Alan C Greenberg, best known for his transformational role in catapulting Bear Sterns into a top-flight investment banking firm, died of cancer Friday at the age of 86.

Alan Greenberg

Alan Greenberg’s career

He spent half a century at Bear Sterns, where he joined as a humble clerk. His hard work, determination and skills at trading and deal-making soon put him on the path to the top job. “Ace’ became chairman of Bear Sterns in 1985, and during this period acquired a reputation on Wall Street as a risk taker extraordinaire who had no fears dealing in anything from troubled NYC bonds to illiquid and down-and-out securities. Bear Sterns went public on his watch, and the IPO fueled the firm’s global expansion.

Bear Sterns employees remember him for his obsession for controlling costs (even rubber bands and paper clips), his insistence that phones be answered not later than the second ring, abhorrence of overly long meetings and love of the hubbub in the trading ring. He believed in hard work (not luck), performance-based remuneration and hated it if a trader booked a large loss.

Bear Sterns collapsed into bankruptcy in March 2008 in the sub-prime mortgages meltdown of 2007-2008, and was bought out by JP Morgan. The event was a precursor to the great financial crisis of 2008, and led to the loss of thousands of jobs at Bear Sterns and untold losses. Greenberg presented his version of the events that led to Bear’s downfall in the book “The Rise and Fall of Bear Stearns,” which he co-authored with Mark Singer of the New Yorker. He put the blame for the debacle on overly high leverage and CEO Jimmy Cayne, who allegedly ignored Greenberg’s warnings on the excessive risk on the firm’s books.

Alan Greenberg: The facts were very simple

“The facts were very simple,” he said in a 2010 interview. “We were highly leveraged and the things we owned we thought were worth 100 and they were worth 40 or 50. When you’re highly leveraged, Jessica, and things go from 100 to 40, you don’t do well.”

Born in Oklahoma in September 1927 into a Jewish family of means, Greenberg graduated from the University of Missouri in 1949. He was also an accomplished bridge player, a card magician and loved game hunting in Africa. It is said that in his office he displayed a picture of himself with a slain antelope. He was also a frequent giver to charities, and one of his most well-known donations was $1 million to buy Viagra for men unable to afford the medicine.

He is survived by second wife Kathryn, children Theodore and Lynne Koeppel, a sister and brother and five grandchildren.