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Former WaMu employee calm amid bank's collapse

TAMPA — On the ninth floor of an office building on Cypress Street last week, Brad Robinson looked out across a sea of vacant desks and a deserted fish bowl and framed ads talking about company trust.

"There was a person there," Robinson said. "Person there. Three or four there. Person there. Person there."

Only he was left, the last man standing in Suite 950-A, once home to a thriving commercial real estate lending division of Washington Mutual. Now, it's just another wasteland after the largest bank failure in American history.

But in an industry full of panic, Robinson, a former senior loan consultant who made $200,000 last year, managed calm. True, he never expected WaMu to sink like Enron, and he lost company stock once worth as much as $75,000.

But having been laid off twice before by Washington Mutual, he had already learned valuable lessons about trust and loyalty and job security. It made him, perhaps, more prepared to handle the latest hit than so many executives and workers in his field.

Unlike earlier generations, Robinson, 38, never counted on a long career with one company, even Fortune 500 companies that have been around for 119 years.

To Robinson, WaMu's future seemed as safe as a savings account. It had a long, storied history, having given out the first home loan ever in 1890 and more than $150-billion in home loans in 2006.

During the Great Depression, the bank didn't shrink but grew, buying up another distressed bank. Earlier this year, Robinson heard the chief operating officer and president reassure employees on a conference call that the company would be profitable in 2009.

Robinson, though, didn't rely on predictions but his own experiences, which kept him living below his means.

His shaved head and lean, muscular physique from working out five days a week gave him an economical look of efficiency.

He saw lean and fat times at home, growing up the son of a home builder and Realtor. He drove a 1996 Volkswagen Jetta for most of his career and still wears an affordable Fossil brand watch bought years ago. He flies coach and doesn't own a television.

By his own account, he's a simple man, but his lifestyle was also shaped by his employment at WaMu.

He was first laid off by the company as a registered assistant to stock brokers when the bank stopped selling stocks and bonds and eliminated his department.

The second time, the company closed his commercial real estate underwriting department — which seemed secure one floor below the CEO — because it duplicated the work of another department.

The third time came after the company collapsed last month, leaving him nothing but a thick, glass award on his filing cabinet reminding him that he made $68-million in loans in 2005.

"You take the good with the bad," he said, squeezing a pink piggy bank-shaped stress reliever between his palms sitting behind the office desk he was cleaning out.

He said he has saved enough money to last a full year and could dip into his 401(k) if necessary.

He is single without children and rents out his Fort Lauderdale condominium. He lives in a Tampa apartment, has no credit card debt and pays off bills immediately.

"No matter what happens with the economy," he said, "you make your own destiny."

He only recently sold his Jetta after years of ribbing from colleagues and bosses over driving something that didn't match his moneyed line of work.

He saw no reason to get rid of it since it ran great and attracted little attention when he visited properties in rough neighborhoods. He parked it out of sight and arrived early if he had to meet clients.

But eventually he caved and bought a metallic gray BMW 335 coupe two years ago.

He saved thousands of dollars by picking it up at the Munich, Germany, delivery center through an obscure purchasing method dealers don't disclose. He paid cash.

For the next few months, Robinson plans to travel to Asia and South America before he returns to job hunt. He doesn't think he'll land a financial job because of the economy and is strongly considering bartending, which seems to have a solid future given the sobering times and the many who could use a drink.

But he's confident he'll be okay, a resilient outlook earned from having been here before. All told, he's been laid off four times now.

"I know eventually I'll be on my feet," he said. "It's like losing your car at the mall. You know eventually you'll find your car. But in the short term, you got to make it like anybody else."

Justin George can be reached at (813) 226-3368 or jgeorge@sptimes.com.

Former WaMu employee calm amid bank's collapse 10/12/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 14, 2008 12:04pm]
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