On Top of the World, Tom Barbash

Harper Collins, 2003, 282 pages, C$39.95 hc, ISBN 0-06-051029-3

This should have been a really interesting book.

After all, the premise of On Top of the World is as simple as it is heart-wrenching: As dawn rose over New York on September 11, 2001, Cantor Fitzgerald was a high-flying financial services firm that employed seven hundred employees in its headquarters at the top of the World Trade Center.  By the end of the day, 658 employees –two third of the firm’s New York workforce- would be dead, and the company would be struggling to stay open after such a devastating loss.  The book is a description of the catastrophe that happened that day, and their recovery in the months that followed.

As a subject for a documentary, it’s gold.  You can feel your throat closing as the book describes how survivors made choices that either saved or doomed them.  We get to be in the head of Cantor Fitzgerald employees as they go through the events of the day and start worrying at the magnitude of their loss.  We sit at a conference table alongside the survivors of the company as they start grappling with the possibility that the company may simply have to close down.

A tough-eyed reporter experienced in dealing with such disaster recovery scenarios would have been able to make On Top of the World compelling reading, by focusing on the efforts of the survivors and describing what needed to be done at that time.  How do you re-form business units where everyone but a single person has died in a blink?  What IT challenges become crucial in offloading work to satellite offices?  How do you keep competitors at bay while rebuilding the capabilities to do business in this new environment?

But novelist Tom Barbash is after something different.  He is, first and foremost, a personal friend of Cantor Fitzgerald CEO Howard Lutnick, and his self-imposed mandate is to present the story of Cantor Fitzgerald’s renewal through Lutnick’s eyes.  It’s almost certainly the most dramatic choice, the most humane choice in presenting the events.  (Lutnick lost his own brother in the tragedy, and only escaped death because it was his daughter’s first day of school)  Alas, it quickly turns into defensive hagiography.

For when Americans recall Cantor Fitzgerald in the context of September 11, they usually recall two things: First, a teary-eyed Lutnick on national TV, grieving openly.  Then, media reports of Cantor Fitzgerald cutting off pay-checks to deceased employees only a few days after 9/11.  On Top of the World quickly becomes obsessed with setting the record straight about the media outrage that followed the second event: Chapters are spent explaining the business reasons leading to that decision, the frantic public-relations effort that followed the media criticism and the Lutnick’s feelings in the middle of increasingly-negative comments.

That, too, is an interesting story.  But the way it’s presented is neither objective nor overly convincing.  There’s barely an acknowledgement that Cantor Fitzgerald may conceivably have erred in cutting off pay-checks: The focus instead becomes Lutnick’s life of as he is forced to confront the unfair media criticism.  From a fascinating description of an organizational struggle, On Top of the World soon turns into a dull celebration of a specific person.

Meanwhile, the details of the company’s renewal are lost in the shuffle.  While the spotlight is on Lutnick and his gruelling efforts to correct disastrous PR, the suburban and London offices take over and save the company from bankruptcy.  Comparatively little is said about them, however: This is Lutnick’s book, as inspired by the “CEO as a hero” branch of business literature.

This doesn’t make On Top of the World a bad book, but it certainly limits its appeal and, at the very least, makes it quite a bit self-serving.  In-between the most fascinating passages, such as the description of the art collection that decorated the company’s offices and how a few of them were recovered from the wreckage, there’s a sense that only a very narrow portion of Cantor Fitzgerald’s incredible recovery after 9/11 is told through this book and given the most favourable and uninformative spin.  Bring in an objective reporter, tell the story of the entire organization, focus on the inevitable challenges rather than those caused by a PR blunder and the book would be quite a bit stronger for it.

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