Monday, November 7, 2011

Top Money Manager Eddie Brown Exhorts Students to Overcome Obstacles - Just Like He Did

Eddie C. Brown, one of the nation’s leading money managers who founded one of its oldest African American-owned investment management firms—Baltimore-based Brown Capital Management, Inc.—spoke about what it was like to overcome the steepest of life’s odds Wednesday, Nov. 2 as he distilled 41 years of his unlikely experience into a 40 (oh, let’s just say it was 41)-minute talk to a packed house at the Fine Arts Theatre of Baltimore City Community College.

His new autobiography, "Beating the Odds: Eddie Brown’s Investing and Life Strategies” chronicles his life as a financial guru – first as a portfolio manager and vice president with T. Rowe Price where he became the first African American money manager to work for a major Wall Street investment firm; as a panelist for 25 years on the PBS television program, “Wall Street Week with Louis Rukeyser,” which made him a household name and honored him as its sole Hall of Fame inductee for 1996; – and founder of a successful mutual fund company and philanthropist.

BCCC Associate Director of Libraries Virgie
Williams (left) with Eddie Brown

Born into poverty to a 13-year-old unwed mother in Apopka, Fla. in the deeply segregated South, all Eddie could remember was thinking up ways to earn extra money. His beloved grandmother, who took over the task of rearing him, made it a point to take him into town on a regular basis to show him the people who wore white shirts and ties and worked behind desks. They no longer had to work in the fields, she told him. A short time later, she passed away. By this point Eddie was spending way too much time with his uncle, Jake, whose pursuits included moonshine and fast cars. Eddie himself was running illicit liquor on more than a few occasions until, unbeknownst to him, Lillie Mae Moore, a second cousin who lived next door to Jake and who had monitored Eddie's activities for his grandmother, had had it up to here (or was it, "there"?). She called Eddie's mother, who was living in Allentown, Pa. Shortly afterward, Eddie's mother came down to Apopka to get him. His moonshining days were over.

Throughout his talk, Mr. Brown makes success look like the predictable outcome of a principled life, though he is quick to point out his path was a function of luck, educational preparation and principle. "I figured out a long time ago none of us is in a position to control the circumstances under which we come into this world," he said. "But we can do a lot about where we end up."

Mr. Brown's abiding concern is the ability of all people to obtain an education. In fact, that has been his own driving force. At one time his undergraduate education at Howard University in Washington, D.C., where he earned an engineering degree, seemed out of reach until an anonymous white woman communicated her desire to pay the four-year tuition, room and board for one African American student in his 753-person class. With a little serendipidy and because of his successful track record of making good grades in high school, he was chosen to receive the gift. The circumstances sparked his interest in philanthropy, which became a motivator for him to create personal wealth.

He has risen from poverty to his own business with day-to-day assets under management of over $4 billion. Shortly after starting his firm he had to make a presentation to the California Public Employees Retirement System (CalPERS). Granted only 10 minutes for his presentation, he figured every minute was worth $4 million. “You haven’t lived until you’ve had 10 minutes to persuade six total strangers to give you $40 million,” he writes in his book. But that’s apparently all in a day’s work. After the experience he jokingly told his wife he was worth $240 MILLION AN HOUR and she'd better treat him accordingly! "Welcome to my world,” he recollects, “the high-pressure, no-excuses business of managing other people’s money.”

Although his profession has taken a bit of a public beating since the collapse of Lehman Brothers and subsequent economic downturn, Mr. Brown knows how to exhort his audience. "You've got to find something you love," he said. "I liked doing what I did so much, I decided to start my own firm." Though he was embarking on a path similar to the one he had just left at T. Rowe Price, he said, "You don't have to do the same thing all your life. In fact, you'll probably find yourself doing a number of different things."

He is one of the most approachable "titans of business" you'll ever meet. In a culture heavy-laden with the accoutrements of wealth, Mr. Brown lives in the same modest home he purchased with his wife, Sylvia, in 1977.

"I never forgot where I came from," he says. And he wants to give something back.