Bill Schmick’s journey from Forbes journalist to Wall Street player and, finally, Berkshire local.
Bill Schmick was born in a blue-collar neighborhood of Philadelphia, just a few blocks north of “Rocky Balboa” territory where most of his Catholic schoolmates grew up to be either cops or criminals. He narrowly escaped both professions by volunteering to fight in Vietnam as a U.S. Marine at age eighteen, fresh out of high school in 1966.
“It was either that or working in a factory. Neither I nor my parents could afford to send me to college,” Schmick recalls. I felt trapped; facing a dead end and the Marine Corps was my only ticket out of that environment. I knew the risk but took it anyway.”
He spent two tours in Vietnam, won the Bronze Star and Purple Heart as well as several more medals for bravery as part of the Combined Action Program (CAP). In CAP, young specially trained marines lived in remote villages, defending the Vietnamese farmers and teaching ways to improve their crops, livestock and health. The downside was CAP’s effectiveness. Its success so threatened the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army that all too often large enemy units would surround and destroy these 12-man teams.
“The causality rate was about 50%,” Schmick says, “it was a different kind of war and nothing, absolutely nothing, influenced me more in my life. I learned what was important at a very young age, namely people: how to work and communicate with them regardless of background or color.”
In 1970 he left the service and entered Temple University on the GI Bill. Within a year of college, he managed to talk his way into a job at what was then Philadelphia’s largest newspaper, The Evening and Sunday Bulletin. Six months later, he received his first journalism award as a reporter followed by several front page stories. Later in 1973 he also won the William Randolph Hearst National Journalism Award. He graduated from Temple with a M.A. in Journalism in 1974 while working full-time as a reporter and columnist for the Bulletin. He then won one of the first Fulbright Fellowships to be awarded to a journalist in Japan.
“Japan was fascinating. I studied Asian psychology, received a brown belt in Akido and learned to play the Shakuhatchi, a flute often played by the Samurai, among other things,” he says. ”By the end of a year and a half, I realized that I had just scratched the surface in understanding Asia but it whetted my appetite to learn even more about foreign countries and people.”
He returned to the States in 1976, the Bicentennial year of the nation, and disillusioned by the Watergate Affair, he turned his hand to politics. Hoping to make a difference, he organized a grassroots primary campaign for George Packard, a dark horse candidate pitted against two seasoned Republican politicians—the late John Heinz and present Senator of Pennsylvania, Arlen Specter. The candidate and Bill walked across Pennsylvania, garnered a great deal of publicity and attention but finished last in the primaries. It was at that point, that Schmick moved to New York to work for Forbes Magazine as a reporter.
“I worked for Malcolm Forbes back then. He was some character—flying balloons, touring the world on a motorcycle—he inspired me to write well and later to go back to school and get a graduate degree.”
In 1979, Schmick was accepted to the MBA program at New York University and graduated in 1981. He left his mark on the school organizing the student class to establish the NYU Entrepreneur Center which exists to this day as a multi-million dollar program,
In 1981 he entered Wall Street working for Drexel Burnham Lambert as an institutional research salesman.
“In those days, Mike Milken was still sitting on the trading desk hawking junk bonds to a small audience,” Schmick remembers, “I learned the business at Drexel, servicing customers like Peter Lynch and George Noble of Fidelity and Sir John over at Templeton Investment Management. I joined at the bottom of the markets when no one was interested in stocks. I think the Dow was trading around 700 at the time.”
Within the year the markets came out of the doldrums and exploded to the upside. He soon had institutional clients of his own and was busy advising them on investments when Merrill Lynch approached him.
“Merrill had what was then this crazy idea that Americans would one day be interested in investing overseas. They were looking to establish that presence in the early Eighties and were interested in my foreign background. It was a meeting of the minds plus they made me an offer I couldn’t refuse.”
That began an era of building foreign equity businesses for some of the most prestigious financial names on the Street. After Merrill, Schmick did the same thing at Prudential Bache Securities before joining Salomon Brothers at the end of the decade.
“Salomon was mainly a bond house back then and had gone through the “Lost Decade of the Eighties” in South America. Like many banks at the time they had swapped debt for equity in places like Chile, Argentina, Brazil and Venezuela. To me, emerging markets looked like they were ripe for American investments.”
So Schmick re-focused his attention from developing to emerging markets by the beginning of 1990. Once again, the trend was his friend. He was soon involved in weekly research trips up and down the South American continent braving kidnappers in Ipanema, drug lords in Bogota and the Shining Path in Lima. He brought back interesting company managements like Petrobras, Southern Peru Copper and Codelco, the Chilean copper conglomerate to the offices of American Institutional investors like Janus, Fidelity, Capital Research and dozens more.
“I was never home. The entire decade of the Nineties was spent on planes, trains and overland travel in Latin America, Eastern Europe, Russia and Africa. By the year 2001, emerging markets were becoming legitimate investments and I felt it was time to return to my original focus, America.”
Schmick was sitting at his desk in mid-town Manhattan working for privately-held Arnhold & S. Bleichroder, a venerable investment boutique dating back to the Thirties, when the Trade Center was attacked. He admits he lost a lot of friends in the towers and has never looked at the Big Apple quite the same after that. However, while the airports were empty as businessmen and tourists feared for their lives, he was one of the first to board a plane and visit clients in Canada.
“It was a combination of things which led to my decision to move to the Berkshires permanently. I had been a resident of Columbia County since 1987 and did the commuter, weekender thing between an apartment in Manhattan and my home in Hillsdale. I wanted to get off the merry-go-round: stop commuting, stop all the business travelling. At the same time my company was bought out by a French bank. It was an ideal time to make the leap and my wife wanted it as well.
In 2003 Bill with his wife, Barbara, made it permanent.
“We love the Berkshires,” says Barbara Schmick. “We actually got married on the top of Catamount Ski slope in 2000. We were both ski and snowboard instructors on the weekends there and figured we could ski right past our wedding spot every winter season.”
For the next three years, Bill accomplished his life-time goal of writing a novel.
“I spent seven days a week on that opus and the manuscript still needs work but my editor says it has real promise. By the time I finished the second draft however, I was ready to get back into the markets.”
Neither Barbara nor Bill wanted to return to Manhattan. So he inquired about job opportunities in the area. It took less than three weeks before Bill had his choice of offers and went to work at Dion Money Management in Williamstown, MA. He worked with over 500 high net worth clients worldwide, created portfolios and worked during his spare time to acquire a certificate in financial planning. It was clear to him that a money manager today needs to know more than how to make clients money.
“Most clients expect their advisor to give them advice on their entire financial life whether it is in estate planning, insurance, heath care or tax planning so I needed to know more about those areas.”
As 2007 began to wind down and stock markets worldwide seemingly set new records on a daily basis, Bill’s concern continued to mount.
“Back in 2006, I started to pay down all our debt and hunker down. Barbara though I was crazy at the time because the markets were roaring higher and everything seemed well with the world.”
Yet Bill had seen this progression before in many, many markets over his lifetime. He recognized it for what it was.
“The markets were approaching a peak. I’ve seen it before and as stocks became overextended, the economy overheated, the housing market had all the indications of a massive bubble. It was time to cash in.”
Fortunately for many readers in the Berkshires, Bill began to write about his misgivings in several investment and financial columns in late 2007. Throughout 2008 he continued to sound the warning and only became positive once the markets declined to his forecasted bottom—680 on the S&P 500 Index.
“I took a lot of grief from my company and from readers who deeply disagreed with my bearishness. But that’s okay, I’m opinionated and a contrarian but I have a thick skin. If it turned out I was wrong, then I would apologize. It wouldn’t be the first time and certainly won’t be the last.”
But Bill wasn’t wrong and as a result his columns grew in popularity and now boast a wide readership throughout the region.
He now writes regularly for various publications such as The Berkshire Eagle, iBerkshires.com, The Independent (now The Columbia Paper), The Register-Star, The Advocate, The Daily Mail, The Windham Journal and The Chatham Courier.
Recently, he has also expanded into radio where he does the “Closing Bell” stock market analysis for WBRK Radio.
In June 2009, Bill joined Allen Harris at Berkshire Money Management in Pittsfield, MA. as a portfolio manager. His main focus is attracting new clients from within the Berkshire region and managing their investment with the firm’s unique, ‘hands-on’ style of money management.
“Berkshire Money Management has been around since 2001. It is the areas best kept secret largely because most of its clients are outside the region. Yet all of our employees grew up here, know the people who live and work here. I see a huge opportunity for all of us together.”
Bill believes that over the next decade the Berkshires will experience a high rate of growth and an influx of retiring Baby Boomers from Boston and New York. At the same time the internal growth of the region will be fueled by new businesses that are even now investing in the region.
“How lucky can one get? I work everyday at something I love, with great people in a wonderful locale. I feel like I’ve died and went to heaven.”