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From Wall Street To Skid Row

Tragedy, Triumphs and Adlai Wertman's First Five Years at Chrysalis

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Posted: Monday, October 16, 2006 12:00 am

Adlai Wertman wants to talk about the homeless. Even when the conversation is supposed to be about his life, he will go on for half an hour about the politics of Skid Row, how it is genocide down there, how he sees addicts shooting up through the veins in their forehead, and how hard it is to get people to donate money.

Wertman, 47, has helmed the Downtown Los Angeles social services agency Chrysalis for the last five years. Now, with Skid Row in the political and media spotlights, his charge of running the organization, and his decision to trade the for-profit sector for the world of advocacy, has put him on the front lines of the most complex and emotion-laden issue in Downtown.

The short version of Wertman's story is movie-plot perfect: For 18 years, he was an investment banker on Wall Street. He made the big bucks, had a nice house and a Rolodex of rich friends. But in 1994, his brother died suddenly, and three years later Wertman was diagnosed with a treatable form of cancer. He decided it was time for a change and within five years had moved across the country and taken an 85% pay cut to help homeless men and women find jobs.

Yet what appears on the surface to be a sudden metamorphosis born of tragedy is more a dream deferred. Wertman's life doesn't divide neatly into phase one and two; the homeless advocate was resident in the investment banker from the beginning, remaining quiet until suffering brought him forth.

"The change in career path wasn't so much a move from Wall Street to what he is doing now," said Michael Colton, a friend of Wertman's for nearly 15 years. "The first thing that occurred was his becoming much more spiritual, which led him to leaving Wall Street. But, it was always there in him."

Aiming for the Ferrari

Wertman grew up in Queens, New York. His parents, both teachers, raised their three sons in a traditional household.

Wertman got As in schools and, after graduating from Stony Brook University in 1980 with a degree in economics, found himself interviewing at a medium-sized brokerage firm.

"The guy asked me, 'Why do you want this job?' and I told him that by 30, I wanted a big house, a Ferrari and a boat," Wertman said. "I said that if I wasn't going to get that there, then I was in the wrong business. The guy asked me to start on Monday."

Over the next 18 years, Wertman climbed the Wall Street ladder, at companies that included Prudential Securities and Bear Stearns. He attended the University of Pennsylvania Wharton School of Business and earned MBAs in finance, public policy and strategic planning.

By 30, he was working on the 17th floor of a Manhattan high-rise. His office had a view of the Statue of Liberty. By 33, he had that big house in Greenwich, Conn. and had been married for seven years.

But in 1994, his brother Elon died of heart disease. Wertman said he lost his best friend.

"He was diagnosed and then, 29 days later, he died," Wertman said. "He died in my arms… I was the one who pulled the plug."

While his brother was sick, Wertman turned philosophical, wondering what if their places were switched? Would he be proud of his life thus far? No, he answered.

He returned to Wall Street and held on for another three years ("You know, the saying on Wall Street was, 'Just one more bonus, and then I'll quit,'" he explains). Then, in 1997, he was diagnosed with melanoma. He underwent surgery to treat the skin cancer, but it reinforced Wertman's realization that if he wanted to leave the finance world, the time was short.

A New Life

Wertman did finally quit Wall Street. He moved his family to Los Angeles and rented a house in Pacific Palisades.

He planned out his life from the vantage point of the familiar, working for two years as the president of West Coast public finance investment banking for Prudential Securities in Santa Monica. As he did in New York, he concentrated on public financing, finding funding for schools, infrastructure and nonprofits.

In his spare time, Wertman networked with the local nonprofit community. He soon learned about Chrysalis and, impressed with its impact on homeless lives, he joined its Board of Directors. He became Chairman of the Board, and within a year threw in his hat for the position of president.

"He is still a young man and to make that career change so early on I think is very surprising and for him, very gratifying," said Tim Dubois, the current Chrysalis chairman, and a member of the board that hired Wertman. "It was also surprising that when we were interviewing for his position we had other senior executives from large commercial businesses that were interested in the job, who had the same motivations as Adlai."

Dubois said that Wertman was a "natural fit" for the job, and has since added increased business professionalism to Chrysalis.

"Because of his background, Adlai can travel between governmental entities and commercial entities and speak the same language," Dubois said.

Wertman explains that his transformation was not spurred by tragedy. He insists that his altruism was not an extreme jump from his 18 years as a moneymaker.

"Ever since I was a kid, I had always wanted to do community service, but then I got swept up in the whole Wall Street thing," Wertman said. "What happened when my brother died and I got cancer was that I realized I needed to do it soon. It wasn't if I was going to do this, it was when."

But if that's true, then who was that brash kid who walked into a job interview and demanded a big house and a boat by age 30?

"I just wanted to get the job, to tell the guy what he wanted to hear," Wertman laughed. "Really, I never wanted any of that. I never even wanted money, to tell you the truth.

"The reason I liked Wall Street was because it was the best and the brightest competing head-on everyday," he continued. "It was kind of like the NBA of brains. Money was just a way to measure whether you were winning or not."

Five Years in Downtown

Five years have passed since Wertman took over as president of Chrysalis. The 22-year-old organization, with offices in Downtown, Santa Monica and Pocoima, helps homeless men and women transition from the streets to the working world. It also operates a transitional employment office and trains many of those who work on cleaning crews in Downtown Business Improvement Districts.

Now, Wertman has Skid Row politics nailed, and his platform reflects both the businessman he was and the social welfare advocate he has become. When Downtown City Councilwoman Jan Perry held a press conference last month on the streets of Skid Row, Wertman was one of the area stakeholders gathered behind her.

Wertman wants the city and county to concentrate more on housing and less on "policing" the streets. Like many, he thinks the city should decentralize homeless services and stop pushing people to Skid Row. He thinks Downtown should be a mixed community with people of multiple income levels. He befriended the developers in the area, although he admits that they make strange bedfellows.

Wertman still lives in the Palisades with his wife and three young children, and he has traveled to Israel three times in the last 30 months to help with poverty issues there. He also teaches a class on strategic planning and nonprofit organizations at UCLA's School of Public and Social Research.

Wertman's business savvy has come in handy, and he's been able to stabilize Chrysalis financially (when he first joined the organization wasn't able to make payroll, he said). Still, Wertman says his Wall Street contacts have actually been of little use to him.

"I expected that all my rich friends would hear about this problem here and stop it," Wertman said. "But the answer is, they wrote a check… not a very big check, and then they went away."

The Chrysalis headquarters - comprised of two buildings on Main Street - is undergoing renovation. Wertman's new office will be on the ground floor. It will not have any windows.

As he sits in a back corner of one of Chrysalis' meeting rooms, surrounded by the rubble of the construction, he ignores questions about his life, and instead returns to his favorite topic. "So, what is happening," Wertman booms, "is that the rich are getting richer, and the poor are getting poorer…"

He could go on for another half hour.

Contact Kathleen Nye Flynn at

page 14, 10/16/2006

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