News, Vision & Voice for the Advisory Community
Dennis Gibbs wants young, desperate, unemployed people to know that he's been in their shoes -- or worse -- and prevailed
November 25, 2011 — 5:35 AM UTC by Dennis Gibb Guest Columnist
Brooke’s Note: Dennis Gibb is an advisor with Sweetwater Investments, based in Redmond, Wash., that manages about $400 million for high-net-worth clients and oversees another $1 billion for Indian tribes. Earlier this week, Gibb was one of the readers who expressed dismay over the OWS movement in our comments section — and didn’t much like my expressions of sympathy for them. The article appeared after Dina Hampton interviewed a number of Occupy Wall Street protestors and spectators in Zuccotti Park in New York City. See: RIABiz takes on Occupy Wall Street in New York and finds investors wanting answers. In communicating with me offline, Gibb let me know that he had spent time in Seattle talking to these OWS protestors and eventually composed a letter to the administrators of Occupy Seattle and Portland, Ore. Though it doesn’t necessarily reflect the views of RIABiz, Gibb’s letter does speak for many Americans and it also includes a great story of how he built his advisory practice under tough circumstances.
An Open Letter to the Occupy Wall Street Crowd:
I have been part of the Wall Street community for 40 years and my time is nearly run, but believe me when I tell you that I am as furious and frustrated as you that those who brought down Bear Stearns, where I once worked; and Lehman, with whom I did business; and AIG and Countrywide are not in jail. I deal everyday with people who have lost homes or have to extend retirement because of what happened. I hate what happened with a passion that matches yours.
The difference is that I know that in great turmoil there is great opportunity. The great fortunes of today were founded in the turmoil of the 1970s and the fortunes of the 2020s and beyond are being founded today. They are open to those who are willing to discover.
In April of 1972 I was wounded in action in Vietnam. I was returned to the U.S. where I was hospitalized off and on until I was discharged from the Army in late 1973. It was a rather terrible wound — the kind that makes women giggle nervously and men to cringe, and post discharge I still required medical treatment which I got from the VA system.
I had graduated college in 1968 but stayed for an extra semester so I could be awarded a degree in psychology to go with my degrees in history and sociology. In those days, there was a stark option for college graduates: Find a way to avoid the draft or get personal with rice paddies. When I got out of the service, I ran into some of the issues facing the OWS crowd today.
I was 18 in 1964 so I had been witness to the death of JFK and, a few years later, to RFK. I had witnessed the civil rights movement, and the death of Martin Luther King, Medgar Evers, and the three young civil rights workers, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, in Mississippi. I watched from afar the beginning of the hippie counterculture. I worked in Chicago during the race riots and I, along with the whole world, watched the mayhem of the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention. I was shocked by the Charles Manson killings.
I was infected with the radicalism of the time and was, for a brief moment, a member of Students for A Democratic Society (SDS), which started out peacefully but was hijacked by violent radicals like Bill Ayers and Bernadine Dohrn and eventually became the Weather Underground, which made its mark in acts of violent domestic terrorism. I watched the growing anti-war movement, Woodstock and the resignation of LBJ. As a young soldier, I was trained to be part of federal forces that might be called on to do riot duty.
When, post Army, I entered the civilian work force, I found that all my academic work was useless. We were in a recession that was termed the greatest since the Great Depression. Unemployment nationwide was above 12%, inflation was running in the teens, the nation was gripped in the chaos of racial hatred, antiwar fever, changing demographics and declining political fortunes. We had a succession of presidents who found themselves so tagged with the events of the day they could not lead and who could not solve the problems. The budget deficit was running wild and Congress was inactive and worse than dangerous. The Arabs and the Israelis fought two wars (1968 and 1973) and after the second one the Arabs tripled the price of oil, which had a crushing effect on the U.S. economy.
To a 26-year-old wounded vet the world seemed hopeless and the problems intractable. As Dickens said, “The worst of times.” Emile Durkheim had coined a term that applied to those times — and these — “anomie,” a feeling of aloneness and separation or not belonging and of giving up of hope.
With the degrees I had obtained I had two professional avenues: teach or research. I found, however, that both of those were closed to me unless I wanted to go back to school and get advanced degrees. With the effects of what later would come to be known as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), the concept of academic rigor was not one I wished to embrace. There were no jobs anywhere that paid secure wages and benefits even for those willing to relocate.
Many of my fellow veterans were in the same situation and, after all, the only marketable skill I possessed was being able to shoot field artillery and run around in a helicopter, hardly transferable to many places in the civilian world. I was faced with little hope, a damaged psyche and body, degrees that qualified me for nothing and an economy that was seemingly on the edge of collapse.
Oh, I forgot that in all of this there was an economic collapse. Yes there had been a great bull market from 1946 to the mid-1960’s but it had ended in the decision to finance both consumer consumption and the war (the famous butter or guns dilemma of basic economics). Wall Street had provided huge money for operators like James Ling of LTV to buy up other companies using worthless securities, the banks had run into financing real estate and were paying the price, there was a scandal involving salad oil that almost destroyed American Express. Over 75% of the brokerage firms in the nation went out of business and we had the failure of a major bank called Franklin National and there were failures of smaller banks all over the nation.
You might ask what has motivated me to tell these painful details of my life and take you on a tour of history. It is because the events of today are strikingly similar to those of 40 years ago. The only real differences are that 40 years ago the student loan program was virtually nonexistent so that most grads were not carrying tons of debt and that primary and secondary education in those days provided sufficient training to get a decent, if unexciting, job.
I did not come from a wealthy family. My father agreed to pay for two out of four years of undergraduate work and that was tuition only; I was on the hook for books, housing, food, and spending money. I worked as a dishwasher, as an underage bartender, a waiter, a floor proctor. I swept the floors of the basketball courts and cleaned the seats after games. There were no Mexican trips for spring break or European vacations in the summer. I worked as a postman at Christmas and filled in at retail stores and factories during breaks from college. If I had told my parents that I was taking a year off from college to “study in Europe” I am sure my father would have had my passport revoked after I got to whatever party I was going to in the Old World.
Despite all my hard work academically and physically, despite my near life sacrifice in service to my country, when I was ready for a job there were none. I had no money, I had no home other than my parents, I owned a rattletrap car but it was more trouble than it was worth and today would not have passed a safety inspection. It ended up that in all my job searching I was presented with three opportunities: I could fly helicopters to and from oil platforms in the Gulf of Mexico, I could sell insurance or I could sell stocks and bonds — that was it! I did have an offer to go back and work in a steel mill as an apprentice but even as stupid as I was then I knew that the steel industry was in a death spiral.
Stock brokerage, for all its image, is a sales business and if you had asked 100 people who knew me if I would make it as a salesman they would have told you that I couldn’t sell rice to the Chinese! (Still can’t by the way.) I hated telephones yet I was entering a profession where the major instrument of success was the phone. Not only was I going to a profession that required skills that I had not learned, I was going to be selling to a populace savaged by 10 years of bear market. It was a time when a dollar earned at the end of 1972 would only purchase 88 cents worth of goods a year later.
My first year selling (1974) my new wife and I made $11,000 total. The next year, now with a child, I made $9,000. You could not live on the San Francisco Peninsula then or now on $9,000 or even $11,000. My days were unvaried. Each morning I would make two sandwiches — one ham and cheese and one PBJ — and have a bowl of cereal and a glass of orange juice. At 6:30 a.m. I began calling investors on the East Coast where it was 9:30 and I followed the sun west. I knew no one, I had no family money, I had no connections I had ten fingers and a voice. If you are an introvert like me there is no greater terror than picking up the phone and cold calling someone. I forced myself to do it 35 times a day, five days a week. My first sandwich was my lunch and the second my dinner as I called people in Hawaii. I was typically in the office, on the phone, for 13 hours a day, five days a week or 65-hour weeks.
I DID THIS EVERY DAY FOR 5 YEARS!! Why work like that? What was so important that made me work those hours and take the abuse? What motivates someone to do that? There were three primary reasons and a host of secondary ones.
1. I had to eat — I had nothing to fall back on, no place to go, nowhere to run. If I did not work I did not eat. I guess I could have gone and gotten government support of some sort but that was morally objectionable to me. That was for people who were really in trouble. I could work at some job, and I could earn my way — why would I take a handout when I could do otherwise?
2. I had a family to support — The writer and futurist George Gilder once said that men come to civilization through a woman’s womb and boy is that true. Women, gentlemen, they knock off the rough edges and direct the natural male aggressiveness in other directions. A woman with children refocuses a man’s life to something beyond himself, to the protection of others who he loves and fathered. There was no way I was not going to do right by my family. They would be provided for, regardless of how many hours I had to work.
3. Personal Pride — There was a sense of accomplishment in working. There was pride in the job done. There was the sense of doing something. We had hard times but all of us suffered together and drew strength from each other’s disasters and successes. We formed bonds that have lasted four decades. I was not going to beg, nor was I going to become some creature manipulated by others with a political agenda of victimhood. I did not mistake something being hard with something not worth doing. I recognized and accepted that life was hard and that oftentimes people with the best of intentions did not succeed. But a man is never beaten until he starts to blame others.
I am telling you all this because I am close to being a one percenter, as you say, and guess what? I am not ashamed, worried, hurt, scared or even concerned that you might hate or dislike me. I earned what I have. I have built my business and my life around a concept of morality that might be foreign to you but it bears hearing (it is shared by more people than you know — even the one percenters): First, do unto other as you would have them do to you; Second, because others are being immoral doesn’t mean you have to be; Third, if you work hard and go the extra mile you will find that there are few others on the road with you; Fourth, believe in yourself and not any other outside force; Fifth, I have been alive for 65 years and I cannot think of one thing or problem I ever had that any government ever fixed and neither can you.
Finally, let me say this. If you got a degree in history, or sociology, or urban studies, or transgender LGBT studies or whatever seemed trendy and fun, and now you find job prospects limited, guess who is to blame — you and only you. Man- or woman-up and accept it. What did you expect? The purpose of education is this: In primary education you learn methods and facts like adding, subtraction and writing; in secondary you learn to use those skills to accomplish tasks; in college you learn to think. Think, think, think.
There are jobs out there that will fulfill you beyond anything you can imagine, but no one is going to give them to you because they mostly don’t exist; they are in your minds and in your thoughts. I found out that even though my academic preparation was inadequate that I had skills and gifts. People trusted me; they respected my wiliness to work hard, my introversion made me more intuitive than I would have ever guessed, which allowed me to work with people. I discovered a quick wit and the ability to retain massive amounts of information and to put it together into a skein that made sense.
In Julius Caesar, Shakespeare has Brutus say:
There is a tide in the affairs of men
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.
Are you going to miss your tide squatting in some tent in a park, for a protest that no one will remember in 20 years? Are you going to lose your chance at life because you are making yourself the tool of the very forces you say you hate? Are you going to let yourself be made a tool of hate, just like the German people were used by the Nazis by scapegoating a class of people? If you are then you will be victimized all your lives and you deserve your fate.
Unlike the soccer games of your youth, in life they keep score and there are winners and losers. Self esteem comes with accomplishment but the accomplishment must come first. Sorry that is the way life is and always will be. If you succeed in taking all I have earned and leave me penniless on the curb at 65 I will tell you this. By age 70 I will have it all back and you will still be demanding more assistance.
Wallow in the shallows if you wish, but at 65 I will be out there helping people to take advantage of your silliness.
Brooke’s final note: I interviewed Gibb in 2006 for InvestmentNews. Here is the link to that article.
Mentioned in this article:
Sweetwater Investments, Inc
RIA Welcoming Breakaways
Top Executive: Dennis Gibb
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