Do Red Bull-Fueled Brokers Reach Boiling Point?
February 25, 2013
Nicholas Gwiazda, 24, saw his ticket to Wall Street in a Craigslist ad for a junior broker job at John Thomas Financial Inc.
After a September interview and tour of the firm’s marble- floored offices across the street from the New York Stock Exchange, he was given a phone and told to call strangers across the country, advising them that a senior broker would follow up in a week with a good investing idea. He said he was told he could make hundreds of thousands of dollars a year after passing licensing exams.
“It was dollar signs and it was glitz,” Gwiazda, who was fired three months later, said in a phone interview. “It was a glorified call center, honestly.”
Anastasios “Tommy” Belesis, who founded John Thomas in 2007, has raised millions of dollars for companies with about 200 brokers in a boiler room, where trainees stand as long as 14 hours a day barking memorized sales pitches for as little as $300 a week. He has built a public persona with appearances on business television, endorsements from celebrities and a role in the movie “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.”
Now he’s attracting unwanted attention. The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority told Belesis last month he may face disciplinary action on a claim that he artificially inflated the price of a stock. The New York Post reported Feb. 7 that the Federal Bureau of Investigation has interviewed ex- employees. Robert Bursky, the firm’s lawyer, said it’s clean.
“There is not a shred of evidence that suggests there is an ongoing inquiry by the FBI,” Bursky said in a phone interview. “In the brokerage industry, basically every broker- dealer, every day, is under constant regulatory scrutiny.”
Belesis, 38, declined to comment, as did Peter Donald, an FBI spokesman, and Finra’s Nancy Condon. Wall Street firms have employed boiler-room strategies for decades to help sell stocks. The Securities and Exchange Commission says such operations typically feature a small army of salesmen on telephone banks, making cold calls to as many people as possible and urging them to buy shares handled by the firm.
David Pitts, a John Thomas spokesman at public relations firm Argot Partners LLC, said the brokerage isn’t a boiler room. It helps real companies raise money and provides honest advice to investors, he said.
In interviews, Gwiazda and 19 other former John Thomas employees described life at the company and high-pressure tactics used to push stocks. Most asked for anonymity to preserve job prospects or because they feared retribution.
John Thomas’s 40,000-square-foot offices on the 23rd floor of 14 Wall St., the pyramid-topped former headquarters of Bankers Trust, are decorated with a statue of a bull, big-screen televisions and a vending machine stocked solely with Red Bull. Some brokers rub the statue for luck as they walk in at 7:30 a.m., then practice their sales pitches with one another while speakers blast music from the “Rocky” movies.
Everyone wears suits. Brokers who show up with stubble are sent to the bathroom, where a bow-tied attendant dispenses razors, cologne and candy.