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Cantor Fitzgerald CEO on rebuilding the company after 9/11

Cantor Fitzgerald CEO Howard Lutnick joins Yahoo Finance's Alexis Christoforous from the WTC Memorial South Pool to discuss the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks.

Video Transcript

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: Of the nearly 3,000 lives that were lost that day, 658 worked for one company, the Wall Street firm Cantor Fitzgerald. It was housed in the upper floors of the North Tower. Chairman and CEO Howard Lutnick survived that day. That morning he was actually bringing his daughter to school, and he wasn't in the building. But he did go on to rebuild the company and lead the charge and find resilience amid the darkness.

And I am so pleased to have Howard Lutnick join me here now remotely. Howard, it's good to see you again. You and I have talked many times over the years on various 9/11 anniversaries. And I'm wondering if on this 20th anniversary, as you reflect back, is there something in particular that sticks out to you. And I'm wondering if this year feels any different than the rest?

HOWARD LUTNICK: What dawned on me this year is, you know, on September 11, I had worked-- you know, I graduated college and went right to work for Cantor Fitzgerald. And it was really the only firm I'd ever worked for. And I had worked there 18 years leading up to September 11. But now I've worked at the firm longer post-September 11 than I did before.

And sort of that really struck me as extraordinary, that more of my life at Cantor Fitzgerald has been post-September 11 than before. And so as I reflected back, it seemed like we've come such a long way. We were about 2,800 people then, and now we're 12,000 people. And now we're hiring the children of people we lost back on September 11.

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: That's incredible that you're now bringing on hiring children of employees you lost on 9/11. How do you talk to them about what happened that day, Howard?

HOWARD LUTNICK: Well, so think about it. You're hiring-- you've made an offer to hire the young people of the people who were killed. So that means the widow or the widower has got to be cool with you, because remember, their loved one died working at the firm. And then never underestimate the strong opinions of a 22-year-old.

And they might-- I always thought that they would have a negative view of the firm. But in fact, we've done so much. We gave those families-- we raised $180 million for the families, paid for 10 years of health care. We made a community of our relationship with those families. And so what we do is we offer them a job, and they come in. We help train them. We teach them. We help them go into different departments they want to work in.

And the thing is, like, today, when I met with two people, today I just told stories about their dad. One guy, his name is Austin. He's about my size. His dad was much bigger than me and had lots of hair. And I was like, what happened? How come you didn't get your dad's hair? You know, we just keep the memories alive, talking about the relationship, and it's really uplifting and really positive.

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: And the money that you talked about raising, that's coming from the Cantor Fitzgerald fund, which I know you set up almost immediately three days after the attacks. I know today is your annual charity day. And you usually have lots of celebrities help you raise funds. How is this year different? And I understand you're raising funds now for victims of the COVID-19 pandemic.

HOWARD LUTNICK: Correct. So every year on the business day-- usually it is 9/11, but this year it's-- obviously, 9/11 is on Saturday, so we're doing it today-- all of our employees waive their day's pay. And we-- don't give our profits. We give every dollar of revenue away to about 150 different institutions. And then we do a big disaster relief effort.

We've been to Hurricane Harvey in Houston, Hurricane Sandy around New York, Moore, Oklahoma when they had their tornado, and we'll go in and we'll take care of families who are just devastated by those natural disasters. So today, all my employees waive their day's pay, and we ask our clients to do as much as they can. And in exchange, we donate about $12 million.

So we're running a little ahead of last year. Usually we raise between $10 and $11 million, and I make a donation to top us off to $12 million, so I'm excited that we'll be able to take care of. So many different organizations this year as well.

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: That is unbelievable. And we thank you for all the work you continue to do, Howard, year after year. I know that one of the employees you lost that day was your brother, Gary. Tell us, when you think back to your relationship with Gary, do you remember your last exchange with your brother? And how are you keeping his memory alive?

HOWARD LUTNICK: So on Monday night, he took me to the Michael Jackson concert. If you remember, there was a Michael Jackson concert. And he took me to a Japanese restaurant on the Upper West Side. So I go to this restaurant, and I said, why are we on the Upper West Side and not down near Madison Square Garden, where we're going to this concert?

He goes, because this is a great Japanese restaurant, and Howard, you need to know this restaurant. So he was trying to show me cool, neat things. And me, and my sister, and Gary, we lost our parents when we were young. So my sister, Edie, runs a release fund, and myself and my brother were really close. And so we were at the night of Monday night, the 10th of September together, the three of us, at the Michael Jackson concert.

And then Gary called my sister from the Trade Center and said-- you know, he said goodbye to her. He got through to her. And she said, oh thank God you're not there. And he said, I am there, and I'm going to die, and I love you, and sent his love to me. It was really just incredible that he got through to my sister.

But he was a great young man, great passion, great enthusiasm, He liked sunglasses. He liked music and great food. He lived his life, and unfortunately, we lost him at 36 years old.

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: Incredible courage that he displayed that day, and calling your sister as well. And it's so wonderful to see you smile and remember him in that way. You know, Howard, you didn't have to bring Cantor Fitzgerald back. You didn't have to do it in New York City. Tell me why you did.

But we do want to note, you didn't do it back here at the World Trade Center site. You're now up in Midtown, actually in an office I used to be at when I worked at Bloomberg. You're in the old Bloomberg offices there. Why did you decide to rebuild Cantor Fitzgerald, and why not do it down here?

HOWARD LUTNICK: So the first thing was we put out a phone number, and we said, look, if you're alive and you work at Cantor Fitzgerald, just call this number. And so we had-- you know, we lost 658 out of 960 New York headquarters employees. And they called in. I said, look, we have two choices. We can shut the firm. We're going to go to 20 funerals a day every day for 35 straight days. I mean, it's just pulverizing.

Or we're going to work harder than we've ever worked before to rebuild this company, and God knows we don't really want to work. So the idea would be let's do it to take care of the families of those we lost, because these were our friends' families. People don't give enough credit to the fact of how much they care for the person who sits to their left and to their right.

You know, you love these people. You spend more time with the people you work with, often, than your family members. So we really, really cared about the people that we lost. And we decided we were going to rebuild this company. We were going to give 25%, not of our profits, but 25%, literally, employees gave 25% of their salaries to these families.

And we set out to rebuild the company to take care of these families. And we were able to raise them in the first five years $180 million to help them get through this horrible crisis. And we hired people. And here was the most incredible thing. We said to people who were joining, look, you've got to give 25% of your salary to these families.

So imagine that people joining Cantor Fitzgerald, right, they join a crushed organization, and then they're going to give 25% to these families. So the people who joined the firm are remarkable. These are amazing people. And that's the shoulders on which we rebuilt this company. So we are uptown. We took Bloomberg's old offices from Bloomberg, which was great, because they had furniture in it, which we needed.

But we also-- so right now, I'm at 55 Water Street downtown. We've got offices downtown on 199 Water Street and 55 Water Street. And we've got almost 5,000 people in New York now. So it's a pretty big company, 12,000 people around the world. And I can't be more proud of the people who work at Cantor Fitzgerald and BGC partners. These are great people who helped us rebuild this company and helped stitch together the ripped apart insides that I had.

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: Howard, in just in the final seconds I have, you know, 9/11, we know changed the world as we know it. It's changed so many things about our everyday lives. But to your mind, how has it changed Wall Street?

HOWARD LUTNICK: Well, you know, it was the first big push to technology. You know, people had to move out of their offices. It was the first big push. And you're seeing another giant push with the pandemic. So I think technology is becoming ever bigger push of it. And I think that was the big change on 9/11, is that people understood that they had to get things done in technology, because they could lose their offices.

And that's one of the fundamental changes I think was wrought from September 11 was technology driving into the business and people knowing they've got to support each other. Wall Street was incredibly generous to us, kind to us. Our clients were kind to us. I mean, we survived because people wanted us to. And that was amazing.

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: Yeah, well said. Howard Lutnick, Chairman and CEO of Cantor Fitzgerald. Thanks for being with us. Be well.