Career Began: 1966
Home base: Washington, D.C.
Civic Affiliations: Washington National Cathedral, College of Preachers, St. Alban's School and Beauvoir School
Colleagues joke that Chris Sargent has operated largely under the radar because he is gentle and modest. Yet the 68-year-old Sargent has been a million-dollar-producer for over 25 years and manages close to $1 billion -- not that he would tell you so himself.
Sargent, a sixth-generation Washingtonian, doesn't seek power. Power comes to him: corporate executives, Congressmen, Senators, litigators. They're all part of this city's signature -- and, to some extent, Sargent's own clientele.
The soft-spoken Sargent admits to a certain amount of humility. As he puts it: "Our field is full of people that are very aggressive Alpha types. I'm always amazed when someone is that aggressive. It's just not the way I am. I guess I'm understated. I think it's a better way to be. You don't have to tell everyone up front you're particularly good at something. Let them find out."
Over the last 43 years, Sargent has indeed become "particularly good" at something: buying micro-, small- and mid-cap companies with clean balance sheets, talented management and promising futures.
"This is my passion. It's searching for that stock that is going to the moon, searching for that great success story. It's the hunt," says Sargent, who manages money for 400 high-net-worth clients in offices next to the Mayflower Hotel in downtown Washington. "I'm not a trader. I'm investing for the long term. That's really Nirvana for me -- to find a stock you never have to sell."
As a case in point, a client 20 years ago introduced Sargent to Telephone and Data Systems, a Chicago-based firm. The client had gone to school with the company's CEO and was interested in investing in it. So Sargent hosted a luncheon in Washington for company management and invited clients of his who were familiar with the sector along with analysts from local money management firms. It was all part of the hunt -- and a vetting process that is all-Sargent.
"I came away knowing 20 times what I knew before. To me, management is 90 percent of the game. That stock is still going up today, and it's up 30 to 40 times in value. We still own it," he says. "It's a process that has played out many times over the course of a career."
Sargent got a taste for investment research in the 1960s when he interned in the research department of a regional brokerage, Auchincloss, Parker and Redpath, during two summers when he was in college.
"It was fun and interesting. They did their own underwritings. The senior partners were on the boards of most of the locally prominent companies. They specialized in local stocks and you really got a flavor of what was going on in the community," he says.
After graduating from Williams College and serving three years in the Navy as a line officer, Sargent adds: "I knew exactly what I wanted to do. I came back to Auchincloss." That was in 1966 and while the firm's name has changed -- from Thompson McKinnon to Prudential Securities to Wachovia Securities, and soon to come, to Wells Fargo -- one constant has remained: Chris Sargent.
Forrest E. Williams, Sargent's branch manager and a colleague since 1972, calls Sargent a "classic," saying he's had an undeniable impact on the branch.
"Branches often take on some of the personality of their largest producers. My job has been made easier in many respects by the individuals in this branch emulating Chris Sargent in terms of his presence and demeanor, his class, work ethic and high standards. Plus, he likes stocks and loves to talk about them to all levels -- from the seasoned vets to new trainees. And he does it on his own, one on one," observes Williams. "He sets a tone here. His staff exhibits these same traits, so it really rubs off on the entire office."
Sargent's team includes two administrators, Pamela Smith Bolanis and Mary Hong Harte -- who help with investment research and clients -- along with their two assistants. Sargent -- who with his wife, Anne, is a passionate collector of China trade art -- has never advertised and his practice, with its $1 million minimum, has grown organically through word of mouth.
Sargent says he has been amazed at the reaction of clients to the current market downturn. "So many have called us to see how we are doing -- not how they're doing. It's been extraordinary and really gratifying," he says. "You hate to see people losing money, a lot of money in this kind of market. You just try and ride through a storm like this. It's handholding, keeping people calm and rational, and trying not to let people let fear take over. You don't sell a stock just because the market is treating it poorly."
Twice named to Barron's annual list of Top 100 Financial Advisors, it was the prestigious Wachovia Way award in 2005 -- celebrating Sargent's professional successes as well as the contributions he has made to his community -- that has meant the most to him.
Sargent's plan going forward? To keep doing what he's doing.
"I've been going at it for 43 years. I will at least go for 50," he says. "I do love the business."
Freelance writer Ellen Uzelac is based in Chestertown, Md.; the former West Coast bureau chief and national correspondent for The Baltimore Sun, can be reached at email@example.com.