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Miss Irene Bergman, whose 100th birthday will be celebrated this August, is probably the woman with the longest career on Wall Street - she started in banking in 1942.
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Senior Vice President and Financial Advisor at Stralem & Company, Inc., a New York asset management firm founded in 1966, Miss Bergman continues to come to the office and actively covers clients using a Bloomberg Terminal with a font size specially enlarged for her.
Speaking from the company's Madison Avenue offices, she recently looked back on her career and the challenges in today's investing environment. Few people can put today's market in the context of such a long career. What has been her secret to making it to 100?
"Patience and discipline," she says with quiet conviction and a twinkle in her eye. And what has been her secret to successful investing? "The same thing" she answers, "Patience and the discipline to stick to your philosophy even in the face of irrational markets," she says. "You have to understand. There are, of course, bull markets and bear markets. But there are also irrational bull markets and irrational bear markets." Where are we today? "Today, we are in an irrational bull market and only those who have the ability to adhere to a discipline that carefully evaluates company fundamentals against valuations will end up being successful," Miss Bergman said. "You know," she paused, "I have the ability to look back over a fairly long time horizon — and six years since the financial crisis is no time at all. Those who have gotten caught up in the enthusiasm of a Fed-backed asset reflation will end up paying a high price."
"When you get to my age, you tend not to make foolish decisions," she said. Miss Bergman recalls one important lesson that she has learned over her many years: it's quite difficult to predict how the next market calamity will manifest itself. "It's never the same, it's always something unexpected," she said, adding, "There are some people who feel the market is a little bit overpriced," she said, followed by a short pause, "I think it's very overpriced."
Born in Berlin, Germany on August 2nd, 1915 to a prominent private banker, Miss Bergman described her childhood. "We lived in a very big style, my dream as a teenager was to follow in my father's footsteps to become the first woman banker at the Berlin Stock Exchange." School had its challenges for Miss Bergman. "I was a terrible student with a reputation for being rather stupid, but very well behaved," she said. "But I made it through school. After class, my days were filled with horseback riding" a pastime that she continued to enjoy up to the age of 80. When her father retired and the family moved to Holland In 1936, "I didn't speak Dutch in the beginning, so I filled my time by competing in horseshows. I've always enjoyed riding," she said. "Whenever someone wants to talk about horses, they come to me."
When Holland was invaded by the Nazis in May 1940, the family by then had dual citizenship. "That saved our lives." However, in September of 1940, the family had to leave Holland and travelled through Germany, Switzerland, occupied France, and Spain, to Portugal. "We were there for six months and didn't know where to go. My father had a friend in New York and eventually, we got an invitation." At the time, only those with offers of sponsorship by US citizens were able to work around stiff immigration quotas. My Grandmother, unfortunately, remained in Holland, and in 1942, she went to Auschwitz. The family boarded a boat on which "there was room for 200 people, but there were 700 aboard," Miss Bergman explained. On the pier upon the family's arrival in New York, were two cousins born in the U.S. who awaited her arrival. "We have been in touch ever since, and friendly," she said. They had their own children and Miss Bergman, her cousins and their families have remained close.
A Long Career
In New York, "I took a job as a secretary at the Police Benevolent Association of White Plains which lasted for ten days."
Miss Bergman told that although she was the best secretary the Pub had ever had, they couldn't keep her on any longer because she wasn't Irish. After that, all of a sudden things became complicated." The family's assets were frozen by the Dutch and the Americans she said. Other than the living expenses they received, "My father couldn't touch his investments," she said. Fortunately, her father had a friend in banking who offered her a job. She started at $35 a week. "In 1942, that was a fortune," she said, smiling as she recalled the start of her career in finance.
"I had never seen the inside of an office," Miss Bergman said. "That was exciting. Everything I know about investments, I learned there." Her boss was "very patient," as she learned the banking industry. "Eventually I caught on and I spent fifteen very happy years there." Unfortunately, her father and sister died while she was working at the bank. This caused her to redouble her efforts assuming "more and more responsibility" both at work and at home in order to "cut hay while the sun was shining," during her prime earning years.
In 1957, Miss Bergman joined Hallgarten & Company—a venerable investment firm with German Jewish ancestry and a member of the New York Stock Exchange since 1881. Miss Bergman was Assistant Manager in the Foreign Department of Hallgarten & Co. where she was active in merger arbitrages and authored a weekly market letter. Hallgarten & Company had four principal partners Charles Hallgarten, Bernard Mainzer, Casimir Stralem, and Sigmund Neustadt all of whom were intertwined. Hallgarten was married to Mainzer's sister, and Stralem was married to Neustadt's daughter. Casimir's son was Donald S. Stralem who became a Hallgarten partner in 1932. In 1966, Donald Stralem left to start Stralem & Company. After Hallgarten, Miss Bergman found her way to Stralem & Company in 1973 after several years at Loeb Rhoades in the International Department.
Four Decades at Stralem & Company
Stralem has been a perfect fit for her over the past 42 years. The firm's low profile and strict adherence to a fundamentally based investment discipline dating back to 1911, has stood it and her in excellent stead for well over 40 years. "I have had a very good life," she said looking across the view of Manhattan, through a Stralem office window. "I've been always very happy at Stralem & Company," she said, adding that she's not always the easiest person to get along with. "I don't want to be popular, I want to be respected."
"The firm is as patient as I am," she said "focusing on participating in the upside but protecting against the downside, and as a result, outperforming over the long term." In investing as in life, she believes, this is the secret to building long term wealth and long term health. At 99 and 11/12ths, this is advice to heed.