By Jeff Kagan
In early 1984, a gaggle of New York Times editors sat in their executive dining room with Ivan Boesky, then one of Wall Street’s top arbitrageurs. The essence of rarified financial expertise, Boesky sat in a starched white shirt with point collars across the table from the reporters.
Over the years, Boesky had found himself involved with every large breaking merger on Wall Street, playing the role of prescient dealmaker. If there was a major deal, Boesky had a piece of the pie.
After a few minutes, a tousled Robert Cole walked in and quickly settled into his natural position. The group bantered until Cole sat up and politely asked, “You seem to be in on every big deal before it happens…how?”
It was the ultimate basic question you’re not taught to ask when you get in front of big sources. Most reporters tried to play the game – particularly when covering Wall Street.
“But Bob…Bob was gonna call bullshit on Boesky,” said Rex Seline, who worked as the assistant to the business editor at The Times starting in 1985. Seline remembered Cole as the ultimate crusty reporter.
A few months after the meeting, the feds blew the whistle on Boesky, hitting him with fines exceeding $100 million.
Starting in the early 1960s, Robert Cole covered personal and corporate finance, mergers and acquisitions and general securities at The Times. Infamous for his brevity, Cole’s quick wit and silver tongue emerged when toiling with Wall Street’s stories and scandals.
According to The Times obituary, Cole was born in 1925 in Rhode Island and graduated from the University of Texas, Austin, in 1947. After a stint in the Navy during World War II, Cole began his career in 1949 as a reporter for The Mexico City Herald. A year later, Cole moved to become foreign editor of The New York Journal of Commerce, eventually joining The Times financial news department in 1962
During his inaugural years at The Times, Cole’s laconic wit emerged. In a 1970 article on hospital testing, Cole wrote, “If you’ve ever had to spend as much as a week in the hospital, nobody has to tell you that it’s much cheaper to spend a week in the best suite at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel.
Through covering the largest mergers and buyouts of the day, Cole quickly built up a tolerance towards recalcitrant financiers looking to steer clear of Cole’s prodding questions. Yet, he never tried to impress with his smarts. He went after stories in the simplest, most basic terms possible. This ability to demystify Wall Street through upfront questioning helped elucidate a transformative age in corporate finance. Cole extracted straightforward information from some of history’s most complicated transactions.
“Some analyst got caught up in arcane generalizations…trying to get deals to happen while being enamored with themselves – Bob didn’t deal with that,” Seline said.
This pragmatic attitude was pervasive.
Diana Henriques wrote a Sunday stock column at The Times during Cole’s tenure. Though relatively new to the paper, she gained acclaim for her column’s ability to move stocks.
Henriques recalled one day when Cole, who she had not been formally introduced to, walked up to her desk and curtly asked, “What do you do here?”
After hearing about the writer’s Sunday column, Cole insouciantly remarked, “Oh, I don’t read the paper on Sundays…I’m off.”
Seline and Henriques both remembered Cole’s daily interactions with executives, reporters, editors and anyone who was not meeting his standards. Cole’s relentless efforts to deliver the big stories gave him a unique persona.
“It was fun to watch from a distance when he was rolling over people,” Seline chuckled.
In 1985, Cole received a Loeb Award for his coverage of The Standard Oil Co. of California’s acquisition of the Gulf Corp. The protracted deal dragged through courts and Wall Street’s top banks. In spite of the noise, Cole masterfully combined financial details with a unique sense of deal proceedings and possible outcomes.
Cole’s coverage of merger activity showed he took the info he needed, asked what the deal was, what is meant, how much money was involved and how much could be made. Covering a sanctimonious Wall Street, Cole wrote with necessary circumspect and skepticism
In 2009, Cole passed in Asheville, N.C., at the age of 83.
Jeff Kagan is a native of Raleigh, N.C., and a business journalism major in the Class of 2015 at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.