Category Archives: Economy

Talking Big Bucks And Milwaukee Bucks With Marc Lasry

There’s no such thing as a free lunch.

But this Sunday at the Westport Library, you can hear — for free — a wide-ranging talk by probably the wealthiest man in a town filled with money.

Marc Lasry. (Photo/Avenue Capital Group)

Marc Lasry. (Photo/Avenue Capital Group)

On August 3 (2 p.m., McManus Room), hedge fund titan Marc Lasry — whose $1.7 billion fortune lands him at #1047 on Forbes’ list of the world’s billionaires — talks about the US and global economy, and the current investment climate.

Lasry — CEO and co-founder of Avenue Capital Group —  will address why good investments are getting harder to find, regions and industries where his firm is finding them, and how they find them.

And — because there is more to life than hedge funds — Lasry will also discuss his recent purchase of the Milwaukee Bucks NBA team, and his hiring of Jason Kidd as coach. Plus Lasry’s interest in politics, philanthropy and comic books.

This being Westport, Lasry will be introduced by fellow resident Arthur Levitt. He’s only the former chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission.

New “Refinery” Targets Women Business Leaders

This area is blessed with many things: Natural beauty. Educational and cultural opportunities. And an abundance of brilliant women.

Fairfield County teems with high achievers. After starting families, they’re ready to go back to work. But rather than return to the corporate world, they’re starting their own businesses.

Westporter Janis Collins — entrepreneur-in-residence for the Stamford Innovation Center and B:HIve in Bridgeport — has met with over 200 Connecticut startups in the past year. A quarter were led by women.

Refinery logoBut every business needs a boost. The Refinery is an exciting new project that leverages extensive local intellectual and financial capital to help women-led businesses grow. (The definition: at least 1 woman in a leadership role.)

It’s an underserved market, Collins says. They get less than 10% of all venture capital money — despite studies showing that these companies perform at par or greater than those with male CEOs.

Over 25 mentors — female and male — have already signed up. The core team includes Jen Gabler, North Shutshiwaran and Bill Gordon. All 3 live in Westport or Weston.

Local talent like Andy Moss, Steve Obsitnik, Galia Gichon and Jenny Lawton are ready to advise and assist too.

The Westport Library, Westport Sunrise Rotary and Stamford Innovation Center provide grant money to the top performing company in the program.

Janis Collins (left) and Jen Gabler work with Daniel Ruskin, who is helping with The Refinery's tech side.

Janis Collins (left) and Jen Gabler work with Daniel Ruskin, who is helping with The Refinery’s tech side.

The Library has integrated The Refinery into its Maker-in-Residence program. So — along with meeting rooms — the innovative Maker Space is available to Refinery members.

The Refinery says it is different from other accelerators because it is highly individualized; it serves pre-revenue companies, as well as those that have launched or need a re-boot; it matches mentors with industry-specific experience, and its location accesses New York and Boston networks.

Through June 15, the organization is accepting applications for a 12-week fall program. Applicants should have launched — or be ready to launch — a product or digital service by the end of 2014. Companies should have the potential to grow to more than $10 million in revenues within 4 to 6 years. To apply for the fall program, click on The Refinery website.

The accelerator culminates in a Pitch Night. Teams will present their companies to the community, pitch to potential investors, and compete for cash awards.

“This is a community effort to create local jobs, and investible companies,” Collins says.

And Fairfield County’s remarkable women lead the way.

In Fairfield County, Billionaires Lurk Around Every Corner. Except Ours.

Proof — if anyone needs it — that Fairfield County is not like the rest of the world came earlier this week, when Forbes magazine released its list of the world’s wealthiest men (and a few women).

There are 1,645 billionaires on the planet — and 14 live in Fairfield County.

In other words: 1 out of every 100 billionaires — billionaires! — on the planet owns at least one home within an easy bike ride of us.

What may be almost as surprising, though, is that not one of them calls Westport home.

Westport's Glendinning complex is no longer the right fit for Bridgewater Associates.

Westport’s Glendinning complex is no longer the right fit for Bridgewater Associates.

The richest state billionaire is Ray Dalio. He’s worth a cool $14.4 billion — placing him #69 overall — thanks to the hedge fund he founded, Bridgewater Associates.

There is, of course, a Westport connection: Bridgewater is based here.

Though Dalio is trying to move it to Stamford, closer to his Greenwich home. Of course, to do that he needs tax breaks from the state.

The other 9 Greenwichites on the list include hedge fund titan/federal microscope subject Steve Cohen, and wrestling kingpin Vince McMahon.

Virtually everyone else on the list is a finance-type guy. And they are all guys: the only female Connecticut billionaire is also the lone non-Fairfield County resident, Branford hotel queen Karen Pritzker.

I draw 2 conclusions from the Forbes rankings.

  1. With all that financial power concentrated in this county, you’d think they could get Metro-North to improve its service. Except that I doubt they take the train to work.
  2. Fairfield County is filled with caviar. But when it comes to billionaires, Westport is chopped liver.

10,000 bill

 

We’re #9! Completely Arbitrarily!

You may have missed this recent news, but “06880” did not:

Westport ranks #9 on a list of “America’s Top 15 Economic Power Towns.

That’s right. Our humble burg trails only #1 McLean, Virginia, Weston (Massachusetts, not Connecticut — whew!) and 6 other places as — well, something.

SpareFoot logoTo compile the list, SpareFoot — – an Austin, Texas-based company that boasts “the largest inventory of storage units in the U.S.” — examined every place in America with 50,000 residents or fewer, that also happens to be home to at least one Fortune 500 company. More than 120 towns fit into that category, meaning nearly 10% of all candidates had a chance of making the list.

(Can you guess Westport’s Fortune 500 company? I couldn’t.)

SpareFoot then applied 6 criteria to rank the “economic power” of Fortune 500 towns:

  • Home ownership rate (Westport’s: 86.2%)
  • Median household income ($152,586)
  • Local unemployment rate (7.4%)
  • Percentage of residents living in poverty (3.7%)
  • Ratio of median home value to median income (7.2)
  • Median value of owner-occupied homes ($1.1 million)

So, to summarize: A random self-storage business decided to create an “economic power” index; chose arbitrarily to limit it to places with Fortune 500 headquarters, but also arbitrarily with a certain limited population; came up with 6 totally random categories, having absolutely nothing to do with the original arbitrary premise of Fortune 500 companies, and then tried to convince “06880” to run the story.

Hey. It worked.

So what Fortune 500 company is headquartered in Westport? Terex.

This was the photo SpareFoot used to illustrate Westport's #9 appearance on its "Economic Power Towns" list.

This was the photo SpareFoot used to illustrate Westport’s #9 appearance on its “Economic Power Towns” list.

Dwain Schenck: “Reset” Yourself After A Job Loss

In 2012, Dwain Schenck lost his job as vice president of public relations for a major US company. Nearing 50, it was his first layoff ever. But he was not worried.

Schenck figured that with his background — a journalism degree from USC, decades of experience with non-profits and big corporations, and a proven record of success — he’d land a new gig pretty quickly.

It didn’t happen.

“The world had changed radically” since he entered the workforce, the 10-year Westport resident says.

“The Great Recession was over, but the job market was still horrendous. There were no jobs for a VP of corporate communications.”

Especially one who was — in his words — “middle-aged, balding, a little heavy.”

Dwain Schenck

Dwain Schenck

Schenck went on plenty of interviews. They went well, but nothing panned out. No one told him why he was not hired.

His kids — 2 at Staples, 1 at Coleytown Middle School — were thriving. But Schenck’s self-confidence quickly crumbled. He realized he had “connected all of my self-worth to my job. Nothing equipped me to be out of work, and with no control over my destiny.”

One night, at dinner with longtime friend Mika Brzezinski — they’d grown up professionally together at AmeriCares, and her husband and Schenck were briefly fellow reporters at News12 — he told her of his tough experiences.

As she realized the toll it was taking — on Schenck’s personality, marriage and home life — she said, “you have to write about it.”

Finally, he had something he could control.

Schenck interviewed job-seekers, business executives, psychologists, and celebrities like Donald Trump and Larry David.

The result — Reset: How to Beat the Job-Loss Blues and Get Ready for Your Next Act – is a hit. It’s the 6th best-selling business paperback — and a lifesaver for readers, as well as Schenck himself.

Reset bookDespite the topic, it’s hardly gloom-and-doom. Schenck writes with humor, insight and plenty of personal experience on topics like insecurity, networking, maintaining a social life, and “Welcome to Hell: HR and Interviewing.”

It’s heavy on reinvention. Which is fitting, because Schenck reinvented himself by the very act of writing a book.

He’d never considered it before. But, thanks to a job coach who helped him look at his “constellation of skills,” rather than just one skill set, he realized he was more than just a public relations executive.

By the time Schenck finished writing, he had the confidence to relaunch himself as  PR consultant to high-end clients. He got good gigs, helping CEOs with their messaging and external communications.

Schenck has a website that brings in work, and does motivational speaking too.

He no longer commutes to New York. He works from home and onsite, at clients’ Fairfield County headquarters.

He wouldn’t be where he is, he says, without Westport. It’s an “artistic, comfortable, tolerant town with a lot of heritage,” he says, and his family loves being here. He moved here for the schools, and if he’d gotten a job in Silicon Valley — as he almost did — he would have commuted cross-country.

At 50 years old, he is “doing what I want, and like, to do,” Schenck says. “I’m probably using 75% of my skills, for the first time ever.”

He’s making more money than before he was fired.

But he’s less focused on that. He’s “reset” his life. As his subtitle says, Schenck definitely beat the job-loss blues. Now, he’s well into his next act.

(Dwain Schenck will be at the Westport Barnes & Noble at 2 p.m. on Saturday, February 22 to sign copies of Reset. Mika Brzezkinski will be there too.)

Johanna Rossi Would Not Trade Her Job For Anything

Every time I see a photo of a Wall Street trading floor — people shouting maniacally, looking ecstatic or glum or whatever — I think: Wow. That’s a lot of testosterone. Where are the women?

Perhaps the only place with fewer females is an NFL locker room. Then again, they allow women reporters.

But Johanna Rossi is part of an exceedingly rare breed. The Westporter is a senior trader with Alden Global Capital.

Johanna Rossi (seated), on the Traders cover.

Johanna Rossi (seated).

She’s obviously at the top of her game. Traders Magazine just named her “Trailblazer of the Year,” in its “Wall Street Women Awards” issue.

At age 4, Traders says, her father taught her how to read stock quotes in the newspaper. She checked his portfolio daily.

Four decades later, she specializes in trading distressed securities. Now, though, she manages Alden’s domestic desk of approximately $1.8 billion in assets.

Her passion helped her overcome the perception that women could not be traders. After earning an MBA in corporate finance at Fairleigh Dickinson, she survived 12 interviews to land a job at NatWest Bank.

Rossi’s next job was as an international equity trader at Oppenheimer Capital. She joined Alden Capital in 2003. Today she handles “best execution in myriad asset classes such as U.S./international equity, U.S./international debt, program trading, forex, options and commodities.”

She loves her work so much, Traders says, “if she could trade washing machines, she’d do it.”

Johanna Rossi (Photo/Traders Magazine)

Johanna Rossi

As part of her award, she will bang the gavel at the New York Stock Exchange. The date is December 26.

Uh-oh. The day after Christmas is by far one of the slowest trading days of the year.

You think they’d give that slot to a man?

Money And Westport

CNN Money has come out with its annual list of the 50 Best Small Towns in the US.

Westport is not on the list.

Three Connecticut towns are — Brookfield is #26, Cheshire’s 39 and Simsbury squeaks in at 50 — while the absolute bestest place to live in the entire country is (of course!) Sharon, Massachusetts.

We did not crack the Top 10 Earning Towns, either. Scarsdale, New York is #1, while Weston is 2 and New Canaan 5.

BUT…

No other place in New England — and only 7 other towns in the country — can boast they’ve got a bunch of 12-year-olds battling for a world championship.

That’s a lot of pressure on these kids — bringing home the bacon their CNN Money-reading parents couldn’t provide.

Go get ‘em, guys.

Take that, Sharon and Scarsdale.

And especially you, Weston and New Canaan.

(Hat tip to alert “06880” reader Johanna Rossi for the links.)

Granted…

What’s needed to make downtown Westport more attractive?

Politicians and civic leaders think new and improved sidewalks, some curbing, a few tree grates, guardrails here and there, and energy efficient lighting would help.

What will it cost?

Well, $497,595 might cover it.

Voilà!

That’s the amount of a state grant — designed to help towns “develop or improve their commercial districts, help small businesses attract customers and improve pedestrian safety and livability in town centers” — provided by the neatly named Main Street Investment Fund. Westport was 1 of 14 towns in Connecticut to receive the aid.

Main Street was looking a bit bedraggled after the removal of some downtown trees.

Main Street looked a bit bedraggled after the removal of some downtown trees.

But — aesthetically improved sidewalks, curbing and tree grates aside — the grant was not universally praised.

A Westporter — and local business owner, no less — posted the news on Facebook. She added one word: “Speechless.”

Other commenters added their $497,595 2 cents:

  • “That’s like an heiress applying for & getting food stamps. Unbeleiveable.”
  • “The person with the best writing skills get the grants! It is silly for Westport to take grant money, they should be embarrassed!”
  • “Taking it away from what other deserving areas that applied?”
  • “Oh please– Westport should’nt even have been ELIGIBLE.”
  • “Good to know the state has its priorities in order!”
  • “Someone should investigate how that even happened.”

Of course, Facebook is its own ecosystem. Friends tend to reinforce other friends’ views.

Perhaps there’s another person out there whose Facebook page is filled with congratulations for this grant.

Meanwhile, “06880” wants to know: How do you feel about Westport’s half-million-dollar downtown improvement grant? Well deserved? Much needed? Kinda nice, but embarrassing? A boondoggle? Something else?

Click “Comments.” Use your full name, please — and let us know if you’ve got a dog in the downtown hunt.

Sally’s Place To Close; A Westport Era To End

Sally White has been selling music on Main Street since 1956.

Sometime this summer, her song will finally end.

The beloved owner of Sally’s Place — the record/CD store where Keith Richards and Mary Travers shopped (and schmoozed) with Sally, and any other music lovers who wandered up the steps at 190 Main Street — is closing down.

She’s not sure when (probably later this summer). And she has no idea what she’ll do with the hundreds of posters, autographed photos and musical tchotchkes that line the way (maybe sell them?).

Sally White, standing underneath a photo of one of her all-time favorites: Frank Sinatra.

Sally White, standing underneath a photo of one of her all-time favorites: Frank Sinatra.

She does know, though, that she’ll leave a business she’s loved from her 1st day at Melody House, a few doors away, 57 years ago.

She also knows why she’s closing. The internet dragged too many customers away. The stagnant economy dragged business down further.

Sally’s Place has a niche in Westport that will never be replaced. I walked in this afternoon at the same time as another customer. She wanted a vinyl copy of “Rubber Soul.” Sally promised it would be in by Saturday.

When Melody House closed in the late ’50s, Stanley Klein offered her a job in his department store’s record section. Raising 2 sons alone, she said she could work only 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. She also told him how much she needed to be paid. He hired her on the spot.

She worked there for more than 20 years. Her gentle nature, loving presence and encyclopedic knowledge of music influenced generations of Westporters — myself included.

Sally's Place is at 190 Main Street -- on the right, just past Avery Place.

Sally’s Place is at 190 Main Street — on the right, just past Avery Place.

When Klein’s record department closed in 1985, she decided to open her own store. Her brother-in-law wrote a business plan. She showed it to the president of Westport Bank & Trust.

He gave it right back. “We don’t need it,” he said. He trusted her word.

She offered her house as collateral. He refused. He was happy to back Sally’s Place without it.

It’s been an “amazing” 27 years, Sally says. “The bank, the record companies, my landlord — everyone has been fantastic.”

Especially her customers. “They make me feel special,” says Sally. “But I’m just doing what I love.”

Another customer this afternoon asked Sally for a turntable needle. She handed him a phone number. “This is the Needle Doctor,” she said. “He has everything.”

Sally’s musical roots run deep. She’s seen Frank Sinatra on stage. Also Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Tommy Dorsey, Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw.

Brubeck and Gerry Mulligan were close friends. So are many customers who never played a note. All are bound by a love of music — and the treasure that is Sally.

Sally doing what she loves most: interacting with one customer. Another one browses in back.

Sally doing what she loves: interacting with a customer. Another browses in back.

“I’ve been working since I was 14,” Sally says. “I’ve been a part of this town for a long time. This is my heart and soul. I wouldn’t trade places with anyone.”

She’s survived as long as she has on special orders. Bluegrass compilations, rap, the “Roar of the Greasepaint” soundtrack — all are hand-written, in old-school logbooks. People find her from around the country.

She does not charge for mailing. “It’s my way of saying thanks,” she says.

As if on cue, a customer requested “old Polish-American polka music” for a wedding. She mentioned a composer. “S-t-u-r-r,” Sally spelled. “Right!” the woman said.

There is plenty of new vinyl -- and CDs, and random stuff, and musical knowledge -- at Sally's Place.

There is plenty of new vinyl — and CDs, random stuff, and musical knowledge — at Sally’s Place.

She does not stock Lady Gaga. “You can get that at Walmart for 10 bucks,” she says.

You can get it online, too — along with virtually everything Sally sells. Which is why she has written this message (by hand):

After 27 years of business I have decided to retire. The economy and internet sales have made it impossible for me to continue.

I thank you for your support, and hope you wish me well in retirement. I’ll miss you.

“Quick and easy,” she says. “I don’t need the schmaltz.”

But we need to say “thank you” to Sally White. Please hit “Comments” to share  your memories, or offer praise.

And then — whether you’re a longtime admirer, a former customer who faded away, or someone who always meant to stop by but never did — go see Sally.

She’ll be glad to see you.

And her broad, loving smile will make your day.

(Click here to read a previous post about Sally’s Westport Arts Center award.)

Back to the Basics: A Portrait of Sally White from Claire Bangser.

 

At Risk, And In Westport

A provocative article in the New York Times suggests that the massive money today’s “economic elite” spend on their kids may not have the desired effect.

“Being groomed for the winner-take-all economy starting in nursery school turns out to exact a toll on the children at the top,” writes Chrystia Freeland, editor of Thomson Reuters Digital.

That’s not exactly rocket science. But what makes this story “06880” blog-worthy is that some of the research was done right here in 06880.

In other words: the “children being primed for that race to the top from preschool onward” are not just anyone’s kids.

They’re ours.

Dr. Suniya Luthar

Dr. Suniya Luthar

The researcher cited — Suniya S. Luthar, professor of psychology and education at Columbia University’s Teachers College — has studied a generation of Westport students. The oldest are now in their 20s.

One of her first discoveries was that “substance use, depression and anxiety, particularly among the (affluent) girls, were much higher than among inner-city kids.”

Dr. Luthar’s research has led her to conclude that the children of privilege are an “at-risk” group, Freeland writes. “What we are finding again and again, in upper-middle-class school districts, is the proportion who are struggling are significantly higher than in normative samples,” (Luthar) said.

“It is an endless cycle, starting from kindergarten. The difficulty is that you have these enrichment activities. It is almost as if, if you have the opportunity, you must avail yourself of it. The pressure is enormous.”

Freeland writes:

Increasingly, we live in individualistic democracies whose credo is that anyone can be a winner if she tries. But we are also subject to increasingly fierce winner-take-all forces, which means the winners’ circle is ever smaller, and the value of winning is ever higher.

Life is not always easy in the 06880.

Life is not always easy in the 06880.

Luthar’s research subjects wonder, “What happens to me if I fall behind? I’ll be worth nothing.”

When we read stories “research,” we tend to think of nameless, faceless people in sterile labs.

In this case, the at-risk children we read about are very, very familiar. We see them every day.

They might even be here, next to us — looking safe and secure — as we read this disturbing story about their worrisome, insecure future.