Hard Money Lessons

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In 1986, I was a 23-year-old financial consultant for the prestigious Wall Street firm of E.F. Hutton (eventually bought by Shearson Leman Brothers). I was the youngest in my class of about 50 students to be hired the previous year. I quickly started building my book, learning about outside money managers, and became an ERISA specialist (retirement plans and planning). Shortly afterward, I registered with the NFLPA to become a certified agent.

I wanted to become an agent so I could stay close to one of my passions, football, but also to help pro athletes make good decisions with their money. The agent business for me was simply a sideline intended to enhance my financial consulting business.

It wasn’t until around 1988 that I actually had a few players who made it in the league and had money to invest. I took the conservative route, using mutual funds and tax-free bond portfolios. As I got more clients, I had them invest in blue-chip stocks and annuities. The purpose of the annuities was to have a mechanism in their portfolios that would help provide a fixed income within a few years of retiring from the NFL. A matter of fact, in 1996, when I pitched a potential first-round pick to become his agent and financial advisor, I sold him on the fact that I could help provide him with an income of $25,000. A month. For life. This was appealing to the player, who eventually signed with me and was drafted in the first round by an NFC team.

Today, I no longer manage my clients’ money on a day-to-day basis. As my agent responsibilities and time commitments outgrew my financial business, it simply became too much.

I recently read that Michael Vick is suing one of his former financial advisors, Mary Wong of Ohmaha, Neb., for fraud, negligence and other offenses. Although Mr. Vick is probably not getting any sympathy over this, there are many NFL players who deserve some. My guess is that players have been collectively scammed, burned and fleeced out of at least $100 million over the past 15 years. This doesn’t count bad investments made by good people with honest intentions.

One of the best (and worst, for those involved) fleecing stories of all time happened in the mid-‘90s in my current hometown of San Diego. I had a front row seat to it.

In 1993, two of my newest clients, offensive linemen Todd Rucci and Earl Dotson, were drafted in the second and third rounds, respectively. Immediately after the draft, calls started coming in from financial advisors wanting a shot at managing their money. Word was getting out that I was weaning myself from that part of the business and was open to recommending my clients to other consultants.

One financial consultant who called me frequently was John Gillette of Shearson Lehman Brothers. Gillette was also located in San Diego, so I decided to go to his office to hear his pitch. I initially liked the fact that he was associated with a major brokerage firm because they carried legitimate insurance and had strict in-house compliance, and their brokers were not permitted to deal in private equity offerings. Gillette had also amassed an impressive list of NFL players as clients.

I had an advantage screening Gillette because I knew the investment business, which he was not aware of, and knew what to look for and what questions to ask. During our meeting, he said all the right things. He was conservative in that he only invested in municipal bond portfolios and used outside professional money managers, strategies I was a proponent of at the time.

Before leaving his office, I asked him how much money he had under management. He told me that he had about $100 million and that it was balanced between managed money and tax-free bonds. In 1993, that was an impressive sum for a retail stockbroker. I also asked him if he had any “yes” answers on his U-4 (a broker’s scorecard for client complaints and compliance issues). He said he did not. Each yes would be the equivalent of a client complaint or lawsuit.

After leaving, there were a few things that struck me as odd. One, he had a small office. If you had $100 million under management at that time, you most likely would have had the largest corner office in the firm –- but he had one of the smallest. Two, he had way too much bling for a professional white guy in his 40s. Third, he was a name dropper and promised me that if I started sending clients his way, he would reciprocate by sending some in my direction. I didn’t have a good feeling about this guy.

When I returned to my office, I made a quick call to a friend who worked in the back office at Shearson in New York. I asked her to research how much in assets Gillette had under management and whether he had any yes answers on his U-4. She told me he had nowhere near $100 million under management and that his clients were mostly invested in stocks and mutual funds. She also said there were several yes answers on his U-4. So Mr. Gillette had obviously lied to me. I stopped returning his calls.

San Diego is a small city, and I was representing about three Chargers players at that time, so I saw Gillette frequently. After watching how he was building his business, I began to believe he might be a shady individual. He eventually left Shearson to open his own investment firm, Pro Sports Investment Management Co. He had an impressive office with high tech security, and his assistant/office manager was a former stripper. Yep, that’s right — he hired a busty ex-stripper to help him handle his clients’ money. Now there’s a red flag.

Another thing Gillette was known for was his faith. On the inside of his brochures, it said, “WE HONOR GOD IN ALL WE DO.” Needless to say, this convinced many athletes that Gillette – despite his supposed drinking, gambling and stripper hires — was one of God’s shepherds. I once attended one of Junior Seau’s fundraisers around 1995. Junior introduced Gillette as his “spiritual compass and father figure” and asked him to give the benediction. That’s how much Junior trusted him.

One day, while listening to the local sportstalk radio station, I caught an interview with agent Leigh Steinberg. A caller asked Leigh how he advised his clients on handling their money. Leigh’s exact quote was that he referred them to “high quality investment advisors. Actually, one of the most talented is located in your city of San Diego. His name is John Gillette.” I later found out that the call was a set-up by one of John’s employees and that Leigh knew it was coming. A lot of other well-known, high-profile agents were fooled and intoxicated by Gillette’s clientele and his ability to wine and dine stars.

As he tried to break into the music and entertainment industry, Gillette reportedly began courting hip hop mogul/producer Suge Knight. After several meetings with Knight, Gillette bought a gun that he sometimes carried with him. He’s probably lucky this relationship didn’t work out.

In 1997, Gillette was convicted on 38 counts of fraud and forgery and was sentenced to 10 years in prison. He had fleeced his clients of about $11 million, which he used to finance his lavish lifestyle and support his business. He reportedly stole money from NFL players Junior Seau, Rod Woodson, Stanley Richards, Johnnie Morton, Rob Johnson, Tony Boselli, Anthony Miller, Lincoln Kennedy and about 20 other professional athletes. His Ponzi scheme included a phony San Diego municipal bond, a fictitious water theme park in Poway, Calif., and a gold mine in Ghana. He reportedly drank often, partied hard and burned about $50,000 a month on his American Express card.

Eventually, some of Gillette’s clients started to figure him out, and his Ponzi scheme unraveled. One of the first was Marshall Faulk, then Padres pitcher Greg Harris, who eventually brought the first lawsuit against him.

As Gillette grew his business, it was clear there were red flags that players and their agents simply ignored. Chargers head coach Bobby Ross supposedly once saw Gillette hanging around the parking lot, as he often did, and asked a group of players, ”Why in the world would any of you guys give that sleazy guy your money? Hell, he’s got slicked-back hair, a $200,000 car and wears $2,000 suits. How do you think that stuff gets paid for?”

To this day, I believe Gillette got away with more than reported because some athletes didn’t bother chasing him for fear of being publicly embarrassed. Many athletes seem to take this attitude while they’re playing. However, once they retire and the checks stop coming, they’re more assertive about protecting their money and calling a lawyer.

Today, NFL players are still being led astray, although I don’t think it’s as bad as it once was. Players are better educated by the NFL, their agents and the union. However, players are still sometimes their own worst enemies.

When a player asks me to help him screen a potential investment advisor, I use the following script: I ask the advisor to send me his resume, the most recent copy of his U-4 and the most recent credit reports. About five years ago, when I start asking for credit reports, some 60 percent of the wannabe advisors never called back. I tell my clients that if an investment advisor has a bad credit rating, he might be dealing with someone who can’t manage his own affairs. So why should you let him manage yours?

Here are a few other things I advise:

  • No restaurants, bars or night clubs. I don’t know one player who is making money in these businesses.
  • No businesses that need several employees.
  • Don’t loan money to friends or family. Ninety percent of the time you will never see it again.
  • Stay away from sexy investments and anything that sounds too good to be true.
  • Be conservative. You already hit a home run being paid as a professional at a young age. Preserve your capital; don’t take risks with it.
  • Don’t fund other people’s dreams.
  • Partnerships are rarely successful. If you do invest, make sure the people you invest with have more to lose than you.
  • Don’t hesitate to have more than one financial advisor.
  • Get a good accountant and pay him well. Ask him to be part of your checks and balance system.
  • Be cautious of small, private investment firms.
  • Most important, seek continuing investment knowledge. Empower yourself to make good decisions.
  • Beware of anyone who plays the “God card.”

Admittedly, I was not the world’s greatest investment advisor. I was actually too boring for a few of my clients. But I’m happy to see my former first-round pick collecting about $20,000 a month for life, mostly tax free.

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