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Lunch at the Tribeca Grill with: Maria Bartiromo

Published by The New York Sun on 2005-04-13

Sitting across the lunch table from Maria Bartiromo, CNBC's celebrated anchor, watching her discreetly nibble at a chicken salad, it occurred to the reporter that an anniversary was being marked. Ten years ago, Ms. Bartiromo became the first journalist to report live from the floor of the New York Stock Exchange for the business network's unscripted and breakneck-speed morning program, "Squawk Box."

The reporter even remembered her maiden appearance on the show, how she was surrounded by a sea of suits - men hustling and jostling around her, with nary another woman in sight. Her show quickly caught on, as Americans - and later viewers around the world - tuned in for Ms. Bartiromo's savvy reporting on the clangor and clamor of the financial trenches.

It's been quite a decade for Ms. Bartiromo, arguably the most famous financial journalist on the planet. She now appears on three shows, "The Wall Street Journal Report with Maria Bartiromo," "Closing Bell with Maria Bartiromo," and "Closing Bell with Maria Bartiromo and Tyler Mathisen." There's been a best-seller in this decade, and countless awards and honors. Tycoons vie to be interviewed by Ms. Bartiromo. Society doyennes fawn over her. Fan clubs have sprouted around the globe.

So how does she deal with such fame? What was it like to have name, face and voice recognition on virtually every continent? Was she surprised how far in life the daughter of Vincent and Josephine Bartiromo of Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, had come?

"Surprised?" Ms. Bartiromo said. "Sure."

Then she paused for just a moment.

"But I work hard, I work very, very hard," she said. "I never stop working. I love what I do - which is why I never stop working. I'm still working my way up the ladder - I'm still on the ladder."

And what explained her drive?

"My upbringing," Ms. Bartiromo said. "No matter how successful I might become, I always feel rooted in my upbringing. I come from a very closely-knit family. My mother is my best friend. My sister Theresa is my second-best friend. I still have visions of my father working in his restaurant - The Rex Manor - a white bandana on his head, sweating, toiling, those long hours. The truth is, I feel extremely fortunate because of that modest upbringing. I can appreciate all the small joys of life."

When she was growing up, one of those joys was the Christmas Club that her mother set up, that year-long contribution to an informal family fund that Ms. Bartiromo, her sister, and her brother, Patrick, could use at the end of the year to buy presents for one another. Perhaps the financial acumen that was to fetch her accolades later in life was being accumulated in those years.

That acumen, Ms. Bartiromo said, was refined in her professional life through extensive reading, intensive reflection on national and global economic issues - and by talking to just about everybody she encounters.

"I'm always asking questions - and not just on the air," she said.
Her questions on the air are seldom confrontational, but they are indisputably tough. The questions are assembled in order to elicit information and insights from her guests in order to serve what Ms. Bartiromo listed as her four main constituencies: the investing public, executives, regulators, and everyday people who aren't necessarily interested in the minutiae of the financial world but who tune to her shows to be engaged by her straight-forward style and the eclectic quality of her guests.

"Americans are very sophisticated about the markets," Ms. Bartiromo - who started in TV as Lou Dobbs' producer at CNN Business News and moved to CNBC in 1993 -- said. "I never, ever make the mistake of dumbing down my shows. And it gets me so angry when some people on my show try to dumb things down. That's who I am. I ask questions in a way that gets the issues on the table. I give my guests ample time to state their case. I'm not a 'gotcha!' journalist. I like to always get to the heart of issues, to get my guests to explain what it all means. I'm not confrontational. Maybe that's why I get the interviews that are hard to get."

Are there interviews that she hasn't gotten, guests who she'd dearly love to have on her shows?

"Of course - Alan Greenspan, Condoleezza Rice," Ms. Bartiromo said, referring to the Federal Reserve chairman and the American secretary of state, respectively.

And are there historical figures that're now beyond her reach that she would like to have met?

"Winston Churchill, the Founding Fathers, Alexander Hamilton," Ms. Bartiromo said. "Hamilton - just think of the vision our Treasury secretary had in helping put together the new nation's financial system, the Federal Reserve. Just think of the how the Founding Fathers put together our Constitution - the history they made."

A love of history is something that she shares with her husband, Jonathan Steinberg, founder and CEO of Index Development Partners. Ms. Bartiromo credits him with being not only supportive of her work but "pushing me into the spotlight while keeping out of it himself."

"It takes a really self-confident and strong guy to have his wife out there in a high-profile industry - a male-dominated industry - and actually encourage her to achieve even more," she said. "My husband understands. He gets it."

There are other figures that Ms. Bartiromo said she admires and who also "get it," albeit in a different context. Among them are Jeffrey Immelt, General Electric's CEO (and technically Ms. Bartiromo's boss, since GE owns CNBC), Lee Raymond, ExxonMobil's CEO, and A. G. Lafley, CEO of Procter & Gamble. Not long ago in London, she met Lakshmi N. Mittal, chairman of Mittal Steel Co., and designated by Forbes as the world's third richest man, after Bill Gates and Warren Buffet, both of whom she's interviewed.

"I came away impressed," Ms. Bartiromo said. "I love to learn, and I'm not afraid of criticism. I yearn for feedback. I especially love to learn from all the smart people I get to meet - what explains their success, how they organize their lives, how they run their businesses, how they serve the public."

She also feels that - notwithstanding the numerous scandals that have been rocking corporate America - "most executives are honest people who are trying to get it right."

"Trying to get it right" was a phrase that came up frequently during the reporter's conversation with Ms. Bartiromo. In her professional life, that phrase translated into "preparing extremely hard for every interview - I'm overprepared," she said, adding that she often counseled college students "to do the right thing - not just try but do the right thing." She acknowledged that her emphasis on accountability, probity and morality stemmed from her upbringing in Bay Ridge.

Indeed, the conversation was laced with repeated references to her family, including the recent demise of her beloved 103-year-old uncle, Charles Managaracina, and to how excited her mother was when Ms. Bartiromo introduced her to Regis Philbin, the TV talk-show host.

After all the success, all the encomiums, the reporter asked, was there anything that she'd still wanted to do.

Ms. Bartiromo thought about the question.

"I'd like to have kids someday," she said. "But I'm not ready just yet."

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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