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Adrenaline and action: Exec feels rush at stock exchange and then at sports book

Bill Sheikewitz has witnessed modern history’s biggest events from a unique vantage point.

Sheikewitz joined the New York Stock Exchange as a 17-year-old page in 1963, two months before a presidential assassination would shock the country and roil the financial markets. Sheikewitz worked his way up to director of floor operations at the exchange, where he helped trading run smoothly following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Success on the exchange floor didn’t keep Sheikewitz from contemplating another career: In the 1970s, he visited Las Vegas and, enthralled by the local sports books, he daydreamed of writing tickets at the betting window.

Sheikewitz moved to Las Vegas to pursue his dream job in April 2003, ending a 40-year stint with the New York Stock Exchange.

Question: How did you work your way up from page to director of floor operations at the New York Stock Exchange?

Answer: I was driven. I didn’t want to stop at a certain level. The work was interesting. I knew what I had to do to get ahead, and I was good at what I did. I worked hard — I probably didn’t take a sick day for 30 years.

Question: Some people leave floor operations and go into a brokerage. You stayed with the exchange. Why?

Answer: I enjoyed running the floor. It was exciting. The most interesting thing was that I used to ring the opening and closing bells. In the 1990s, they began having different people ring the bells every day.

Question: Who were some of the famous people you accompanied up to the bell?

Answer: I walked Martha Stewart up. I also escorted Warren Buffet, (New York Yankees manager) Joe Torre, John McCain and my childhood idol, (Yankees pitcher and Hall of Famer) Whitey Ford.

Question: What were people like as they walked up to the bell?

Answer: It depended on the person. Warren Buffet was like the corner grocery store clerk. He was the nicest guy in the world. Martha Stewart was quiet and did what she had to do.

Question: What was stressful about being on the floor?

Answer: We (floor directors and managers) were the go-betweens for the brokers and the information-technology and systems people. If a broker had a problem with a trading vehicle, I had to diagnose what was wrong. Put yourself in a situation where someone wants to buy hundreds of thousands of IBM shares, and the computer screen can’t take the orders. It’s millions of dollars lost, like that. They would be right in your face.

Question: You also had to deal with the stress of historic events affecting the markets, starting with the Kennedy assassination. What was the atmosphere like on the floor that day?

Answer: I’ll never forget it. All of a sudden, you heard a roar. And then the sellers came in, because at the moment it happened nobody knew what was going on, and the market just tanked as people sold. Then they got wind of what happened. They stopped trading in the middle of the day and announced that the president had been shot.

Question: What was the demeanor on the floor after the shooting?

Answer: Business. It’s just business. You get through the day, and then the reality of the situation sets in. I remember walking out of that building and the reality hit me and I cried. But at the time it’s business. Stocks are going down, and you don’t know when it’s going to end. It was probably a good thing they closed trading.

Question: On what other occasions do you remember trading stopping in the middle of the day?

Answer: The 1987 crash. The market went down 22 percent. After that, they put in a system to stop that type of free fall. Now, if it hits a certain percentage of drop, trading stops for a while.

Question: Do traders stand around and watch the news when something big happens?

Answer: If it became a market-breaking thing, they would keep their eye on the TV. The only time they stopped to watch something that wasn’t affecting the market was the O.J. Simpson verdict. Everybody on the floor was watching the TV to see that verdict.

Question: The most notable event while you were at the exchange was the terrorism of Sept. 11, 2001. How did that day unfold at the exchange?

Answer: Trading starts at 9:30. The first plane hit before that. I was in a meeting, and someone phoned and said a plane had hit the World Trade Center. We went down on the trading floor, and now we’re watching the news, and we saw the second plane hit. We were two or three blocks from the World Trade Center, and when the second plane hit, our building shook. (Then-exchange Director) Dick Grasso decided that we were not going to start trading that day.

Outside the building, all you saw was black, from the soot and debris of the buildings coming down. Somebody with a backpack couldn’t breathe out there, and he got on the floor somehow, and someone yelled, "There’s a terrorist on the floor!" That got everybody in a panic. People were rushing toward the exits, and that’s the only time I feared for my life, because I started getting crushed. But Dick Grasso got on a loudspeaker and calmed everybody down.

Question: With the running tickers, the constant line changes and the giant screens everywhere, the sports book is much like the exchange floor, isn’t it?

Answer: It is similar, because if the computer terminal where someone is writing his horse bet doesn’t work, and it’s four seconds to post time, he’s going to be as mad in his own way as that specialist who couldn’t trade $1 million of IBM.

Question: Do you bet on sports?

Answer: Yes, but I’m not allowed to bet here. I bet a little on baseball and football, always remembering it’s entertainment. Sports is one of the few types of gaming that are beatable, because sports is your opinion against their line. It’s hard to beat anything out there on the casino floor, because that’s mathematics. But sports isn’t mathematics. They make a line, and if you’re better than that, you can win.

Question: Some people say investing in the stock market is no better than gambling. What’s your response?

Answer: It’s not a gamble if you go into the overall market. The S&P 500 has averaged returns of 11 percent to 12 percent over the last 50 or so years. If you take $250 a month and put it in your 401(k), by the time you leave your job in 30 years, you’ll have about $2 million, give or take. There’s never been a 20-year span where you lost money in the market.

In the bear market following the tech bubble, the Dow hit a low of about 7,000 in October 2002. Since then, the Dow is up 96 percent. I don’t suggest being a day trader. That’s gambling. But getting into the overall market is not gambling, as long as you’re diversified. People who had only Enron stock got hurt.

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