Jimmy Dunne lll allowed a journalist to chronicle his battle to rebuild Sandler O’Neill, which lost 66 people on 9/11.
A few days after the horror of September 11, 2001, Jimmy Dunne III received a visit from a Fortune Magazine reporter named Katrina Brooker. She knew that Mr. Dunne was the sole surviving senior partner of Sandler O’Neill, an investment banking firm that had lost its headquarters and 66 of its 171 employees in the World Trade Center attack.
Among those who perished in Sandler O'Neill's World Trade Center offices were Jimmy Dunne's two fellow senior partners, and a heroic trader who had saved the lives of several others.
Her question: Would Mr. Dunne allow her to shadow him and his fellow survivors as they sought to rebuild the firm from scratch?
Mr. Dunne had no experience handling the media. In the past, his two fellow senior partners – Herman Sandler and Chris Quackenbush – had taken those calls. In fact, Mr. Sandler had prohibited Mr. Dunne from talking with the media, regarding him as too direct. Mr. Dunne’s role at the 13-year-old investment banking firm had been to run its trading desk and deliver bad news to employees failing to make the cut. “I was the tough guy, if you will,” recalls Mr. Dunne.
But now Messrs. Sandler and Quackenbush were dead, and Mr. Dunne had little time to mull Ms. Brooker’s request. The sense of urgency at Sandler O’Neill was so intense that Mr. Dunne was taking mere moments to make decisions that normally would take days, if not weeks.
Mr. Dunne told Ms. Brooker yes, despite knowing nothing about her or her previous work. In his mind, such an article could pay homage to his deceased colleagues, including his mentor, Mr. Sandler, and his best friend, Mr. Quackenbush. Mr. Dunne also thought the article could shine a light on the generosity he and Sandler O’Neill had received from other firms on Wall Street.
Mr. Dunne bought Ms. Brooker’s argument that a distressed nation would take heart from the story of a decimated firm’s battle to survive and thrive beyond the horrific murder of more than a third of its workforce. Understanding that such a story would require deep research, he invited Ms. Brooker to embed herself in the cramped quarters of the struggling firm, and she did so with fervor, showing up at the offices day after day just as if she were a Sandler O’Neill employee.
Fortune published the article in January of 2002, and 17 years later it raises a question. At a time when companies are seeking to control their own narrative, is it possible that any company could produce so compelling and credible a portrait as that sketched by a talented and trustworthy journalist – especially amid a crisis not of the company’s making?
The story that Mr. Dunne read in that issue of Fortune was sympathetic, sensitive, inspiring, powerful and accurate. It shows Mr. Dunne and his colleagues alternating between the tough work of reviving a firm whose back-office functions and Rolodexes had been destroyed – and the tougher work of delivering eulogy after eulogy at memorial services for the dead. It shows business meetings where heartbreak is palpable, for instance when mention is made of Mr. Dunne’s murdered friend, Mr. Quackenbush. “His voice begins to shake, and he looks over at me with an intensity that I’ve never seen in my life,” wrote Ms. Brooker. “Here is his grief: raw, open, blunt. He makes no effort to hide it; on the contrary, it’s impossible to sit in a room with Jimmy Dunne and not feel overwhelmed. I have to look away.”