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Being Kieran Prior

He may be in a wheelchair, but Kieran Prior knows no bounds as a Goldman Sachs prop trader.

  • Loch Adamson

Working on the noisy, frenetic trading desk at Goldman, Sachs & Co.’s London offices on Fleet Street earlier this decade, Kieran Prior and John Yeatts, two bright and ambitious 20-somethings from very different worlds, became close friends. Prior, a gregarious, wisecracking proprietary trader from the gritty outer suburbs of Manchester, took a liking to the soft-spoken Yeatts, a first-year financial analyst and native of Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Though Prior, then 23, was just a year older than Yeatts when they met in 2002, he enjoyed dispensing practical advice, teasing the American about his Saturday night dates and taking him out for pints of beer after work.

Yeatts returned the favor. When traders ordered lunch delivered to their desks, Yeatts cut up Prior’s food and fed him one small bite at a time. When Prior wanted a coffee, Yeatts would hunt down a straw, pop it into a lukewarm latté and carefully hold it close so that Prior could take a sip. If Prior accidentally knocked research materials off his desk, Yeatts gathered them up and replaced them, because Prior — who was born with a rare condition akin to cerebral palsy that affects his motor skills and impairs his speech — cannot get out of his electrically powered wheelchair unaided, and has never been able to walk.

Indeed, Prior struggles with even the most basic motor skills. When startled by any sudden movement or loud noise at close range, he reacts abruptly, muscles contracting sharply, limbs flying out in a reflexive response. Stress and fatigue, the daily burdens of any trader, exacerbate Prior’s symptoms, making it hard for him to control his hands and feet — and even harder for him to talk: Enunciating requires sustained concentration on his part. Prior grows embarrassed and deeply apologetic when he not infrequently kicks a colleague by accident on the trading floor, but the most serious damage he has ever done is to himself: The force of his reflexes is so great that he sometimes dislocates his own shoulders.

Yet despite these physical limitations, Prior is thriving on Goldman’s proprietary trading desk — arguably the most demanding and competitive testing ground in finance — winning the respect and admiration of colleagues while gaining experience, confidence and increased responsibility. It’s not easy running a book of any size for the high-powered trading machine that supplies much of the earnings of Wall Street’s most profitable and envied firm. That Prior is able to do so encumbered by such physical limitations is nothing short of extraordinary. Gary Williams, the former head of European equity trading who hired Prior nearly eight years ago, has enormous respect for his sheer determination to learn the markets.

“He’s an exceptionally smart, perceptive guy who has purposefully risen to — and overcome — so many challenges,” says Williams. “While the noise and hurly-burly of the trading floor make the physicality of trading more difficult for someone in Kieran’s position, the challenge actually appeals to him.”

Intellectually, Prior, now 29, has few limits. Since joining Goldman as a financial analyst in the equity division on July 10, 2000, Prior — whose IQ score of 238 on the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale puts him in the top 1 percent of 1 percent of the world’s population — has risen from performing basic research analysis and trading Euro Stoxx futures to running a $50 million value-based book of European mid- and large-cap equities and derivatives.

That climb has been all the more difficult because Prior couldn’t learn like any other junior trader. His bosses at Goldman quickly understood that although he could use a phone headset and Bloomberg terminal like others, Prior would never have the manual dexterity to handle high-volume client-order flow. So rather than have him spend several years filling orders as most young traders do, they matched him with a small group of more senior prop traders in risk arbitrage. Working alongside them, Prior learned by example, helping out with research and booking trades for the team. Finally, a few years ago, he earned the chance to run his own book.

As frustrated as he is by his physical limitations, Prior is keenly aware that his disability can have a profound — and sometimes unexpected — effect on his fellow traders: On May 31, 2007, Prior received an e-mail from Yeatts, who had left Goldman two years earlier and returned to the U.S. to apply to medical school. In his e-mail Yeatts said that he had written extensively about his relationship with Prior in his applications. “Our time together at Goldman was the essential inspiration and catalyst for my decision to go into medicine,” Yeatts wrote his friend. “In my small attempts at helping you, you helped me more than I could imagine. I wouldn’t be doing this without you.”

“Those were rare moments,” says Yeatts, now 28, newly married and attending medical school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “Helping Kieran really reminded me of what I was missing — and of the values my parents had instilled in me. And if anyone asked me why I wanted to become a doctor, I just explained about my relationship with Kieran.”

Sitting in his electrically powered wheelchair in a sparsely furnished, dimly lit ground-floor apartment — a utilitarian corporate flat equipped for the disabled that he shares with his live-in caregiver, Andrew Cringle — Prior falls silent rereading Yeatts’s e-mail. “I couldn’t respond to it,” he says quietly. “I didn’t even know how. I just felt really grateful, because getting that letter was amazing. I don’t have very many memorable trading stories yet, because I’m still not senior enough to put on big positions, but the letter made me realize that I had actually touched an individual’s soul.”

Despite his growing ability to make money, Prior doesn’t take human connections for granted. The bonds his friends forge with the breezy self-confidence of their youth can seem painfully elusive to Prior. Hanging out in a crowd at a pub called the Evangelist on a balmy Friday evening, watching his friends flirt with pretty girls, he is careful to ask only those male friends he knows won’t be embarrassed to help him sip his beer. At work he calls Cringle and leaves the floor when he needs to eat lunch. Although Prior credits Goldman Sachs with being extremely generous and supportive, his isolation is palpable.

Eighteen months ago, Prior decided to reach out. Using his own history as a means of highlighting the challenges faced by disabled children and teenagers, he designed a charitable fund with the help of his friend Mark Borland, a former head of international bonds at London-based Morley Fund Management. The London-based Priority Trust, which received its official registration on February 6, 2008, has already received the support of Academy Award–winning actor Daniel Day-Lewis and aims to raise £600,000 ($1.2 million) this year for the sole purpose of providing customized powered wheelchairs and mobility equipment for young people (see box). Prior hopes to give away at least half the amount raised in the charity’s first year alone — and amass even more next year — but doing so means taking a risk and telling his own extraordinary story for the first time.

Few boys growing up in the 1980s in Salford, a tough northern town about 12 miles outside Manchester, could conceive of working for an investment bank; mostly they dreamed of playing for Manchester United or of becoming policemen or firemen. Prior, though an ardent Man United fan like all his neighborhood friends, was forced to be more pragmatic.

He depended on others to help him with his wheelchair or pick him up and carry him wherever he needed to go. Often, after his mother brought him home from his special-needs primary school, his older brother, John, and neighborhood friends would propel him up the road to the field where they played soccer. His father, Terence (Terry) Prior, recalls that the boys once came home so excited after a game no one noticed Kieran was missing. A full half hour passed, he says, before someone asked, “Where’s Kieran?” and the boys realized that they had left him on the sidelines.

“I set off up the road to fetch Kieran, and there he was, sitting in the middle of the field in his chair,” says Terry Prior. “It was getting dark, but he wasn’t crying. I asked him why he hadn’t called out to anyone, and he said he knew someone would come for him eventually.”

Such tenacity and sangfroid have long characterized Prior’s approach to life. He credits his drive to his early, visceral fear of dying: In his final year of primary school, he says, four of his disabled classmates died suddenly, including twin boys who had been his friends. His parents assured him that he wasn’t at risk — his classmates had all had degenerative muscular dystrophy; Prior’s condition most closely resembles secondary nongenetic dystonia, characterized by sustained major muscle-group contractions — but he didn’t believe them. Worried that he would never grow up, he worked hard to be tougher and smarter — as if by excelling he could escape his classmates’ fate.

Prior was eight when he got his first powered wheelchair thanks to funding from a local charity, the Rotary Club of Salford with Swinton. The appear­ance of the chair was a pivotal moment in his childhood. “I remember it being staggeringly liberating,” he says. “The ability to move about the house on my own was unbelievable. It was like climbing Everest. And going down to the garden gate, being able to look out — amazing.”

His father remembers it well too. “That chair opened up a new world to him,” he says. “He could finally join in, instead of being left behind.”

Prior certainly wasn’t left behind in the classroom, where he overachieved in math and English. The headmaster at his primary school, Brian Neary, called his parents in for a meeting and told them to push hard to get the boy a placement in a good, mainstream comprehensive high school, rather than a separate school for disabled children, because he had such tremendous intellectual capacity. Prior’s father had to fight the Salford Local Authority to make it happen, but he succeeded in placing his son at Kaskenmoor School in Oldham, where the teenager thrived.

Prior first hit on the idea of becoming a trader sometime around the age of 12 or 13, inspired, he says, by a growing awareness of how much his parents were sacrificing for his care. His father owned a local butcher shop and later took a job as a baggage handler at Manchester Airport; his mother, Patricia, gave up her position as a bookkeeper to look after him from birth. Prior realized that if he were ever going to fund his own care and live independently, he would need to make a lot of money as soon as he left home. The surest way to do that, he thought, would be to go into finance.

Only once did his pragmatism deflect his ambition: On learning how much tuition cost at the University of Cambridge — which has what many consider the best economics program in the U.K. — he decided that he couldn’t ask his parents for the money. His father had been seriously injured on the job, and Prior didn’t want to further strain the family finances. He accepted an offer from the University of Manchester instead.

That decision gave him the security and support of living at home as an undergraduate. He took a taxi every day to the university campus and hired graduate students to take notes for him, since he can’t write clearly. He drily accuses himself now of “intellectual laziness,” despite getting a solid 2:1 (upper second-class honors) in economics at graduation, but says he used to sneak into lectures on unrelated topics — history, marine biology — for the sheer joy of learning about them.

Still, Prior’s determination to become a trader never wavered — and he only wanted to work for the best. “It was all or nothing for me,” he says with a laugh. “I could have stayed in Manchester because it was easier to live at home, but I thought, basically, Let’s go for it. I knew I could pretty much do anything I wanted intellectually and I thought, to use a football metaphor, Why not go out and try and play for Real Madrid?”

To Prior that meant Goldman Sachs, and in his final year at Manchester, he met a junior analyst from the bank at a university function and revealed his ambitions. The analyst was so impressed that she passed along his contact details to her boss, European equity chief Williams. Intrigued, he drove up to Manchester one afternoon to meet Prior for a preliminary interview.

“I expected Kieran to be very quantitative, reserved and geeky, given the supercomputer between his ears, but he was just the opposite,” says Williams. “He was really outgoing.”

Williams invited Prior to London to interview with other senior partners. The former equity chief — who is now retired and races cars — says Goldman has always been a bank that takes in young analysts, trains them in its investment culture and assigns older traders to mentor them until they gain their footing in the markets. And though he was a little surprised by Prior’s single-minded drive to become a prop trader, he admired it, too.

“Trading is intellectual, but it has a combative element,” he says. “I think the macho part of that — the idea of working on a mental battlefield — appealed to Kieran as much as the need for pure brainpower. He also has a great memory and can think laterally; he recognizes patterns and makes connections that other people fail to see.”

Prior joined Goldman just four days after he graduated from university on July 6, 2000. Early on, he caught the attention of John Thornton, Goldman’s then-president and co-COO, as the latter was walking across the trading floor. Thornton stopped for a brief chat — and was wowed. (Despite his halting, slightly sideways speech, Prior has a natural gift for storytelling and can punch up even a prosaic anecdote and make it funny and insightful.)

“I couldn’t help but be impressed,” says Thornton, who is now a professor and director of global leadership at Tsinghua University in Beijing but still counts himself as one of Prior’s mentors. “First of all, Kieran’s sheer, raw talent is impressive, and when you add to that the determination he shows getting through the day in a place like Goldman Sachs, which is so demanding, it’s just breathtaking.”

Although his bosses never worried about Prior hitting the wrong key or typing a string of zeros — all trades require layers of execution confirmation before they clear — they did have to devise an unusual, alternative method to educate him. As a consequence, his training as a prop trader has taken longer than it might have otherwise, because — after leaving the risk arbitrage group — he has had to work through a succession of asset classes in turn: futures, Euro Stoxx, equities and equity derivatives. Prior has the latitude to invest in almost any business sector, but he recently narrowed his focus to just 20 companies — primarily mid- and large-cap financial, industrial and energy companies — because of the extreme volatility in the markets. “I joined Goldman in a bear market,” he says, “but these markets are the most difficult I’ve ever seen, so I’m just using this period of volatility to learn as much as I can.”

The stresses of trading add to a daily challenge that would exceed most people’s capabilities. Because he cannot walk or stand unaided, Prior has to have live-in assistance. Cringle, a burly, bearded South African who has been looking after Prior for the past five and a half years, gets him out of bed, dresses him for work, and buckles him into his wheelchair every morn-ing before Prior rolls down Ludgate Hill to Goldman’s offices in the City. Because Prior has such difficulty controlling fine-motor movements, Cringle also cooks for him and helps him eat.

At work, Prior opts for as little corporate intercession as possible, preferring to do as much as he can on his own. His stubborn pride has sometimes prevented him from asking for help when he needs it most. In his first year as an analyst at Goldman, his wheelchair broke down, and he missed several days of work because he was stranded in bed while it was undergoing repairs.

When he returned to the trading floor, Thornton came over to find out whether he had been ill and Prior told him about his chair. Thornton wanted to know whether he had replaced it, and Prior admitted that he hadn’t. In response to the inevitable “Why not?” he confessed that he didn’t think he could afford to buy a new one, because it cost £9,000 and he had only just started in his job. “I think John was somewhat horrified, because he insisted on giving me the money for a new chair,” Prior says.

Thornton’s generosity literally set Prior in motion again. Having been the recipient of unexpected generosity those seven years ago, Prior is now in a position to give back — and wants to make as broad an impact as possible, as quickly he can. No one could be a more passionate advocate for the right of disabled children and teenagers to have the means to move as freely and independently as they would like. From Prior’s perspective financial profits are finite and easily quantified, but the return on hope is limitless.


Establishing Priority

Prop trader Kieran Prior aims to give wheelchair-bound children greater hope

Goldman, Sachs & Co. proprietary trader Kieran Prior has found a new passion: ensuring that disabled children and teenagers in the U.K. get the right mobility equipment, without which they have little chance of making their way down the street unaided — much less pursuing their professional goals. The U.K.’s National Health Service provides wheelchairs for children and adults but lacks the budget to offer high-tech indoor-outdoor powered chairs to any but the most profoundly disabled: A basic model costs £7,000 ($13,850) on average; the addition of special features can bring the tab to as much as £18,000.

Prior, who suffers from a rare condition akin to cerebral palsy and has never been able to walk, knows how critical such equipment is. In 1987, when he was eight, his parents appealed to a local charity, the Rotary Club of Salford with Swinton, for money to buy him his first powered chair. Twenty-one years on, families with disabled children still encounter tremendous difficulty trying to obtain such chairs through the government: Allocations are made through a postcode lottery system, and children’s needs are not considered separately from those of adults. Frequently, families make their way through the health care maze only to be told that their children aren’t considered sufficiently disabled to be eligible.

“The NHS does what it can, but the government takes a very practical view of the level of need,” Prior says. “I want to advocate for a more compassionate view: Every child who needs a powered wheelchair should get one, because without it, they simply won’t have a childhood.”

In February he and Mark Borland, a former head of international bonds at London-based Morley Fund Management, launched the Priority Trust ( www.prioritytrust.org ), a charity designed to give disabled young people greater independence by funding the purchase of powered wheelchairs and customized mobility equipment. Unlike a typical charity, however, the Priority Trust won’t entertain direct applications for funding; grants will be made to a diversified pool of U.K. charities that already have established programs for providing powered wheelchairs. The trust will allocate funds proportionately to those charities, based on their fiscal efficiency, scale and demographic reach in the pediatric market.

The need is great: Of 700,000 disabled children and teens in the U.K., 43 percent have significant difficulty with mobility. Statistics are hard to come by, but a study conducted by the Social Policy Research Unit at the University of York in 1995 — and reaffirmed last year by the U.K.’s Department of Health — estimated that at least 70,000 disabled British children would benefit from wheelchair and mobility equipment.

“Basically, the government’s provision of wheelchairs is underfunded, underresourced and overcomplicated,” says Borland. “In simple terms, children should have the independence to be able to do what they want, when they want to do it.”

As the trust’s chairman and founder, Prior is tapping his professional network to raise funds, while Borland oversees administration as CEO. The pair hope to receive pledges totaling £600,000 in their first year and have enlisted a four-strong board of directors, including Edmund Adamus, director of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Westminster; Phillip Hylander, global head of Goldman Sachs’ principal strategic investment group in London; David Kaplan, a former partner at Goldman Sachs, now CEO of online media company Pure Solo; and Ilene Lang, president of New York–based research organization Catalyst.

“Given the strength of his character, Kieran has the capacity to be a very influential person,” says Hylander. “I see no boundaries to what he can accomplish — and being a trader, he can help to raise people’s awareness that a career in the financial industry is achievable irrespective of physical challenges.”

Prior has also enlisted the support — “I just rang up his agent and begged,” says Prior — of Academy Award–winning actor Daniel Day-Lewis, whose portrayal of wheelchair-bound author and artist Christy Brown in the 1989 film My Left Foot inspired a then-ten-year-old Prior to pursue his goal of independence. “Today there are still many thousands of disabled children who do not have the right mobility equipment that will give them the independence to achieve their potential,” says Day-Lewis in a statement to Institutional Investor. “In Kieran Prior the Priority Trust has a founder who proves what can be achieved given the right opportunity and is an example to all of us.”

Prior hopes to inspire kids by giving them the means to explore the world more freely — and pursue their far-reaching ambitions. “A number of people have asked me why I couldn’t do this through an existing charity,” he says, “but unless I bring my own direct experience to bear on the issue, and make potential donors aware of these children’s circumstances, I don’t think they’ll sympathize with our cause as deeply as they might.” — L.A.