“Destiny, faith and karma,” wrote John Lefevre recently, “are strippers in Atlanta.” That might be so, but all three have had quite a role in Lefevre’s life since he was unmasked as the voice of the Goldman Sachs elevator Twitter account, @GSElevator.
Since Andrew Ross Sorkin of the New York Times outed the former Citi bond syndicate man on February 24, Lefevre has undergone sudden global scrutiny, much of it derogatory, and has had a publishing deal with Simon & Schuster scrapped for reasons that remain opaque. “Something does not add up,” an exasperated Lefevre tells Euromoney from Houston, Texas, where he now lives, having retired from investment banking well shy of his 35th birthday.
Lefevre was born in the UK, spent his childhood in Texas, was schooled on the US east coast and worked for either Citi or Salomon in New York, London and, from 2004 to 2008, Hong Kong. He revelled in the lifestyle, but had a sense that it was somewhat absurd. “I’ve always been cynical about the industry,” he says. “People take themselves too seriously. They define themselves by being part of Wall Street, which I’ve found a bit pathetic.”
This diversity of experience and exposure – tech-stock bubble, booming Asia, global financial crisis – provided him with many stories to tell about the money-and-testosterone-fuelled industry he worked in, which he began dutifully recording, believing they would one day warrant a book. “I have hundreds of them,” he says. “In those alcohol-fuelled days in Hong Kong or London I didn’t want to forget the stories, so I wrote them down.”
Then, post-Citi, he was in a bar in Hong Kong with friends in late 2011 and the subject turned to a spoof Twitter account revealing conversations supposedly heard in the lifts at the Condé Nast publishing house. “I thought: I’m going to set up a homage to that, with insights into the things that bankers say and do.”
Although it took the Goldman Sachs name, it was never intended to be purely an account of that particular bank; that was just a memorable handle to get it rolling. And roll it did, attracting 652,000 followers as of March 13 (Goldman Sachs’s actual official feed, by contrast, has 139,000). It appears that the very first tweet, on August 11, really was overheard in a Goldman elevator:
Into cell phone (to real estate broker): “Goldman f&%#king Sachs, Ever heard of it?" before getting disconnected in the lift.
But beyond that, the account was meant to skewer the morality and attitudes of all investment banking through pithy and sometimes reshaped lines of conversation. “For the avoidance of any doubt,” Lefevre says, “any person who actually thought my Twitter feed was literally about verbatim conversations overheard in the elevators of Goldman Sachs is an idiot.”
“It went through several evolutions over time,” he says. “The initial tweets were much different to those you see now. They moved away from what I do, deal-specific and inside jokes, into more general observations and commentary that reflect and embody the spirit and culture of Wall Street.” In person, Lefevre speaks very fast and is strikingly articulate, uttering complete, polished sentences in a way few people usually do.
Also, constrained by Twitter’s 140-character limit, he moved into bigger pieces of writing, typically carried on Business Insider and the Huffington Post; a satirical piece called “How to be a man”, written with CNBC’s John Carney, has been viewed almost 3 million times.
So who knew it was him? “There are definitely some well-known managing directors at many tier-1 investment banks in Hong Kong and in Europe that have known who I am for at least three years. Really senior people across fixed income in sales, trading, origination and syndicate.”
Then came a book deal, reputedly a six-figure sum, with Simon & Schuster, and, not long later, his unmasking. “Being outed was always part of the process, for a few reasons,” he says. “One, obviously it was important to lend me credibility, sharing the uniqueness of my vantage point,” by which he means the range of places he worked, the circumstances of the time, and the fact that working in bond syndicate involved working both with issuers and with the sales and trading arm of the bank itself rather than just one side of the Chinese wall. “The other reason was that the Twitter feed was not about me specifically as a person; it wasn’t even a person at all. It was the aggregated embodiment of investment banking culture. But as I looked to write a book to tell stories in the first person, it is harder to be anonymous than it is on Twitter.”
There had been consistent clues anyway: when he tweeted about trashing a Maserati, several friends who knew he had done precisely that (Lefevre might not have calmed down all that much since his after-hours exploits earned him the nickname The Fever in Hong Kong) realized it was him. Similarly, a suggestion the people go to Sammy, the legendarily ancient barber at Hong Kong’s Mandarin Oriental, narrowed the field somewhat for those who knew of Lefevre’s running joke of sending visiting colleagues to him for a razor shave.
But if being revealed was part of the plan, the follow-up wasn’t. Although Lefevre has no problem with Sorkin, who found him, it clearly rankles that the New York Times headline included this: “He was not in the Goldman elevator.” There seemed to be a sense in the media of being cheated by the fact that he wasn’t actually a Goldman employee. “I’ve worked on more deals with Goldman than with my Indonesian investment banking team!” he says. “I’ve been in their elevators a million fucking times!” He was, in fact, hired by Goldman in August 2010, but – to hear his telling of it anyway – could not get around some issues with a non-compete clause and eventually separated amicably from the bank that October.
“I do think the characterization that the New York Times put out – that I was never in the elevators at Goldman Sachs – was completely disingenuous. I don’t care about any of that. It has never been about Goldman. It is a collection of true stories supposed to illuminate and showcase Wall Street culture. It’s not judgmental. It’s not some moralistic tale of redemption with an epiphany and a narrative of how Wall Street corrupted them and they realized the error of their ways.”
“Besides,” he adds, well into his stride now, “every Tweet I wrote said: “Sent from Twitter for Mac.” I was never pretending to be a guy on an iPhone hiding in the Cheung Kong Centre or 200 West. The construct was: email what you hear and I might tweet it. I’ve got some trusted sources at Goldman Sachs or Morgan Stanley or Deutsche or JPMorgan or Citi.”
It’s also possible that, with greater warning, he might have changed his Facebook profile pic from one of him holding two large assault rifles with an expression of some satisfaction. That picture was the first that most of the world saw of him and is now the stock pic for any follow-up feature in the world media.
His publishers asked him not to respond to the criticism, but then, out of the blue, they axed his book deal. As some have noted, Simon & Schuster’s statement was so terse it almost fitted within Twitter’s 140-character limit. “In light of information that has recently come to our attention since acquiring John Lefevre’s ‘Straight to hell’, Touchstone [an S&S imprint] has decided to cancel its publication of this work.”
Lefevre is furious about this. “They knew my identity. They knew what I was going to write. I went out of my way to say this is not a boring whistleblower inside-account exposé. Nobody wants to read that story. I never misled them in any way. They knew I was not at Goldman Sachs. And when I told them I was in Texas and had left banking, they were elated: it makes it clean and easy, they said. They knew everything about me.
“Either S&S lied to the media last week or something does not add up. When everything was revealed, they stood by me, and said the book was going ahead. Several days later they said: OK, we can’t do this. Without any explanation.”
Still, other publishers are interested; asked if he is confident the book will still see the light of day, he says “100%. It is coming out.” He expects to be splitting his time between Houston and Los Angeles in future, having appointed a top TV agent for tie-ins on screen. “The expectation is there is going to be a book, then a second book, and who knows from there.” So, to return to the Atlanta strippers of our opening line; while much of the publishing world seems to think karma is at play with the loss of his book deal, he’s keeping the faith that he’s destined to write it.
Does he miss the investment banking life? “No, not at all. Not in the least. It’s like a hamster wheel. Once you get on it, it’s easy and convenient and it’s paid well and you have blinders on. It’s hard to get off that wheel, but when you do you see a big world of people doing so many things. I cannot even contemplate going back to that world of checking my BlackBerry every 20 minutes and interrupting dinner for a conference call you think is important.
“When you’re in it, you convince yourself, especially around comp time, that you are a pivotal part of this process. You say these deals could not have happened without me. But you step out, and deals still get done. I have no regrets – I loved every minute of my time in Hong Kong, and I love London and New York – but I don’t miss it at all.”
As for Goldman, he believes that after initial consternation “over time they got the joke”. They certainly did when he lost his book deal. Goldman tweeted: “Guess elevators go up and down.”
Lefevre responds: “That’s kind of funny. None of this is serious, it’s good fun. I have so many other projects in the works. The elevator is going to go back up.”