by Lizzie Widdicombe November 10, 2008
Of all the sad Wall Street scenes—Lehman employees shuffling out of their offices in shorts, “reduction in force” victims commiserating over drinks on Stone Street—one of the saddest might be the headquarters of Icon Recognition, a company that makes deal toys, the desktop trophies (sometimes called “deal gifts” or “tombstones”) collected by a lot of finance types to commemorate deals. On an afternoon not long ago, a conference room there had a day-after-Christmas feeling: boxes everywhere, rows of lonely Lucite toys (a cube with 3-D shoes etched inside, a fake bottle of suntan lotion).* “This is definitely a tough time,” Stephen Sokoler, the president of the company, said. He’d been up early working the phones: “You call and ask, ‘Is there anyone who’s announced a deal recently or closed a deal? Anyone you’ve heard of?’ ” He added, “It feels like we’re a ship in the middle of a storm. Not only are you in the storm but there’s no visibility as to whether the storm’s gonna clear.”
Sokoler, who is twenty-nine, came to the company in 2002, and he recalled, with some wistfulness, the go-go days of the business, when, for example, he made a faux emerald-and-ruby crown to celebrate a deal for Merrill Lynch, and J. P. Morgan ordered up a batch of ten-by-fifteen-inch Lucite blocks with dinosaur heads inside (three hundred dollars each)—a “Jurassic Park” reference—to celebrate a deal involving Universal. “That was just a monstrous piece,” Sokoler said.
The most recent era of toys—the one that just ended—had been exuberant, too: a gold-plated replica of the Mandalay Bay Hotel, in Las Vegas, commissioned by Merrill Lynch; a Lucite banana split, commemorating Sun Capital Partners’ acquisition of Friendly’s; a snow globe made for Northoil (“Inside the snow globe we have placed a pewter casting of an oil rig,” the ad material says). Sokoler pointed to a catalogue picture of a little banjo, commemorating a deal that Merrill did for G.E. called Project Bluegrass. “Isn’t that cool?” he said. “You can actually play it.”
He was joined by Kathryn Kerns, a salesperson, who had just come back from a trip to the cubicles at Goldman Sachs. (Deal toys are usually commissioned by junior analysts.) It was not long after the news broke that Goldman might lay off ten per cent of its staff, but the scene, Kerns reported, had been eerily calm. “I get the impression that people are either very busy now or they’re getting a lot more downtime,” she said. Goldman recently sent an e-mail to employees announcing that they would have to start paying for their own deal toys, but Sokoler thinks that such mandates will eventually be relaxed. “Every once in a while, you see rules like that,” he said. Somehow, people have continued to fill their windowsills with souvenir footballs, detachable trucks, and bobblehead C.E.O.s mounted on Lucite pedestals.
This spring came what Kern called “the tiny-globe craze.” Sokoler rolled his eyes. “Oh, don’t start with that,” he said. “You know those things you see in Sharper Image, where there’s a base and a little globe just floats over it?” (They work by means of magnets.) Somebody at Merrill decided to order a hundred of them to celebrate an M. & A. deal, and all of a sudden everybody had to have one. “It was a real pain in the ass,” Sokoler said. “People were calling my cell phone in the middle of the night, saying, ‘It’s not floating!’ And you’d have to, like, walk them through it. You’d say, ‘Yes, it is floating—you just have to hold it in the right place.’ ”
There will always be deal toys of some kind, Sokoler predicted (Icon Recognition is already coming up with a pitch to commemorate Bank of America’s acquisition of Merrill), but, lately, more traditional designs have resurfaced—the simple tombstone, for example, with the name of the lead firm on the left. “It’s more in keeping with the mood,” Kerns said. Sokoler wandered over to a miniature statue of the god Apollo, commissioned to celebrate a private-equity deal for Apollo Capital. Apollo was bare-chested, and his foot was planted on the torso of a writhing grizzly bear, which he seemed about to shoot in the face with a tiny bow and arrow. “This was sketched by a banker,” Sokoler said—an analyst at J. P. Morgan. Sokoler pointed out Apollo’s rippling muscles, and the bear’s ears and teeth. “To be honest, I don’t think any other company could make this,” he said. He shrugged. “I think the bear won.” ♦
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