when the pugilists can suspend aggression and reflect on their battles? One recurring sporting legend is the post-match drink between arch onfield enemies — the scars inflicted, their respect won, the game over. Does something similar happen among elite competitors in the trading game? “No. It’s different,” he said. “Business is business. There’s no advantage in socialising with our competitors.”

Business is business — as if that explains everything. Sport is sport doesn’t mean quite the same thing. That is probably why we need and love it so much.

But on Monday, Amaitis’s business is the BGC charity day — he wouldn’t want to admit it, but I sense it’s the most important day of his year.