Rich Marin is big. For more than three decades, he dominated Wall Street, creating some of the industry’s most exotic investments, making billions for his clients, and millions for himself. One of his minions blew a hole in the side of Bankers Trust, a firm Mr. Marin helped transform into a derivatives powerhouse, and still he held on for the ride, becoming the youngest managing director ever at the bank. It all came crashing down five years ago, when the hedge funds he oversaw at Bear Stearns imploded. The rest of the world followed within the year. But there was Mr. Marin, standing amid the wreckage, helping rescue an overzealous Israeli diamond magnate who had plowed $3 billion into prime U.S. real estate just as the frothing market froze over. He rescued the firm, only to be unceremoniously fired two years to the day after he joined.
Now Rich Marin wants to build the world’s largest ferris wheel—in Staten Island, naturally—and the mayor just gave him his blessing.
Did we mention he is big? At the announcement of the project last Thursday, Mr. Marin absolutely dwarfed Mayor Bloomberg and Senator Chuck Schumer, along with the other dignitaries gathered at the ferry terminal. But despite his imposing size—he stands 6-foot-5 and is built like an offensive lineman—Mr. Marin is probably one of the gentlest people on the Street. Were he a real bear, rather than having worked for one, Mr. Marin would be not a grizzly but a teddy. This may help explain his turbulent career.
It is said that no one of any import on Wall Street goes by their given name. Nobody calls Ace Greenberg “Allen.” Nobody calls Dick Fuld “Richard.” Nobody calls Jimmy Cayne “James.” On the trading floors and in the boardrooms, it was never Richard Marin. It was always Big Rich.
“There were a lot of characters on the street,” said one former rival who now teaches alongside Mr. Marin at Cornell’s Johnson School of Management. “Very few were as big as Big Rich.”
And yet nobody outside of Wall Street would probably have ever heard of him if it were not for a June 28, 2007, story on the front page of the Times’s business section. In his personal time—what little of it remained after long days at Bear Stearns—Mr. Marin ran a blog called Whim of Iron (subtitled: “impulsive ramblings from a motorcycling alpha dog”). It was a mix of notes to friends, ruminations on life in banking, travel writing and a catalogue of Mr. Marin’s weight-loss efforts. But most of all, it was home to his movie reviews. Cinema had been a passion since Mr. Marin was a high schooler in Rome.
As The Times recounted it, on June 17 of that year, Bear was scrambling to bail out two hedge funds that two of Mr. Marin’s traders ran, one of the key plot twists in the demise of the firm. “In the midst of the turmoil,” wrote Julie Creswell, “Richard Marin, the head of the Bear unit that ran the troubled funds, ‘stole away’ from the ‘crisis-hedge-fund-salvation-workaholic weekend’ to see the new Kevin Costner thriller Mr. Brooks. His advice on the film? Take a ‘pass,’ Mr. Marin wrote in a review he posted that day on his blog.”
He was out of a job two days after the story ran.
Big Rich Marin has the personality to match his outsized name and reputation, though little of the ego one often associates with bankers and other Wall Street types. “If the worst thing I ever do in my life is go to the movies, I think I’m O.K. with that,” he said over lunch Saturday at Battery Gardens.
He lives in the same 1,600-square-foot penthouse in the South Street Seaport that he bought for $1.35 million in January 2004, seven months after he joined Bear Stearns as CEO of its asset management division. A motorcycle fanatic (a habit also picked up in Italy), he recently “broke down” as he put it, and bought a Vespa. Used. “It makes getting around town so great, it’s easier than the subway,” he said. If you see a stout guy in a navy blazer wedged onto a silver scooter zip by on the streets of Lower Manhattan, it is probably Rich Marin. At a lunch, he jokingly asked that we not mention it if he dribbled any of the bolognese he had ordered on his nice pink-and-purple tattersall shirt. (So we won’t.)
His plan, then, to build a 625-foot ferris wheel next to the Staten Island Ferry is not some Spruce Goose, Master of the Universe complex acting itself out in New York Harbor. It’s just business. He got a call, many calls, actually, within days of again being fired, on December 10, 2010, from Africa Israel USA, the real estate firm he had helped rescue after the bubble burst. One was from a small investment outfit that had tried repeatedly to get a giant observation wheel built in New York, most recently on Governors Island or in the Seaport. “They wanted someone with experience, and I had been a CEO in numerous capacities, I knew real estate, I knew finance, they thought I could get the job done,” Mr. Marin said.
And so he has. In less than two years, Mr. Marin lined up financial backers to realize the $250 million project while convincing the city to embrace the idea—not much of a challenge, really, given the Bloomberg administration’s flamboyant streak, along with its anxious rivalry with London, where the first modern observation wheel opened in 1999. If it opens on New Year’s Eve 2015, as is currently the plan, the New York Wheel could help cement tourism downtown and usher in a new era for sleepy Staten Island.
It will also be the latest triumph for Big Rich, whose career has seen a number of breathtaking ups and downs of its own in recent years. The big question is not whether he can get this thing done, as he almost certainly can, but whether he can stay on top long enough to enjoy his success.
“I chose this place for two reasons,” Mr. Marin said, sitting at a patio table at Battery Gardens, one of those overwrought banquet halls scattered about the city (cf. Tavern on the Green, Water Cafe) with killer views (in this case, of the harbor) but terrible food. “The first reason is you can see the site. The second is you can see all the tourists. Right now, we have 50 to 55 million tourists a year. Only 10 million of them are coming downtown, but that is a lot, and we expect it to grow as the World Trade Center reaches completion. It is a natural, captive audience.”
Fishermen gathered in clumps along the shore. The esplanade was thick with joggers and sightseers posing for photos in front of the sweeping panorama of the harbor. Just before our lunch began, a wedding was taking place on the patio, Lady Liberty serving as witness, along with many of the tourists who snapped away. Throughout the meal, the heavy bass of a dance party could be heard thumping from the second floor of the restaurant. Where the rivers converged beyond, hundreds of boats passed by, water taxis and pleasure cruises, behemoth container ships moored off the Port of Elizabeth, Circle Line tourist boats, tugs galore, and of course the giant orange Staten Island ferries.
Mr. Marin, who was wearing a navy blazer, light blue jeans and brown leather loafers, explained that the Statue of Liberty alone draws some 4 million tourists a year while another 2 million ride the Staten Island Ferry. The city has always struggled with how it might get tourists, and their wallets, off the free boat ride and beyond the St. George Terminal. The Staten Island Yankees have a stadium here, but aside from a few historic buildings, the borough’s 9/11 memorial and a nice view of Manhattan, that’s about it.
“The New York Wheel will be an attraction unlike any other in New York City—even unlike any other on the planet,” Mayor Bloomberg said at last week’s press conference. The new attractions “will put Staten Island right in the center of travel plans for millions of visitors to our city.”
Mr. Marin believes the appeal of his wheel will be impossible to resist, even at $20 a pop. “Do you have kids?” he asked (not yet, but in three years, who knows?). “So you’re on the ferry, and the wheel is getting bigger and bigger. Your 5-year-old, he’s barely tall enough to reach past the railing, but he sure can see this wheel, it just keeps getting bigger and bigger. He starts asking, he’s begging, ‘Can we go? Can we go? I wanna go on the ferris wheel!’ I think daddy is going to have a harder and harder time not going on that wheel.” (On second thought, why rush parenthood?)
And if the wheel isn’t enough of an attraction, the Bloomberg administration has fallen back on that most reliable of tourist activities: shopping. The city encouraged the New York Wheel team to partner with BFC Partners, a developer that has made a habit of getting in on the ground floor of most of the city’s development waves of the past few decades: the East Village, East Harlem, Williamsburg, Downtown Brooklyn. Now, the firm has plans to bring New York City its very own outlet mall.
The idea for building the wheel in the “forgotten borough” started with the city. According to Mr. Marin, he approached the Bloomberg administration in March 2011, wanting to give a giant ferris wheel another go on behalf of his investors. It was NYC & Co. tourism czar George Fertitta who told him, “Go to Staten Island, young man.”
From then on, that was the plan. “What’s the old saying about the 800-pound gorilla? Where does it sit? Wherever it wants,” Mr. Marin noted. “Well, when the city wants you to build a 600-foot ferris wheel somewhere, that is where you build it.”
The wheel is being designed by Starneth, a boutique Danish firm responsible for the London Eye, as well as the Singapore Flyer and one of two competing wheels in Vegas.
But Mr. Marin said the Staten Island wheel is just the beginning—a flashy beacon meant to draw people to his real attraction, a sustainability museum, located in an 11,000-square-foot lot on his half of the 14-acre site. Indeed, Mr. Marin conceives of the entire project as a giant lesson in building a cleaner planet. And not just through green roofs and solar arrays. In summer, the observationpods—which operate on proprietary gyroscopes to remain level—will collect condensation as they make their 38-minute circuit, depositing two gallons each into the grey water system that runs the site’s toilets.
“This will be a world-class exhibition,” Mr. Marin said intently. “This is more than just the wheel. I think of this as a world heritage site in the making.”
Mr. Marin knows a thing or two about world heritage. He grew up in Latin America, traveling around with his mother, who did development work for the United Nations. He did not know his father much growing up, a man his mother met in Venezuela who left when little Rich was eight to became a real estate developer in California. Mr. Marin said not to read into his father’s profession and his own. “I know it makes for a good soundbite, but that has nothing to do with what I’m doing,” he said of his more recent forays into development. When Mr. Marin was a teenager, the family moved from Maine to Rome, where he fell in love with movies as well as motorcycles.
Mr. Marin later wound up at Cornell, his mother’s alma mater (as well as that of Mr. Marin’s three kids). He spent a year studying engineering—all those years spent fixing up cheap Ducatis and Lambrettas in Italy were among his inspirations—before switching over to economics and government, which he deemed “less antithetical” to the countercultural times of the early 1970s. After undergrad, Mr. Marin finished his MBA in a year, a rare feat. He left Ithaca at 22 for the job at Bankers Trust.
The year was 1975, and Wall Street was about to transform itself from a sleepy but prestigious workaday industry into the fabulous global wealth engine it has come to resemble today. Junk bonds, LBOS, million-dollar bonuses—all of that was still on the horizon, along with the canonical works that would come to define Wall Street for Main Street: Barbarians at the Gate, Liar’s Poker, a movie or two by Oliver Stone.
To some, Rich Marin might resemble one of Mr. Stone’s villains. After all, he helped create the derivatives that laid the foundation for the alphabet soup of financial instruments that many critics argue have corrupted finance. Mr. Marin does not see it this way. “I liked the creative aspect going through the industry at the time,” he said. “And these products, they have to be used responsibly.”
In 1981, Mr. Marin moved from the corporate finance division, where he’d spent a very successful if unexciting few years, to commodities. There, he got his first taste of the futures business—the buying and selling of contracts on the predicted outcomes of various markets. Futures are typically used as a hedge against losses, bought in a short position. Mr. Marin identified demand for more long-term insurance—inflation was a serious concern at the time. He took a strip of Euro-dollar futures contracts across a range of prices, bundled together about $10 million worth to create his very first derivative and then encouraged the sales team to offer it up. Mr. Marin said he did not expect to hear back, but within the hour, the sales guys had returned, wondering how many more of these deals he could put together. He quickly created a $100 million swap and sold that, too.
Mr. Marin spent a few more years coming up with new financial products until he was called to help out in Latin America in 1985. The firm had $4 billion being sucked into the vacuum of the region’s debt crisis. “When I told my mother that, she was horrified,” Mr. Marin said. “She said, ‘I spent my career putting money into these countries and now you are going to spend yours taking it out of them?’”
In 1989, Mr. Marin was put back in charge of derivatives, now a fully formed global operation, as well as the newly created emerging markets desk that had grown out of the Latin American crisis (mom was right, this was good business). The following year, his career almost ended, and not for the last time. The commodities desk had issued futures contracts on more than $100 million in cotton from a company run by a Tennessee wildcat named Julien Hohenberg. The cotton had never been picked, never even really existed. To pull off the scheme, Mr. Hohenberg had partnered with a bonded warehouse to vouch for the phantom fibers. The fraud was eventually uncovered, but not before costing Bankers Trust 45 percent of 1989’s fourth-quarter profits. “I loved Julian’s quote in Forbes,” Mr. Marin recalled, his voice growing gruffer. “I can recall it verbatim. ‘I treated Bankers Trust like I treated my wives. I told them what they wanted to hear and then I did what I wanted to do.’”
That is not how Rich Marin sees himself. He prepared his resignation within days of the bad deal being exposed. It wasn’t accepted. Instead, he was sent to run the Canadian business out of the Toronto office—American Banker referred to the posting as “Siberia”—but he returned to New York after only two years to take over the retirement services division, the bedrock of Bankers Trust’s business, where he oversaw some 4,000 employees handling pension funds, 401(k)s and the like.
Michael Walsh, a managing director at Deutsche Bank whom Mr. Marin hired from Chemical Bank in London to head up the Latin American desk in 1985, said his old boss had more courage and acumen than anyone else he had met in the business. “Most people would run from the situations he has found himself in,” Mr. Walsh said, a Welsh accent still poking through after two decades in the states. “Rich stuck with you, he stuck with the company, and sometimes he paid the price, but just as often he was rewarded for his loyalty.”
When the firm merged with Alex Brown in 1997, he ran the combined private banking operation, his first foray into asset management. When Bankers Trust was bought by Deutsche Bank, Mr. Marin was kept on to ease the integration. His reputation recovered, he decided instead to strike out for new territory, golden parachute in hand.
“I’ve never seen a guy like Rich land on his feet so many times,” one former Bankers Trust executive said. Indeed, this was only the beginning.
It was a new millennium, so Mr. Marin and a few colleagues decided to start Beehive Ventures, a venture capital firm—everybody with a bronze nameplate was doing it, as Mr. Marin jokes. It was nearly another loss for Mr. Marin when the tech bubble blew, but after more than a decade of churning, Beehive anticipates a 6-10-fold return thanks to a good bet on eMarketer.
In the meantime, he got the call to run Bear Stearns Asset Management, the bare-knuckled firm’s mutual and hedge fund business. “We wanted him there,” said Alan Schwartz, the executive chairman of Guggenheim Partners, who at the time was co-president and COO of Bear Stearns. “He had a lot of knowledge of the industry and he was very creative.”
Creative indeed. During the first meeting of the executive committee that Mr. Marin attended, as an ice breaker he asked the 20 or so other power brokers in the room if anyone had a tattoo, according to one person who was present. After going around the room, no one answered in the affirmative. Except for Mr. Marin. When asked about the incident, he said he did not remember it, but he did not deny the existence of the ink. “That’s personal,” he said when asked what and where his tattoo is. “But hey, when you ride motorcycles for 46 years, what do you expect.”
It was in his first sit-down with Warren Spector, the other co-president who ran Bear along with baronial CEO Jimmy Cayne, that Mr. Marin hatched the plan for 10 in 10. The idea was to ramp up BSAM’s share of the company business tenfold by 2010, a nearly impossible task, yet one he almost achieved. “We had a great 47 months,” Mr. Marin said. “We were actually ahead, at about 6 percent, when all was said and done.”
When all was said and done, there would be no more Bear Stearns.
A pair of BSAM’s most successful hedge funds were run by Ralph Cioffi, one of the firm’s top traders, and Matthew Tannin. The funds traded in the kinds of exotic assets Mr. Marin and Bear Stearns were experts in, collateralized debt obligations. When the housing market on which these bundles of mortgages were based seized up, the funds tanked and Bear Stearns had to spend $3.2 billion bailing them out, the second-largest intervention in Wall Street history (though it would pale in comparison to what was coming).
When asked about these events, and how Mr. Marin comported himself, Mr. Schwartz was insistent. “I do not want to talk about that,” he said from his car Tuesday morning, on the way to a meeting. “If you want to talk about the ferris wheel and Rich, great. Every article doesn’t have to be dredging up what happened at Bear Stearns. Rich is a good guy, a creative guy, a good business man. I don’t want to reminisce about what happened at that time. It’s frankly a disservice to drag it back up.”
Two years before the BSAM crisis, Mr. Marin began keeping his Whim of Iron blog. It is unlikely its revelation, three months after his division began to unravel in April, led directly to Mr. Marin’s downfall at Bear—that was inevitable—but it didn’t help. “Nothing mattered to Bear more than its image,” Mr. Marin said, “and there was no hesitation to throw someone under the bus if they thought it might slow things down.” Mr. Marin agreed to stay on with Bear Stearns for six more months after stepping down as the head of BSAM. He found an empty office on the lower floor. “I put myself in the corner,” Mr. Marin said.
He said those six months were the low point of his life. “I take my fiduciary duty very seriously,” he said. “To me, it is a sacred trust. To watch my clients, my colleagues and my firm go under was devastating.”
Messrs. Cioffi and Tannin were eventually prosecuted by the government, the largest case so far brought against any bankers following the financial collapse. They were exonerated, an effort in which Mr. Marin played a small role, testifying on their behalf. “I would have testified for the government if they would have called me, but they didn’t,” he said. “You know why, because these guys didn’t do anything wrong, they were just doing their job, and that is what I said on the stand.” He has since served as an expert witness in numerous such cases, something he sees as his way of giving back and healing the system. He is also extremely proud of the fact, even occasionally bragging to others when the subject comes up, that he has never once been implicated in any wrongdoing throughout his career.
“There were two small things after everything happened on my record, and they were immediately expunged by FINRA,” he said with a beaming smile (FINRA is the big independent securities regulator). “They even gave me a letter saying I had done nothing wrong, and my attorney, he said, ‘Rich, that’s a very special thing you’ve got in your hands there.’”
After everything that happened, guys like Ralph Cioffi and Alan Schwartz (as well as numerous colleagues who did not wish to go on the record) still cannot speak highly enough of Mr. Marin. “Rich Marin is how do you say a Mensch,” Mr. Cioffi wrote in an email. “He was one of the nicest warmest individuals I ever worked with. Smart business man had big visions, a quick wit and quick mind. Just a wonderful man.”
Mr. Marin spent the next year trying to keep a low profile, doing some consulting work and riding his motorcycles. He was invited to come teach at the Johnson School at Cornell in the fall of 2007, which he continues to do, driving up to Ithaca once a week while class is in session. Mr. Marin points to the invitation as proof that even at his lowest point, he was still valued by a lot of people. He also increased his involvement in CARE, the global anti-poverty non-profit to which he has long donated time and money. “It is my way of giving back since I never followed directly in my mother’s footsteps,” Mr. Marin said.
By the fall of 2008, the economy was following Bear into oblivion. “Maybe we built our bungalow too close to the beach, and we were the first to get hit,” Mr. Marin said, “but even if we had built it halfway up the mountain, we would have gotten slammed. This was a tsunami and there was no escaping it.” Though it cannot be ignored that Mr. Marin and Bear caught a lot of fish before the wave hit, and it wasn’t just the bungalows on Wall Street but also homes and businesses around the world that got wiped out.
That November, Mr. Marin got a call from Izzy Cohen, the chairman of Africa Israel. The two had worked together on a joint venture in Israel, where Mr. Cohen oversaw the global real estate investments for the diamond magnate Lev Leviev. In 2007, at the height of the market, Africa Israel went on a madcap buying spree, picking up 22 marquee properties throughout New York, Vegas, Miami and L.A. for about $3 billion.
Among the projects here were the old Times Building, the MetLife clock tower and the Apthorp, where Africa Israel had initiated probably the most contentious condo conversion in a decade full of them. When Mr. Marin got to the portfolio, it was worth around $2 billion. By the time he had finished refinancing everything one, two, three times over, the debt load had reached a manageable $1.2 billion. “We never went into bankruptcy, we never lost a single building,” said Laurie Golub, Africa Israel USA’s former chief counsel. “Rich was always really proud of that.”
One of the outside attorneys who worked with Mr. Marin on the project was equally impressed. “None of us, none of us thought Rich could do it,” the lawyer said of the rigorous restructurings. “And he did it, every single one.” Among the things powering Mr. Marin through the long nights was junk food. He has a soft spot for Pirate Booty and Riesen Chocolate Chews. Ms. Golub said she even kept a spare piece of the German candy in her back in case of emergencies. “During those long nights, he would throw them at me and say, ‘Keep working. This will help.’” Another coworker describes him as a “Diet Coke addict.”
For all his hard work, Mr. Marin was fired on December 10, 2010, with none of his $1.25 million bonus. The explanation most often given is that Mr. Marin wanted to start growing the business, but Africa Israel had given up on America. Mr. Marin said he was not surprised, given what he sees as Africa Israel’s track record of mistreating its employees. “Maybe I should have been more careful about who I went to work for,” Mr. Marin said. “I went to work for Izzy, because I liked Izzy. I also welcomed the challenge. I didn’t do this for anybody else.”
“He took this huge steaming pile of shit,” said one colleague who worked with him at the time, “and got it down to a nice manageable size so it could be pooper-scoopered away. And how do they repay him? By tossing him into the pile.”
One of the things that rankles Mr. Marin so much about the incident in the Times is that among the blog posts the paper quoted was one from June 23, in which he jokingly suggested he and his team were “trying to defend Sparta against the Persian hordes of Wall Street. Nothing like a good dog fight 24X7 for a few weeks to remind you why you chose the life you chose,” he wrote. What the paper failed to mention or pick up on was that he was riffing on the recently released 300, in which the Greeks are routed in a hail of arrows.
“I would get all these comments on my blog, people were outraged I had compared myself to some Greek warrior, but, as is the average IQ of the typical blog commenter, they totally missed the point,” Mr. Marin said. “If you know the Battle of Thermopylae, you know the Greeks lose. We were fighting a war you cannot win, but you fight it anyway, because that is the right thing to do.”
Ms. Golub thought the whole thing was absurd. “Rich doesn’t drink, Rich doesn’t smoke, he goes to the movies, that’s his release,” she said. If he had gone to the club, bought some bottle service to unwind after back-to-back 16-hour weekend work days, as the caricature of a banker might have done, it probably never would have drawn any notice. Instead, he wrote a blog post. Mr. Marin is not shrinking from the whole affair, though, even invoking it in his bio on his new movie review website, PickingYourSeat.com (yep, he’s at it again, relaunching Sept. 16 2011). “When the crash hit in 2007 he got ‘deuced’ by the NY Times for going to see Evan Almighty and Mr. Brooks ‘while Rome burned,’” the bio proudly declares. Among his new reviews, he liked HBO’s To Big to Fail but wrote of Arbitrage that he found “the finance, well…. purely simplistic.”
The blogging imbroglio was not the first time The Times has written about Mr. Marin’s flare for film, either. Before there was blogging, there was screenwriting. In 1996, Mr. Marin submitted a script to an HBO competition called Subway Stories. It was a project produced by Rosie Perez. Out of the thousands of submissions, only 10 were selected for production, and Mr. Marin’s was one of them. “It was the most highly reviewed by both The Times and the Daily News,” he said. He did not mention which of the 10 shorts was his, but it is almost certainly 5:24, which is about a banker’s reckoning with a wise old man as they ride the Lex downtown before dawn. The Times called it “the most successful example” of “eerie psychological confrontation” that suffuses many of the shorts, a “succinct study of the traps of financial ambition” starring Steve Zahn as the banker and Jerry Stiller as the wise guy.
Next year marks the 120th anniversary of the Ferris Wheel, the work of a Pittsburgh builder of the same name. His work opened to great acclaim at the Chicago’s World Columbian Exhibition, a rival to the Eiffel Tower. But the ride turned out to be a commercial disaster, as people began to copy it without compensating George Ferris. He became obsessed and died a penniless man.
The same hallmarks seem to haunt Rich Marin: the vision, the drive, the downfall. The difference is, more than anything, Mr. Marin has an uncanny ability to move on from his failures, no matter how grand.
Of course Mr. Marin, as he so often does, would reference a movie to make his case: “It’s like Alfred says in Batman Begins. Why do we fall? So we can just pick ourselves back up again.”