When talking with Gene, you’re much more likely to gain practical insights grounded in his rural North Carolina upbringing, where his farming and cattle trading Uncle Ken taught him why it’s important to Pay Attention to the Thin Cow, than to hear about his highly successful career in the investment world. Gene has an impressive professional track record that includes such leadership roles as Vice President of Reich & Tang, a large New York City investment advisory firm, and President of RJR Investment Management Inc., the investment advisory subsidiary of RJR Nabisco. But his true passion and primary focus is people – helping them solve financial challenges, untangle complicated situations and connecting them with others who might be able to uniquely assist them. From the day he co-founded CornerCap, Gene has committed the vast majority of his time to sitting face to face with clients and their families to understand their financial successes, dilemmas, goals and needs.
As a business founder, himself, he has cultivated a particular expertise in advising other business owners on how to optimize their personal and business assets, especially as it pertains to navigating taxes. While Gene’s days and weekends are full of breakfasts and dinners with clients, he has made time to give back to the community by sharing his expertise as Trustee Emeritus for Wesleyan College and as a Board Member of the Jensen Foundation, Broyhill Management Company and Opera Carolina Endowment. He is currently a member of the Society of International Business Fellows and the CFA Society of NC Advisory Board.
- BS, Mechanical Engineering – North Carolina State University
- MBA – University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
When you founded CornerCap, how did you set out to make it different from other wealth advisor firms?
When we began serving high net worth clients, we observed that other advisors at the time were over-promising and under-delivering – all at a very high fee. From day one, we set out to be different from the traditional investment services model by stripping away fear of investing and instead reassuring clients of their path forward. We explained that by understanding basic rules of market behavior and how to build balanced portfolios, we could help them achieve their objective of preserving wealth to provide them a comfortable life at retirement. We wanted our clients to feel empowered, not intimidated – and we built a model with a flat, fair fee that continues to this day.
How do you encourage clients to frame their financial picture?
Over the years, a client or two has called my approach “tough love” – but always when thanking me for providing realistic guidance that prevented distress in the long run. I ask clients to look realistically at what they are going to need/want/wish for in the future – how much and when. Then I ask them what assets they have or expect to earn or inherit in the future. Clients who have unrealistic expectations of their assets’ staying power are setting themselves up for disappointment, so I am always completely honest in helping frame their picture upfront so there are no illusions about what their financial future looks like.
How do you spend your time outside of the office?
I believe firmly in life-long learning. When traveling by car, I listen to courses on art, music, history, religion – almost anything except engineering and finance, which I studied in school. For leisure reading, I dive into murder mysteries and historical novels. Travel also consumes a great deal of my time, and I’m fortunate to have traveled to all 50 states and to 49 foreign countries to date.
What was your first job, and how did it influence your ultimate career path?
When I was 14, I stacked lumber in a lumberyard making $.50 an hour, working alongside men who were 55 years old making $1.05 per hour. It didn’t take long to see that doubling my pay over the next 40 years was not a good career path. That experience was a great motivation to pursue an education and gain a set of skills that would allow for a better life. As the country music song says, “It may be lonely at the top – but it’s a bitch at the bottom.”
What’s been the highlight of your career to date?
One lunch in 1975 changed my career forever. I was working at R. J. Reynolds in a finance job with no defined career path when my boss asked me to accompany him to New York for a lunch meeting about a potential acquisition. I had no expectations of the lunch other than enjoying a meal and meeting some new contacts. But to my surprise, that lunch continued into a 14-month stint between New York, Dallas, and Houston working on the biggest cash acquisition ever made at the time. My role in the acquisition was secondary, but it brought me to the attention of John Dowdle, RJR’s Treasurer, who offered me a job running the RJR pension fund. I have been in the investment business for more than four decades since, a path that may never have opened without that lunch meeting.