Small Businesses Fear UBS Defection

Jul 11, 2011

Swiss bank UBS has been a huge presence in downtown Stamford for more than a decade. It’s the city’s biggest employer, with some three thousand workers, and its biggest taxpayer. But for months, rumors have been flying that the company may relocate some or all of those people back to Manhattan. WNPR’s Harriet Jones takes a look at what that might mean for the city’s business ecosystem.

A group of UBS traders arrives for lunch at Fiesta Restaurant on Stamford’s Atlantic Street.

“We are close to them, we have a lot of customers from them too. I think it is not only to us – I think for all of the businesses in Stamford it will be an effect.”

Alberto Rojas opened this restaurant in 1995, just a year after UBS made a commitment to the city.

“In these years I think little by little it was growing, our business with them. They coming like, in groups, and sometimes we do delivery to them also.”

Just round the corner on Bank Street, Joseph Criscuolo runs Tappo Restaurant. He’s worried about the effect on that business, but he also says a defection by UBS will have wider implications for the city.

“I own some apartments in town so even that’s going to be affected. You know the rents climbed within the last ten years in Stamford. We have developed a lot of high-end apartments downtown, so it’s a big concern if they leave.”

UBS hasn’t yet said what its intentions are, but it’s known to have had talks with the developers of the new World Trade Center in lower Manhattan. Its lease in Stamford would be up for renewal in 2015. David Lewis’s company, Operations Inc, does human resources consulting for many small and mid-size businesses in Stamford. He says the effect of UBS’s high-paying jobs on the city is pervasive.

“Those people, instead of going out of the building and taking a left to go to the train station at five o’clock, go out of their building and in many cases take a right to walk into downtown Stamford to grab a drink, grab a bite, hang around, and in a lot of cases have bought apartments or rented places in this town. You take those people out of here in three years, that’s going to leave a gaping hole that’s going to take a while for the city to recover from.”

On the other hand, some are optimistic. Entrepreneur Ashok Vasudevan and his wife Meera founded a hugely successful global food business in Stamford, Preferred Brands. He doesn’t believe UBS will relocate, but he says if it does, there could be an upside.

“If they do leave, the real estate prices will actually soften a little bit. That may further attract people into Fairfield County. And I think the more people come in here the more will be the opportunities, and the more incubation, because this is a center for a very large number of small companies. So I believe this will be an innovation center, an incubation center, a hub for entrepreneurship.”

Another optimist is the city’s economic development director, Laure Aubuchon.

“We’re operating under the assumption that UBS is going to stay. If it doesn’t there could well be other financial services or other companies that would want to occupy what I consider to be the choicest of the four corners – those four corners around the train station.”

She says Stamford is somewhat used to the revolving door of corporate America.

“If one looks at the trajectory of Stamford’s economic development over the last 30 or 40 years, we have not only survived departures of major companies in the past, we have gone on to another level in terms of our economic activity.”

HR consultant David Lewis says this may be true, but it also may not help in the short term.

“Will we survive? I don’t think the city’s going to crumble and fall into a black hole. But will it be painful? Absolutely.”

For WNPR, I’m Harriet Jones.