The Closing: Howard Lutnick reflects on 9/11, rebuilding Cantor Fitzgerald and more

The Cantor Fitzgerald CEO on life, death and tennis

Howard Lutnik Cantor Fitzgerald
Cantor Fitzgerald CEO Howard Lutnick

Howard Lutnick was thrust onto the national stage when the Sept. 11 attacks killed 658 of his employees, including his brother. The Cantor Fitzgerald CEO became one of the most recognizable faces of 9/11, and rebuilt the financial services firm against all odds. Lutnick took a public beating for cutting off pay to his employees’ relatives after the attacks, but by 2006, the firm had donated $180 million to them. On Lutnick’s watch, Cantor Fitzgerald made a massive move into real estate in 2009, when it launched Cantor Commercial Real Estate, a finance division that originated $10 billion in loans last year. In 2011, Cantor Fitzgerald affiliate BGC Partners purchased commercial real estate brokerage Newmark Knight Frank, as well as assets from Grubb & Ellis, both for undisclosed sums, to form Newmark Grubb Knight Frank.

Name: Howard William Lutnick
Born: July 14, 1961
Hometown: Jericho, New York
Marital status: Married
Children: Four

You lost both parents to cancer at a young age. What was life like before and after?

My dad was a professor of history at Queens College, and my mom was teaching art at C.W. Post [now Long Island University]. It was sort of a classic academic, suburban youth. And then things changed. My mom was diagnosed with breast cancer and later lymphoma. She died at 42. When [doctors] gave her six months to live, she said, “What are we doing standing here?” She lived like a comet. She would go to India and then come back and start yelling that I hadn’t done my homework. My dad died about 18 months after my mom. He takes me to college [at Haverford in Pennsylvania], and then goes to get his first chemo. The nurse makes a mistake and gives him 100 times the dose and kills him. From there on, the world’s just different.

You were 18. What about the rest of your family?

It’s me, my brother [who was 15] and my older sister. My extended relatives pull out. They’re afraid … they’ll invite us over and we won’t leave. At my dad’s funeral, my dad’s brother asked me what I was doing for Thanksgiving. I said, “Aren’t you worried about how I’m going to eat tonight?” I never spoke to him again.

How did that experience shape you?

It made me resourceful, taught me not to rely on others. We had to take care of my brother. There was a period of time when I was going to drop out of college. [But] Haverford said [they’d] provide my education for free.

What was your first job?

I was an Eastern-ranked tennis player [in college]. Between my freshman and sophomore years, I taught tennis in California. I still play twice a week.

How’d you land at Cantor Fitzgerald?

Junior year, I worked on Wall Street, at Noonan Astley & Pearce. They bought a company, Telerate, from Bernie Cantor. When it came time to graduate, Bernie Cantor offered me a full-time job.

Why are you interested in real estate?

The biggest markets in the world are bonds, then stocks, then real estate. Interest rates are just irrationally low, so the bond business is under enormous pressure. [But] real estate loves low interest rates.

What is the biggest misconception about you?

When Bernie Cantor went on life support, his wife decided that she wanted to sell the company. The story that was written at the time was “Young buck pushes out widow and takes company.” You sort of get used to the fact that people will say, “Oh yeah, he’s a tough guy.” I know what they mean. But they didn’t read the court case, which was absurd in every possible way.

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What is it like to be the face of Sept. 11?

If I go out to dinner, someone will come up to me and say they know a widow or a family. It’s really incredible.

Isn’t that hard?

To those who have had loss, memory is the most beautiful of your senses. So memory and time takes out the pain.

Do you have regrets?

Sure. I wish we were never in the World Trade Center. I wish my brother never came to work for me. I wish I never hired all my friends.

Do you get tired of people asking you about 9/11?

Never. Every Sept. 11 … our employees waive their day’s pay and we donate all of the revenue that comes in the door. We try to make the worst day something extraordinary.

Do you have vices?

I work a lot. Otherwise I’m a boy scout. I have the best wife. It’s unbelievable that she agreed to marry me.

How did you meet?

On a blind date. She was a Legal Aid attorney in Brooklyn, and a college friend of mine set us up.

What do you carry in your pockets?

A friend gave me a $2 bill for luck. I always have it on the outside [of my billfold]. I generally also have my phone and my glasses. The idea of wearing them down on your nose is such a bummer. You can’t hide. You’re just old.

If you could choose anyone to have dinner with, who would it be?

My dad. I could talk to him about academics, explain who I am. It would be extraordinary.

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