Last Thursday, February 25, Howard Schweitzer and Jim Lambright entered Uris Hall serenely, shook off the snow and immediately began their discussion with a crowd of students and faculty members. While most people would have been dismayed by the travails of taking a train through a blizzard from Washington DC to New York — and just to visit Columbia Business School students! — Schweitzer and Lambright viewed the task as trifling.

Not surprising, given that until recently Schweitzer ran TARP (the Troubled Asset Relief Program) and Lambright, who had been the president of the Ex-Im Bank, served as TARP’s chief investment officer. When Schweitzer took the job in the fall of 2008, Lehman and WaMu had disintegrated, Wachovia had been acquired to stave off a panic and Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley, the last two major investment banks, had converted themselves into commercial banks. Running TARP, Lambright said, was like working in the emergency ward of a wartime hospital: lots of blunt instruments and patients enduring a great deal of pain. After that experience, a three-hour journey through a snowstorm was barely worth noticing.

Schweitzer and Lambright spoke to a lively and elite audience as part of the School’s Community Forum on Business and the Economy organized by Dean Glenn Hubbard. They gave an inside account of the beginning of TARP from the day Neel Kashkari first called Schweitzer to start up the program. With no clear mandate and makeshift offices hidden in crevices of the Treasury’s buildings, Schweitzer was given the task of managing the list of firms that the Treasury handed over.

Schweitzer recalled the first days of the program: Another $40 billion for AIG, ok, we’ll work that one out, we’ll do non-voting equity. CITI needs an injection of finance, ok, we’ll work out the warrants and take board seats. The public is in an uproar over compensation packages already in contract. Nothing much can be done; the rule of law prevails but let’s put in place a pay czar to make sure that the public money is spent wisely. Over here, the auto industry is bleeding cash, no credit is forthcoming and the repercussions on the financial system are massive. We’ll work something out, but there is an election happening too and a new guy is taking over January 20. Do I show up for work? Does TARP carry over and do we keep on working? What do I do January 21? Oh, it is business as usual. By the way, will TARP ever fully repay the taxpayer? The estimate is that it will be $120 billion short, but that’s the official estimate. It’s likely to pay back except for autos … and AIG?

Schweitzer and Lambright answered every question. While they were both very modest, there was still a sense that these two men knew how to get a job done. At one point during the heated events in 2009, the Wall Street Journal quoted former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, who hired Lambright. Paulson said about Lambright, “He’s unbelievably tough, and … the job is to save the financial system.”

Leaving aside whether one thinks TARP was a good idea (I do) or a bad one, the impression left by these two very amiable and frank government servants was that they took the entrepreneurial challenge and ran with it, steering carefully within the confines of the law that sets out hiring practices (they needed to hire fast) and transparency. Now after stepping down from TARP, Schweitzer has joined the big law firm Cozens O’Connor; Lambright is pursuing green energy at Sapphire Energy.

No revolving door into Wall Street for them. One had to leave the room very impressed.

Photo credit: Flickr/onecle