Editor’s Note-The Oddest Call

Editor’s Note-The Oddest Call

Columns don't always turn out the way writers plan.

If you are a subscriber to Twin Cities Business, you should have received your copy of the 2007 Business Information Guide early last month. Among the business lists in the new edition is a roster of our state’s “Top 25 Asset-Management Firms,” which at the start of 2006 were collectively managing $378 billion. Prominent on the list—the state’s largest manager of individual and family portfolios that isn’t affiliated with a bank or insurance company—is Sit Investment Associates, the founder of which appears on the cover of this issue.

I first met Gene Sit on October 20, 1987, when I was researching the first-ever roster of Minnesota money managers. The date is clear in my mind because the previous day was “Black Monday,” when the Dow Jones Industrial Average fell by 508 points, or 22.6 percent—the index’s biggest one-day percentage decline ever. Sit was relieved to have Peter Mitchelson, the firm’s executive vice president (and now vice chairman), step into our meeting to say that the market had closed “up 102,” ending its free fall.

The roster was published the following February, 19 years ago this month. It included eight or nine companies headed by managers who—like Sit—had once worked at IDS, which until its acquisition by American Express in the early 1980s had been Minnesota’s biggest investment-management company. With $2.5 billion under management, Sit’s company ranked sixth.

A month before the roster appeared in print, I placed the oddest call I’ve ever made as a reporter. I telephoned Mitchelson to ask him out to a movie. His secretary sounded bewildered, and I learned later that his wife and several of his associates had been amused. Mitchelson, however, seemed to think I had a good idea.

This was the plan:

We would sit through the just-released movie Wall Street, Oliver Stone’s story of a corporate raider named Gordon Gekko (played by Michael Douglas) who induces a young stockbroker named Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen) to commit acts of familial disloyalty, burglary, and trading on inside information. Then Mitchelson would help me make fun of it in a column. That would be easy: The Wall Street Journal had called the movie a “pretentious melodrama,” and Barron’s had called it “leftist propaganda” that was “biased, one-sided, anticapitalist.”

Some of the dialogue was inane, as when Gekko growls, “Lunch is for wimps!” Some lines are inexplicable: “Keep on buying! Dilute the son-of-a-bitch!” Bud’s father, an airline machinist and union representative played by Martin Sheen, reveals casually—as if it happens all the time—that the comptroller of the airline has passed on a valuable piece of inside information: that the FAA is about to absolve the airline of culpability for a crash. Meanwhile, a broker played by actor Hal Holbrook appears periodically to admonish, “Stick to the fundamentals, Bud,” and to warn, “The main thing about money, son, is it makes you do things you don’t want to do.”

The column didn’t turn out as I’d planned.

Mitchelson laughed at some of the movie’s bad lines, but he said that its main premise wasn’t that capitalism was bad, only that greed is destructive when it is not mitigated by higher values. He wouldn’t call the movie antibusiness.

Most business, he said, is done with “handshakes, good faith, good will, and a set of morals.” The investment securities business creates some special situations, however, if only because companies hire recent graduates “and pay them bonuses like baseball players,” sending a message that they are special. “There is a lot of ego at work . . . . Some people have some success, and they start to believe their own impregnability.

“But it’s like what the old man in the movie [the Holbrook character] says about the abyss.” Which is: “Man looks into the abyss, and there’s nothing staring back at him. At that time, a man finds his character, and that is what keeps him out of the abyss.”