A homeless single father with a toddler in tow, sleeping some nights on the streets of San Francisco or in a subway bathroom, a hotel lobby, the airport — at last accepted at a shelter for homeless women with children.
That was how Christopher P. Gardner lived for nearly a year while working as a Dean Witter broker trainee. He was part of what he calls “a totally invisible class in this country: the working homeless.”
Today, 23 years later, he heads his own institutional broker-dealer and is on the way to raising half-a-billion dollars for a private equity fund to invest solely in South Africa. What’s more, Will Smith (“Ali”) is portraying Gardner in a movie of his life, “The Pursuit of Happyness,” due from Sony on December 15. In May, HarperCollins published Gardner’s autobiography of the same title.
Following an ABC-TV “20-20″ profile three years ago, Hollywood types vied for his story. Marked by a series of good-luck, bad-luck events, Gardner’s journey is inspiring, if not amazing.
“But you know what?” says the ebullient CEO of Gardner Rich & Co., “we’re just getting warmed up! The private equity fund is my Sistine Chapel. It’s my opportunity to do a transaction that will actually make a difference in the world. If I pull this off, it will have a direct, positive impact on over 300,000 people in South Africa.”
Based in Chicago, Gardner Rich (“Rich is nobody; I just needed a nice name!”) serves public-sector pension funds and has a municipal services underwriting arm as well. Lately, Gardner, 52, has been busy developing fee-based business. To that end, last March he was set to sell a minority stake in Gardner Rich to a small hedge fund. “They’ve got product; we’ve got something they [don't have]: relationships going back 20 years with some of the top institutions in the country.”
Flash back to 1982, when life wasn’t treating the man so grandly. “Going to my job [at Dean Witter] was a relief,” he recalled. “I’d crank out 200 calls every day, knowing I was closer to digging my way out of this hole. It was when the market closed that I worried: ‘Can I pick up my child from [The Happyness Day Care Center] in time to get a [nightly] room at the shelter? If I can’t, where will we sleep?’”
Reared by his teacher-trained mother and a violently abusive stepfather, the Milwaukee native — after a stint in the Navy — worked as a lab research assistant, then sold medical supplies in San Francisco. One day, giving up his parking space to a guy with a sharp red Ferrari, the ambitious Gardner asked: “What do you do? And how do you do that?”
The man was a Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette stockbroker making $80,000 a month. Gardner decided that brokerage was what he wanted to do too. But it took 10 months just to land a trainee spot. After quitting his sales gig, he reported to his new job only to find that the fellow who’d hired him had been fired. Gardner was out too.