Wall Street Fights to Keep Talent, but Money Isn’t Always Enough

It didn’t matter that Citigroup paid Amy Wu Stratton $450,000 in 2021 — her most lucrative year ever — to work with some of its biggest private equity clients. It didn’t even matter that she was on track for a promotion that could double her pay.

After almost 16 years in banking, she was ready for something new.

“I was just so tired of it. It wasn’t making me happy,” said Ms. Stratton, 45, a former director in a Citi division that worked on financing and risk management for deals. A job she loved had become a hamster wheel, she said — an unfulfilling chase for more money and promotions.

“You don’t have time to breathe,” she said. “The pandemic slowed me down and made me take stock.”

Up and down Wall Street, droves of bankers are changing jobs — switching banks, moving to investment firms, taking equity stakes in financial technology companies or cryptocurrency start-ups — and sometimes getting out altogether. Pandemic-inspired ennui, blockbuster profits and a war for talent across the industry has accelerated the job churn at the country’s big banks.

“People are exhausted,” said Alan Johnson, the managing director of Johnson Associates, a Wall Street compensation consultancy. The ranks of those earning $10 million or more will grow amid competition for top performers after a bumper year for earnings, Mr. Johnson said, but “money doesn’t always make you happy.”

Ms. Stratton left Citi in June, moved by social upheaval: the Black Lives Matter protests, the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol and an increase in anti-Asian attacks. She and two partners are developing a website, myasianvoice.com, for Asian women who are focused on careers and social impact.

It was an obvious choice, said Ms. Stratton, a Chinese immigrant whose Upper East Side co-op and Wall Street rewards had already exceeded her humble upbringing in a rural village that lacked running water.

“I was so happy to get out of that thinking of always having more and more,” she said.

Itchy feet have forced big banks to open their wallets: The combined compensation costs the nation’s six largest lenders rose 12 percent to nearly $178 billion in 2021.

Goldman Sachs gave special stock awards to about 30 top executives and some 400 partners to help retain them. Bank of America bumped up salaries for thousands of senior and midlevel investment bankers and handed out stock awards to its rank-and-file. Even junior analysts across the industry have seen their typical base pay rise to $100,000 or more, from about $85,000.

In many cases, the banks are fighting among themselves for talent. Sarah Youngwood, the finance chief for JPMorgan Chase’s consumer-banking division since 2016, will become chief financial officer at the Swiss bank UBS in May. She’ll join an executive team whose members made an average of $9.5 million in 2020, according to UBS’s most recent compensation report.

Other bankers who are moving to rivals spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter. One sacrificed his bonus to leave, but the new firm covered his lost earnings and gave him a role with more responsibility. Another with decades of experience was lured away by a competitor to build a new business, shedding what he felt was the frustrating bureaucracy of his old firm.

But the wealth of opportunities extends well beyond direct competitors.

Stephen M. Scherr, who left his post as finance chief at Goldman Sachs at the end of December, quickly pivoted to the helm of Hertz. He earned $38 million in 2019 and 2020, even after being docked $7 million for Goldman’s role in raising money for a Malaysian sovereign wealth fund looted by a former prime minister and his inner circle. At Hertz, Mr. Scherr will get a base salary of $1.5 million and more than 12 million shares of company stock that vest over several years if he meets targets.

Sayena Mostowfi, 44, took over as president of the Long-Term Stock Exchange, an upstart equities exchange, this month. Ms. Mostowfi, a former global chief operating officer of electronic equities at Citi, said she had jumped at the chance to build a new business.

“What’s great about working at a smaller company is there’s a direct correlation between the effort that you put into the work that you’re doing and the results that you get,” she said. “I’m willing to bet that being at a start-up will bring better results for me than being at a bank.”

Booming markets have given wandering bankers plenty of money to fall back on, said Roosevelt D. Bowman III, a senior investment strategist at the asset manager AllianceBernstein.

Mr. Bowman said midcareer professionals who had led business units and made millions of dollars a year had “already hit the first home run,” making it easier to take a risk. “There is so much wealth being created in so many different ways,” he said.

Michael Litt, chief executive of Vidyard in Waterloo, Ontario, is recruiting an investment banker for a senior role at his 300-person video messaging company. Such deal makers can be assets because they have “incredible work ethic and focus,” Mr. Litt said.

In return, he can offer equity and the greater influence that comes with working at smaller firm. Another perk that’s rare on Wall Street: Work where you want. One Vidyard executive, Mr. Litt said, lives in a boat docked off Los Angeles.

Tim Shea left Truist Securities to open a Chicago office for the boutique investment bank Solomon Partners in September. Alongside another managing director, Mr. Shea has hired two vice presidents, two associates, an analyst and summer interns. He is also in late-stage talks to hire senior bankers, and expects his team to grow to about 20 people by the end of the year.

Those candidates can count on good treatment because of the hot job market. If new hires left money on the table at their old job, like a pending bonus or deferred compensation, they can “expect to be made whole,” Mr. Shea said.

Prospective employees are thinking more deeply about their careers, knowing they’re going to be putting in long hours, he said. They’re wondering, “How can I make that as meaningful as possible and feel good about it?” he said.

Big paydays are still a powerful draw, of course. Just two years ago, Steven G. Eckhaus, a Wall Street employment lawyer at McDermott Will & Emery who represents top bankers in job talks, locked in a $20 million signing bonus for a client after a four-month bidding war. It was an eye-watering amount then, but Mr. Eckhaus has negotiated a handful of similar packages in the last few months with little fanfare.

“These guys are real good poker players — in the end, everybody shows little emotion,” Mr. Eckhaus said. “They feel they’re getting what they should.”

This year’s job-hopping season isn’t even in full force — bonuses often land in mid-February, and stock awards in March — but plenty of heavy hitters made the jump in 2021, too.

Gregg Lemkau, who co-led Goldman’s investment banking division, left to be chief executive of MSD Partners, which manages more than $20 billion for the Dell Technologies founder Michael Dell and others. Jack MacDonald, Bank of America’s former co-head of global investment banking, left to join the boutique investment bank Centerview Partners. And a former head of Goldman’s Marcus consumer unit, Omer Ismail, moved to Hazel, a fintech start-up backed by Walmart that will be rebranded One.

At the executive recruiting firm True Search, demand for fintech candidates rose more than 200 percent last year, said Grant Beighley, who leads searches for the company’s fintech clients. October was the busiest month in the history of its financial-services practice, with more than 60 new searches.

And many bankers, Mr. Beighley said, are in the market to try something different.

“They’re tired of feeling like a cog in a machine,” he said.

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