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Portfolio > Alternative Investments > Private Equity

Christopher Gardner -- From the Gutter to The Street

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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.

Still attempting to join a brokerage, he supported himself by working odd jobs. Then, shortly before he was set for a big third interview at Dean Witter, a double whammy: His girlfriend split with their 18-month-old baby and Gardner, unable to pay $1,200 worth of parking tickets, was put in jail. Able to reschedule the job interview, he showed up immediately after release wearing the same clothes he’d worn in prison for 10 days. The awful truth, however, got him hired.

Soon after, his ex abandoned their son to Gardner. No kids were allowed at his boarding house, though; and Gardner’s wages were too meager to pay for other housing plus day care. Thus, the Dean Witter employee found himself homeless, sometimes sleeping in Union Square.

Eventually, a church homeless shelter in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood took in father and son. It would be almost a year before Gardner saved enough to rent an apartment. Not long after, he was recruited by Bear Stearns, where he stayed for four years.

Ultimately, says Gardner, he discovered that Wall Street “isn’t a black thing. It isn’t a white thing. It’s a green thing.” A wealthy Texas client, unaware that Gardner was African-American, routinely told him racist and ethnic jokes on the phone — followed by orders that earned the broker $25,000 commissions. “A lot of black folks have said, ‘Weren’t you offended?’ recalls Gardner. “Hey, I just had to fight, scratch, crawl my way out of a gutter with a baby tied on my back just to get in the game. That was not the time to stand up and say, ‘We shall overcome!’ And for 25-grand, I used to call that guy a lot!”

By then, Gardner and his ex had had a baby daughter — after a brief reunion — who was living, along with her brother, with Dad.

On October 19, 1987, Gardner launched Gardner Rich & Co. “Trying to raise money right after that big market crash wasn’t the best time,” he recalls. But he persevered.

Now Gardner is helping the Rev. Cecil Williams of San Francisco’s Glide Memorial Church raise $50 million to turn the Tenderloin into an affordable housing area. He remembers: “When I explained my situation to Rev. Williams, he let us stay at his shelter there: ‘I’m homeless and have a child. I’ve got an opportunity to pursue a career on Wall Street. Can you please let me stay until I save enough for an apartment?’”

The above deal, says Gardner, “isn’t the biggest one on Wall Street. But I gotta tell you, sometimes it’s not business — it’s personal.”


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