June 2011

Decisions

Ralph Thomas talks about going from industry to finance and back again. 


 Career-Insights---AT0611 
 Ralph Thomas is a freelance and contract tutor in algebra I and II, calculus, geometry, pre-algebra, pre-calculus and chemistry. In 2009 he exceeded his extended service guarantee and prepaid debit card account goals as a rookie tax associate at H&R Block. Before that, he was a senior financial consultant at First Wall Street Corporation. Before his financial services endeavors, Thomas led an interdepartmental team at NAPP Systems Inc. He received his doctorate from Northern Illinois University and bachelor’s degree from Illinois Institute of Technology.
 

The summer before my sophomore year in high school, I opened my sister’s biology book in an attempt to prepare for my biology class that fall. I soon found myself lost in the chapters discussing DNA replication and protein manufacture. I was mesmerized by the sections devoted to carbohydrate metabolism and fatty acid production. I waited for biology class to start with great anticipation and couldn’t wait to take chemistry the next year. By then I knew what I wanted to do for a living, and I charged through the rest of high school with a laser-like focus on college. 

My valedictorian accomplishments were inadequate preparation for freshman year, but I rebounded in subsequent semesters and earned a hard-won Bachelor of Science in chemistry. I then returned to the paint manufacturing company where I had been employed as a work-study student. My new job as an infrared spectroscopist at the company was truly stimulating for me, but upward mobility was out of the question anytime soon. A colleague who was enrolling in graduate school told me about available scholarship money and a seed was planted. I elected to defer the paycheck and chase my academic calling. 

Fast forward to my first postdoctoral appointment. A very long day in the lab had ended. I went home feeling totally confused and very disillusioned. For the first time in my chemistry career, I was stuck. I was impaled on a terribly low-yielding step in a multistep synthesis of a potentially medically useful steroid. My advisor was growing restless. If I couldn’t dislodge myself from this jam, then how did I expect to be a promising tenure-track professor loaded with fresh ideas and spewing out papers like a printing press? I feared it wasn’t going to happen. What I wanted to do for a living had to be reassessed.

A stint in industry

My second postdoc was much more rewarding, both in terms of laboratory satisfaction and number of publications. But by then I had made up my mind. If I wasn’t going to be a professor, then I might as well get paid. I interviewed with Revlon and soon found myself in sunny San Diego at the fledgling Revlon Science Institute. An industrial postdoc, to be sure, but the weather was great, and now I could make and save money. A return on my hard-working parents’ investment in education was finally here. 

Paradise lasted only two years. The concept of a research and development facility distantly flung from its New York City corporate headquarters wasn’t overly novel, but it turned out to be significantly underfunded, and the CEO gradually lost interest. The institute’s doors were padlocked within three years of its opening. At that point I was carrying a two-month-old mortgage on a downtown San Diego condo in a complex that sat helplessly among soon-to-be-sagging commercial property values. With most of my savings now buried in the condo down-payment and unemployment at hand, I was chasing job leads one day when I received a fateful phone call. It was my panicked investment advisor, who had called Revlon and was told I no longer worked there. He asked me, “Have you ever considered becoming a stockbroker?” My response: “Not really.” 

But I had to face the prospect of selling a newly bought condo in a dropping real estate market in order to facilitate a relocation that might permit me to secure a chemistry gig somewhere. There were too many unknowns wholly to dismiss the idea of an abrupt career change. So I decided on a two-track course. I would study the material for the general securities license during that summer while continuing to hunt for chemistry-related employment in San Diego. I passed the Series 7 exam in mid-August with no chemistry job in sight. I began my career as a commission-only full-service stockbroker in late August, and Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait a week later. No clients, no savings, an almost depleted brokerage account, a relentless mortgage, and southern California real estate was in an official recession.

My career as a stockbroker

Exacerbating an already difficult situation was that the penny-stock boutique firm I worked for demanded 12- to 16-hour workdays and a few hours on Saturdays. Fortunately, my spirits frequently were buoyed by dedicated co-workers, and nothing provided energy quite like making a sale. That boiler room buzz you’ve seen in movies like “Wall Street” is very real and exhilarating. I quickly grew to enjoy the socialization of a brokerage office as much as a science lab and find (to this day) financial products as fascinating as chemicals. 

But the commissions I earned were insufficient to pay the bills, and I was forced to lean heavily on the generosity of sympathetic friends until I could recapture my self-sufficiency. Meanwhile, my brokerage firm was starting to fall into disfavor with securities regulators, and I had to change firms. I was then introduced to the world of the home office. Eventually, I dislodged a job opportunity from a temp-to-hire agency. To the rescue rode, of course, chemistry, in the form of a suburban San Diego photo-polymer printing plate company. This operation swiftly breathed new life into my dormant lab skills. No stock sale or mutual fund exchange could erode my ability to perform HPLC and GC or interpret NMR spectra. In a few weeks I successfully reverse-engineered a printing plate formula owned by one of the company’s competitors and parlayed a three-month temporary assignment into a full-time job.

Back to science?

Now I can quit the stockbroker business as order has been restored, right? Fat chance. I love researching investments. A stock chart taps the analytical chemist in me as much as an IR or mass spectrum. A Wall Street Journal reads as easily as Chemical and Engineering News. I find Investors Business Daily no more technical than the Journal of the American Chemical Society. Nope, I had creditors – my personal bankers – to repay, so I did both. It was the most ambitious project of my life, and I made it work. Even though market hours (6:30 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. Pacific Time) overlapped my new 8-to-5, all of my investment clients either were mutual fund holders or buy-and-hold stock owners. So I’d check quotes, call clients and, yes, fax trades at breaks, during lunch, in the evenings and on weekends. I became an occupational Casanova. 

It all went exhaustingly well until the newspaper company that owned the printing plate company decided to sell us to a larger privately owned chemical company. My responsibilities, which by now had mysteriously morphed away from the core competency that earned this full-time position in the first place, seemed likely to become even murkier under new ownership, assuming they needed me at all. Add to this a recent bad review with my current boss and a client base itching to do more business, and I had all the ingredients for 24/7 entrepreneurship. 

Regrettably, the brokerage business grew too slowly to reach the critical mass necessary for sustainability and survival. The compliance grim reaper that had haunted my initial financial services firm finally came calling here. Massive layoffs and withheld contracts followed at this once pristine financial services outpost in San Diego. Had my money under management been sufficiently larger, I would have been spared the blade. I wasn’t sunk by the bear market but rather by decisions and nondecisions. It is said in business that whether you occupy the corner office or just one of the cubicles may boil down to a few crucial decisions. Perhaps people are judged less by their decisions and more by how they navigate their consequences, but on occasion, we are forced to summon our inner Indiana Jones just to survive our choices. I currently tutor math and chemistry, and I’m trying to build another self-sustaining client base. Will the next decision be mine?


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COMMENTS:

I find this article fascinating. Many can relate to the nessecity of sustainability in dealing with the current economic state. It is delightful to know that you are continuing to persevere in the midst of navigating consequences. Your optimistic and insightfulness will lead you to great success. Teresa Ford

 

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