Rubin Receives Royal Reception From Salomon Traders

The deferential response the ex-Treasury secretary received could suggest Citigroup employees' desire for a leader they can trust without equivocation.
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Robert Rubin returned Wednesday to the place where he first made a name for himself: the trading floor.

In a room that could comfortably house two or three jumbo jets, the former Treasury secretary spent an hour just before noon schmoozing with top traders from

Salomon Smith Barney

, the investment bank owned by

Citigroup

(C) - Get Report

, which Rubin

joined Tuesday.

The last bank the trim, tennis-playing 61-year-old worked for was

Goldman Sachs

(GS) - Get Report

, where, from 1966 until 1993, he gained a reputation as one of Wall Street's best traders.

Unannounced, Rubin entered the trading floor at Salomon's Tribeca headquarters with Tom Maheras, the head of the bank's global debt group, and Deryck Maughan, a Citigroup vice chairman.

Few traders on the floor noticed Rubin at first. Then, one by one, they began standing up behind their ramparts of terminals, phones tucked under their chins, to get a peek. It was as if

Ted Williams decided to spend an early evening hanging around the

Red Sox

batting cage.

Rubin, in his customary plain navy-blue suit, white shirt and low-volume necktie, slowly made his way up the room's central aisle, trying not to make a big impression. In fact, he looked very much at home. His hands were in his pockets for a good part of the visit. If he was getting an atavistic thrill from returning to the sort of operation where he made he made his estimated $100 million-plus fortune at Goldman, it didn't show.

But not even the slightest trace of hostility or cynicism could be detected Wednesday at Salomon. Rubin got a reverential, even royal, reception from staff. One exec gleefully informed a colleague after speaking to Rubin: "I shook his hand." Another sheepishly approached Rubin with a dollar bill and asked him to sign it. He obliged, of course.

This sort of deferential response may show that Citigroup employees have craved a leader they could trust -- without equivocation. John Reed and Sandy Weill, who along with Rubin are co-chairmen at Citigroup, are both huge talents, but each has a label. Weill is "Travelers." Reed, "Citi." Such labels may be typical in corporate America, but there's nothing ordinary about Citigroup, an entity as huge and potentially unwieldy as the old

Hapsburg Empire

.

Reed, some believe, is too patrician to secure the full confidence of Salomon traders and

Travelers'

insurance salespeople, while Weill (or few others, for that matter) hasn't run an institution of Citigroup's breadth.

By contrast, Rubin is a proven trader, carries a Goldman pedigree and, yet, hobnobs effortlessly with world leaders. He's neither Citi nor Travelers. In fact, he's not even Goldman anymore.

That could be exactly why, on paper, he would make an excellent CEO for Citigroup. But when leaving his introductory press conference Tuesday, he stressed: "I absolutely won't be the CEO of anything."

Maybe he'll change his mind. When he left the trading floor Wednesday, the traders spontaneously erupted in applause. You got the feeling that Rubin would have won a straw poll taken then and there on who should be Citigroup's CEO. Three may be a crowd, indeed.