June 17, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

Part 20 (written 2004)

(Continued from last week)

We had many Orthodox Jews apply for a job because it was known that at PB there would be no difficulty with the observance of Shabbat and Jewish Holidays. Since 90 percent of all new hires came through the Traffic Department, I sometimes had to tackle the problem of an applicant wearing a yarmulke for the interview. Since not all executives were Orthodox Jews or were even Jewish, I had to be careful that the department would not look “like a yeshiva.” That actually was a comment that I received once. Consequently, in order not to risk the independence I had in making hiring decisions, I always tried to get applicants to cooperate in this respect. I never told an applicant that he could not wear a yarmulke in the office, if hired. I just suggested to him to consult with his own rabbi and follow his guidance. I never had a new hire appear in the office on the first day with a yarmulke. Wearing a yarmulke at the desk was permitted during lunchbreak for eating or learning.

Departure time on Friday afternoons during the short winter days was regulated in the early years by Mr. Jesselson issuing a memo specifying departure as one hour before candle lighting or travel time plus 15 minutes. It always amazed me how many young men and women took advantage of this, although nobody ever questioned anyone about his or her level of Orthodoxy.

Since the department was involved on a daily basis with hiring trucking companies or fixing freight bookings with railroads and steamship companies for huge quantities of freight, the competition to obtain business from us, or to keep competitors away from us, often brought to light the offer of bribes. It was understood within the department that anyone accepting a bribe would immediately be terminated without a second chance. Moreover, any offer, or insinuation of a potential bribe, had to be brought to the attention of an officer immediately. Although a number of bribe offers were brought to my attention, I never had to terminate an employee for accepting one.

I recall only one personal instance of an attempted bribe. It happened in Providence, Rhode Island. We were moving thousands of truck-loads of zinc metal off a ship into a US Government depot. One day the owner of the trucking company handed me an envelope that I thought contained bills of lading. When I opened it, I discovered that it contained a bundle of $100 bills. I returned it promptly to the individual and informed him never to try that with anyone at PB again. I reported the instance to Mr. Fischmann, who was then still the head of the department.

PB was growing quickly and was opening offices, or establishing agencies, in all the major countries in Europe, as well as some in Asia, Africa and Australia. Eventually PB would have 60 offices in 45 countries, plus representatives or agents in many others. PB even had its own bank in Switzerland.

What had started out with 35 employees in the New York office quickly became hundreds, and by the 1980s there were 4500 employees worldwide. The company became known as, by far, the largest and best-run metal trading outfit in the world, trading in over 50 commodities. Everything that they touched turned to gold and they could do no wrong. That eventually would be the company’s undoing. From an origin in only metals, ores/concentrates and scrap, they became huge, as well, in the trading of sugar, wheat, precious metals, fertilizer, coal and coke, steel, oil and other liquid fuels, and many other commodities, eventually about 160 commodities. Some oddities that were traded were Bolivian cinchona bark (which is used to make quinine), and Mexican dried mosquitoes used in fish food.

Eventually, an oil-trading department was opened. Oil trading had previously been strictly the function of the big oil companies. This addition doubled and tripled sales and, at least initially, profits. Profits from oil trading became so large that some of the traders were not satisfied to receive only huge salaries and bonuses, but wanted to participate as well in the profits they were generating for the company. That resulted in the exodus of Marc Rich, Pinky Green and many other traders, who formed their own company to compete with PB. (They would later get into trouble with the US Government and were convicted of alleged tax evasion and for allegedly trading with Iran. They were pardoned by President Clinton.)

The company at its peak owned 30 ships outright with about 100 ships in use at any one time.

The Traffic Department had always been the training ground for new employees, from where they then advanced into trading. That is how both Rich and Green and literally hundreds of other young men and women got their start over the years. I interviewed the majority, decided whether to hire or not, in a very unscientific way, by today’s standards, but it resulted in a very low turnover, and generally a very happy staff of employees.

In view of the fact that the company was founded by Jewish immigrants, some Orthodox, it was only natural that many Orthodox Jews would know of or hear about job opportunities there. The result was that there always was a large number of Orthodox employees, especially in my department. I never specifically looked for Orthodox Jews, or even any Jews, but hired only on the basis of my judgment of qualification based on the interview and a mathematical skills test. We had female staff, even a female supervisor, which was rare in those days, as well as Afro-American and Hispanic employees, but not many.

We never advertised for open positions and never used employment agencies, but we always had a waiting list of applicants for openings in the Traffic Department. Some applicants were willing to start in the mailroom, which then gave them preferred consideration whenever there was an opening in Traffic. That is, for example, how Pinky Green, mentioned above, got his start.

I would interview the applicant and look over the resume. If it was for a trainee position, that would be the only interview the applicant would have. If the applicant came with experience and would not have to start as a trainee, there would be a further interview conducted by the supervisor of the section for which the applicant was destined.

(To be continued next week)

By Norbert Strauss

Norbert Strauss is a Teaneck resident. He was general traffic manager and group VP at Philipp Brothers Inc., retiring in 1985.  He frequently speaks to groups to relay his family’s escape from Nazi Germany in 1941.

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