THE ART OF PROFITABILITY
Steve Gardner sat quietly in a forty-sixth floor office in downtown Manhattan.
The room was silent except for the steady tick of an antique rosewood clock hanging on the wall. It was 8:15 on a Saturday morning, and the offices of Storm and Fellows were nearly deserted. Steve himself would normally have been asleep at this hour, or perhaps sipping a first cup of coffee while skimming the Times at the kitchen table in his cramped Soho apartment. Despite four and a half years of working in “the real world” at the midtown headquarters of a multinational conglomerate, he’d never fully shaken the nightowl lifestyle of his undergraduate days, to which he happily reverted on weekends and holidays.
But today was different. Early Saturday morning, he’d been told, would be his only opportunity to meet David Zhao – “the man who understood how profit happens.”
Through determined effort and a lucky connection or two, Steve had worked his way to the fringe of one of the circles in which Zhao was known. So he’d not only heard of David Zhao but also had some inkling of the unique knowledge that Zhao possessed.
Suddenly the office door opened, and Steve rose to greet him.
“Good morning, Steve. I’m David Zhao. Thanks for accommodating me by coming here at this hour. It’s quiet, and I find the view conducive to doing a little bit of thinking. I see you like it, too.” He gestured toward Steve’s chair, which had been turned from its place alongside the massive ornate oak desk to face the harbor view square-on.
Steve smiled. He quickly decided he liked this man. Zhao was a small, slender, slightly rumpled figure in a brown check jacket, khaki trousers, and battered loafers, resembling more a history professor at some little New England college than an astute businessman. His round face, topped by an unruly longish mop of coarse hair more gray than black, seemed almost unlined until he smiled, when a network of fine creases suddenly radiated from his deep brown eyes.
“It’s a great view,” Steve agreed. “But I’m surprised you have an office here at Storm and Fellows. I didn’t know you were a lawyer.”
Zhao laughed. He took his seat behind the desk, and Steve pulled up his own chair. “Not exactly,” Zhao remarked. “It so happens I have a law degree from a previous life, but I don’t practice law any more. I consult to Storm and Fellows on industry structure and other business issues related to anti-trust law. Frankly, it’s a wonderful arrangement. They let me have this spectacular office, they pay me handsomely, and they basically leave me alone most of the time. But when they call on me – even if it’s only once or twice a month – I have to be very, very good. Tens of millions – sometimes hundreds of millions – are at stake.”
Steve was intrigued by Zhao’s apparent openness. He gave the impression of being unguarded, completely at ease with himself. Maybe I would be, too, thought Steve wryly, if I worked only a couple of times a month. What a deal!
“You look impressed,” Zhao commented. (Am I that easy to read? Steve wondered.) “You shouldn’t be. I’m fortunate in being able to spend most of my time focusing on what interests me most.”
“What interests you most?” asked Steve.
“Oh, a few things. For example, investing. When I left the research firm, they handed me a very nice nest egg.