What do you do once your life has become a best-selling book? Or when it's turned into a major motion picture starring Will Smith? If you're Chris Gardner -- a man whose journey has taken him from homeless father to Wall Street broker to wildly successful founder of his own financial firm -- you set your sights on saving a nation.
By: Andrew Barber
Issue: December 2006/January 2007 , Page 92
For reasons I cant begin to explain, I knew with every fiber of my being that the world of trading was it for me.”
FEATUREFade in, office interior: It's a crisp, clear October day in Chicago, and Chris Gardner is hunkered down at his desk near the CBOT, launching a feverish blitz of phone calls. He's ringing portfolio managers and traders. He's talking equity markets and interest rates. He's flagging down investors for his new fund and customers of his brokerage firm. And through it all, he's trying to reschedule a meeting that was canceled due to a U.N. Security Council vote, a little get-together with Thabo Mbeki, the president of South Africa. They do, after all, have business to discuss.
Cut to: A few hours before, Gardner, 52, is baking under the stage lights at Harpo Studios, regaling Oprah Winfrey and her audience with his tale of poverty and tragedy and abuse and homelessness and the art of rising above it all to achieve a life of greatness and joy. It's a tale so outsized, so inspiring, that by the time he's done, Oprah is crying. The audience is crying. The cameraman is crying -- seriously, the cameraman is actually crying.
Cut back to office: where later in the day, while juggling more calls, he'll be asked to attend to the matter of the invitation list for the private screening of a movie that night, the movie inspired by the best-selling book about his life. Is Oprah on it? Check. Gardner's kids? Check. Will Smith? Check. He does, after all, star as Gardner in the film.
Close up on: the phone, which starts ringing again. Gardner could let it ring. After all, he should be exhausted -- spent from the pressure of his schedule, of managing his company, of the media circus surrounding the book and the movie. But in Chris Gardner's world, there's always time for one more call. No one ever got rich by not taking another call.
Reporter: "How are you doing, Chris?"Chris Gardner: "I am absolutely killing! I am killing 'em, baby!" With that, he unleashes the bellowing laugh of a man who once traded on nothing -- and won everything in return.
Born in 1954, the second of four children, Gardner grew up on the seriously mean streets of the north side of Milwaukee, raised by a loving mother and tormented by an abusive stepfather -- who would loom like an ogre in the story of his fractured childhood. Gardner revered his mom, who instilled in her son the notion that self-belief was the key to accomplishing anything. But all was not well in the Gardner home: When he was 8, his mother was convicted of trying to kill his stepfather by burning down their house while the man was inside.
Although she spent the following four years in prison, her sudden disappearance went unexplained to Gardner and his siblings. It was only when she arrived at a relative's funeral escorted by a prison guard -- almost a year after her disappearance -- that they learned she had been imprisoned.
After bouncing among homes and guardians -- from his stepfather to various family members to a string of foster homes -- Gardner still managed to graduate from high school in 1972 and, at age 18, following in the footsteps of a beloved uncle, left soon thereafter for the Navy. In 1980, after his hitch in the service was up, he found himself living in San Francisco, married with a child on the way and working as a medical-supply salesman. Then fate arrived in the form of a Ferrari.
One night while visiting San Francisco General Hospital on his sales rounds, he spotted a red Ferrari 308 pulling into the parking lot. Sizing up the well-dressed driver, DLJ stockbroker Bob Bridges, Gardner posed two simple questions to him: "What do you do?" and "How do you do that?" Over lunch, the bemused Bridges explained how he managed investments for wealthy individuals, and that despite Gardner's total lack of industry knowledge, he might qualify for a training program at one of the area brokerage. When Gardner learned Bridges was making $80,000 a month -- compared to his own $30,000 a year -- he was sold.
That Chris Gardner, then and there, decided that this would be his new vocation was possibly tragic, perhaps inspired -- or likely a bit of both. But he suddenly felt he knew what he wanted. And he knew he wanted it badly. "For reasons I can't begin to explain," he now says, "I knew with every fiber of my being that this was it."
The SurvivorAfter the 1981 birth of his son, Chris Jr., Gardner made the leap: He would abandon the security of his sales job for a broker-trainee program. When a promised position suddenly fell through, he was left with no salary and no prospects. He began the long process of knocking on doors, seeking trainee jobs -- a long shot for a man with neither a college degree nor connections. In rapid succession, Gardner's wife abandoned both him and their 19-month-old son, and he was briefly jailed for outstanding parking violations that he couldn't afford to pay. Still, after his release from jail -- with a son, but no home -- he refused to veer from his dream. He continued to interview at brokerage firms and finally, miraculously, was accepted into the training program at Dean Witter.
But life would only get harder.Gardner's small trainee stipend couldn't cover the cost of a home and day care for Chris Jr. And so, for the next year, he spent his days working the phones as a broker -- and his nights with Chris Jr. seeking refuge in homeless shelters. When the shelters in San Francisco's gritty Tenderloin neighborhood were full and it was too cold to sleep outside, he would take his son to the BART station and lock the two of them inside one of the public bathrooms for the night.
They ate at soup kitchens. They bathed in public-restroom sinks. Gardner hauled his meager possessions in a grocery cart.
On his own, this type of deprivation might have been tolerable; with a toddler to take care of, it bordered on unbearable. Still, as Gardner says today, "We may not have known where we were going to eat or where we were going to sleep -- but we were together."
Amazingly, throughout all the time he spent without a home -- and even though he and his son occasionally slept under Gardner's desk in the Dean Witter offices -- he was able to hide his desperate circumstances from his coworkers. In 1982, he completed his training program and went into full production as a retail broker, logging hundreds of calls to wealthy individuals in the quest to develop his own book. It was during one of those long days of cold-calling that Gardner caught the attention of a visitor to the office: Gary Shemano, the head of Bear Stearns's San Francisco office.
"We didn't hire people who had graduate degrees; we hired people who had a strong desire to be wealthy," Shemano says today, recalling the hungry 28-year-old with a military man's work ethic. "Chris exemplified that desire."
Shemano, knowing nothing of Gardner's situation, invited him to leave Dean Witter for a position at Bear Stearns, then one of the most successful partnerships on Wall Street. At Bear, Gardner received a bigger draw, a bigger payout and an advance to cover the expense of buying some new suits -- money he instead allocated toward securing a permanent apartment and suitable day care for 2-year-old Chris Jr. They were finally off the streets.
At Bear, Gardner transformed himself from greenhorn stockbroker into heavyweight financial professional. "The man was like a sponge who always wanted to be around smart people," Shemano recalls. "He wanted to know how people had succeeded and learn from them, learn how they did it."
Gardner soon earned the confidence of management all the way up to chairman Ace Greenberg, eventually leaving Bear's San Francisco office for its New York headquarters and moving from picking stocks for wealthy investors to total return strategies for institutional portfolio managers.
Still, Gardner wanted more, and he wanted it badly -- and he began pining for the total freedom that would only come through launching his own firm. So in 1987, with the help and backing of some of his customers and coworkers, he founded Gardner Rich & Co., which has since prospered by finding a profitable niche servicing the public-pension-fund community with equity and fixed-income brokerage.
The Survivor, Part 3The firm also occasionally wins a bit of underwriting. And thus, in a twist that would be cut from a Hollywood screenplay as too implausible -- unless that screenplay were actually based on a true story -- starting in the '90s, Gardner's firm oversaw numerous bond offerings for the BART, helping sustain the very train line in whose bathrooms he once slept.
All of which makes for a tidy story -- a best-seller, in fact -- and presumably a hell of a movie, when The Pursuit of Happyness (the misspelling is a reference to a real-life day-care center with a misspelled name that Gardner could not afford for his son) is released throughout the country prior to Christmas. But in truth, that's all ancient history to Chris Gardner. He still wants more, and he wants it badly.
Which is why, on this October day, Gardner keeps working those phones. It's why he's already begun writing his next book. It's why he's in talks with several networks about doing a primetime show, and why, earlier this year, he sold a minority stake in Gardner Rich to a major hedge fund. But most of all, it's why he's about to close a second round of financing -- reportedly to launch a private-equity fund focused solely on investments in South Africa.
It's a nation he fell madly in love with in the late '90s when he was invited by an institutional customer to meet with senior officials there; during the trip, Nelson Mandela greeted him by declaring, "Welcome home, son." Now he dreams of bringing foreign capital and hundreds of jobs to the country: "I have the opportunity to use everything I've learned in the capital markets on Wall Street over 25 years to do transactions that will actually benefit people while we all make money." As Gardner sees it, American investors' perception of South Africa -- disease, corruption and failing infrastructure -- is horribly skewed. It is, in other words, deeply underestimated -- not unlike how some might have once underestimated a certain homeless man sleeping in a train station. "It's miscategorized and misunderstood," he says. "There are tremendous opportunities as the economy there shifts from natural resources to manufacturing."
Indeed, Gardner says his initiative is already the only one to have received endorsements from all three labor federations in South Africa -- including the powerful COSATU, the Coalition of South African Trade Unionists. And he hopes to leverage such connections in ways that would be impossible for most foreign investors. When he launches the fund early next year, he'll reportedly have close to $1 billion in assets under management.
The price Gardner is paying for these many dreams now comes -- as it once did -- in the form of a good night's sleep. "I'm on a plane so much, I can't even sleep in a bed anymore; I have to be sitting up," he laughs. "You can live like that only when you're doing something you're excited about."
Still, as the conversation draws to a close -- there is, after all, his screening to catch -- Gardner suddenly turns pensive. The man who has amassed an enviable net worth, with homes and offices in Chicago, New York and San Francisco and a closet full of custom-made suits, has something to get off his chest. "You know, money is the least significant aspect of wealth," he says, pausing for a moment, letting the thought linger. "And I know there are going to be some guys who read that and throw the magazine in the trash. But there are going to be some others who think, Damn, how is my kid doing? Those, to me, are the guys who are ready to grow."
Not to say, of course, that there haven't been a few material things that have mattered more than others over the years -- a couple of things that Gardner may have wanted, and wanted very badly.
Cut to: the interior of a garage in Chicago some years back. Pan: slowly, to the car inside. It's a Ferrari. A red one, at that. And there, in the driver's seat, enjoying the delicious moment as he turns the key for the first time, sits Chris Gardner.