Since today is the start of the week, let me begin by introducing you to my work space. The half of our team that was at 425 Park Avenue moved one week ago, from a non-descript building a couple of blocks north of Citi’s headquarters, to the former Citicorp Center, directly across the street from headquarters. Now known as 601 Lexington Avenue, it was built by the bank in the mid-1970s at the height of the energy crisis. Back then, Citibank was one of New York City’s 20 largest users of Con Ed’s energy, so management considered that any savings in energy would significantly improve Con Ed’s ability to supply adequate electricity to the City as a whole. The bank’s timing was nearly freakish, though. It was only two months after management had announced the energy-saving devices that the building would include, that the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries—OPEC—placed an embargo on shipping oil to the United States and other countries that supported Israel in the Yom Kippur War, and it was an embargo which precipitated a major energy crisis in the US. Next time you’re in the neighborhood, take a close look at the building and you’ll see some of the energy-saving features: the façade was constructed of insulated, bright-colored aluminum and double-glazed reflective glass, which was intended to reflect the sun and cut down on the need for air conditioning during the summer. There’s also a system of air filters to reduce the amount of outside air taken into the building to diminish the need to cool or heat it. Even these many years later, the air inside feels fresh, more like what you find in LEED-certified buildings.
The Center’s move has meant adjusting how we do some things. As our unit, like most of the company that sits in Manhattan, was “densified,” most of us moved from offices into cubicles. Although we have converted a conference room into the Center, generally we have to remember to keep our voices low. I’ll soon have to bring in a set of headphones for my computer. (Many training courses are done on-line or through webinars. The next one comes from our security services division, about protecting oneself from physical threats. Citi, its property, and employees come in for a share of threatened and actual violence. When traveling abroad, even someone at my level can be assigned a bodyguard, depending on the country.) Our archives collection—which used to fill the shelves in an old law library— has been compressed into a small adjacent room with compact shelving.
I was out of work on Friday, so the first thing I did this morning is to catch up on end-of-week news with the Center’s coordinator, then go through my inbox and phone messages. To my horror, I realized that all the files I took home for working remotely on Thursday were still sitting by my front door. I’d have to reconstruct what I could, and wing the rest.
Over the last few months, the Center has been receiving an increasing number of requests for substantial pieces of history. So one of today’s important tasks was to interview a potential freelance historian. We’ve been building a relationship with our municipal finance division, which is one of the company’s powerhouses. Two years ago one of their managing directors came to meet us, and I’ve been working in my spare time on outlining its history in different parts of the US over some 70 pages of notes. They have recently been tweaking their strategic focus and decided they want to document their relationships with 6 major cities, with a view to use the information to gain new clients or earn more business from current ones. A survey of our earliest Board of Directors minute book shows that relationships with three cities go back to nearly 1812: unfortunately only one of those is on the request list! We’ve found a likely freelance historian who has almost completed his graduate work in a closely related area and who has shown that he can write in a clean, jargon-free style. He is juggling a number of demands on his time, so over the next two weeks, he’ll figure out whether he’ll have sufficient room in his schedule.
A regular feature of my Mondays is to meet as chief of staff with the director of the Center about the unit’s strategy and other overarching considerations. He’s working flat-out on a presentation for tomorrow, so the meeting is put off for a day.
Now that we’re one step closer to getting a start on the Munis project, I need to turn my attention to a project that was virtually closed when it ran into a roadblock. One of the first projects that I took on at the Center three years ago, after all three units came together to form the Center, was to delve into the history of our transaction services business. It is one of the company’s most important divisions—low risk, consistent earnings, vast number of clients across the globe—but few people who don’t work there know where it came from. Actually, virtually none of its own employees have more than a vague sense of how it evolved. It has some gigantic statistics associated with it and every one of you, my readers, have all used it—knowingly or not—since a huge percentage of all electronic transactions worldwide travel along Citi’s transaction infrastructure at some point. I pieced together the broad outlines of the story in fits and starts until, about a year ago, a request for such a history came in from a young colleague in Kuwait. I sent him the draft and it went viral. The transaction services CEO learned about it, which gave us the impetus to put resources behind finishing it. Six months of interviewing current and former employees and executives, selecting some good images to illustrate it, and sending out for review—and two days later management split the business in two. So today I’m beginning to work with my contacts there on how to account for this instance of “history in the making” before we publish.
My last major task for the day is to make some progress on supporting a video project that our corporate communications team is working on. Citi’s CEO is being given an award by NYC’s Museum of Natural history, founded in 1869. We were asked to look for the earliest relationship between the bank and the museum and to supply images. To this point, most of my day had been spent at my desk, but now the art curator and I head one floor up to visit the communicator who is writing the video script. The connection that we will be focusing on is with Percy Pyne, who was president of the bank for nearly a decade. He sat on the museum’s board from 1872 until 1895, when he left it a considerable legacy. In reviewing the museum’s annual reports, I came to realize what an important role that it played in NYC’s business community. Most of its board was made up of the sons of some of the city’s biggest tycoons. Percy Pyne was the son-in-law of Moses Taylor, a major industrialist and Citi’s president at the time, and it can’t have hurt his future career to be among their number. His portrait will appear in the video, along with images of the bank’s 19th-century buildings, logos, and early transportation and communications projects (steamships, railways, transatlantic cable).
That brought me to the end of the workday.
A museum-related coda: The Center has a long-standing relationship with the Museum of American Finance, part of the Smithsonian which sits on Wall Street in the old Bank of New York building. We just received some copies of their latest bulletin, which features a story about how Citicorp came to move its credit card operations to South Dakota, and included images that the Center had provided. It made good home-bound reading.
Questions? Share your thoughts!