Christopher Gardner is president and CEO of the Chicago-based brokerage firm Gardner Rich & Co., which he founded in 1987. A self-made multi-millionaire, Gardner is intent on giving back to the communities where he conducts business because he has never forgotten his humble beginnings or the odds he has surmounted. Christopher Gardner's accomplishments are extraordinary on their own merit, but are all the more astonishing because of the unimaginable obstacles he encountered on the road to success.
Always hard working and tenacious, a series of circumstances in the early 1980's left Gardner homeless in San Francisco and the sole guardian of his toddler son. Unwilling to give up Chris Jr. or his dream of financial independence, Gardner started at the very bottom of the financial industry ladder and pulled his way up, often spending his nights in a church shelter or a bathroom at a Bay Area Rapid Transit station in Oakland. The amazing story of Gardner's life was published as an autobiography, The Pursuit of Happyness, by Amistad/Harper Collins on May 23, 2006, and is the subject of a movie with the same title starring Will Smith as Gardner released by Columbia Pictures in December 2006.
Born February 9, 1954 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Gardner never knew his father. He lived with his mother, Bettye Jean Gardner, and her family and, when necessary, in foster homes. Despite a life of hardship and emotional scarring, he always had supreme love and admiration for his mother, who was a trained schoolteacher. His mother taught him some of the greatest lessons of his life, which he follows to this day. When Gardner told her he wanted to be the great jazz trumpeter Miles Davis she said, "Son, there's only one Miles Davis and he got that job. So you have to do something else." He understood from that day forward that his job was to be Chris Gardner - whatever that entailed. Bettye Jean also taught him that in spite of where he came from, he could attain whatever goals he set for himself by saying, "If you want to, one day you could make a million dollars." Gardner believed this to be fact, and it allowed him to persevere through the years when he and his son were struggling for survival and a better life.
Straight out of high school, Gardner enlisted in the Navy, just like his uncles, his role models, had done previously. After the military, Gardner went to San Francisco and took a job as a medical supply salesman. Then he reached a turning point in his life. In a parking lot, he met a man driving a red Ferrari. "He was looking for a parking space. I said, 'You can have mine, but I gotta ask you two questions.' The two questions were: What do you do? And how do you do that? Turns out this guy was a stockbroker and he was making $80,000 a month."
That pivotal encounter gave Gardner a clear career goal, but he still needed a way into the world of high finance. Without experience, connections, a degree, or pedigree, Gardner began knocking on doors, applying for training programs at brokerages, even though it meant he would have to live on next to nothing while he learned. When he was finally accepted into a program, he left his job in medical sales. But his plans collapsed when the man who offered him the training slot was fired, and Gardner had no job to go back to. Things got worse. He was put in jail for $1,200 in parking violations that he couldn't pay. Chris Jr.'s mother left and Gardner, despite his circumstances, fought to keep his son because, as he says, "I made up my mind as a young kid that when I had children, my children were gonna know who their father was."
Although he managed to enter a training program at Dean Witter Reynolds, Gardner's meager stipend as a trainee meant he, like so many working poor in America, had a job but couldn't make ends meet. Chris's co-workers never knew he spent his evenings trying to arrange day care, find food and a safe place for him and his son to sleep. After spending nights in a locked bathroom at an Oakland subway station, Gardner persuaded Rev. Cecil Williams, founder of a new shelter program for homeless women at Glide Memorial United Methodist Church, to let him and Chris Jr. stay at the shelter.
Gardner passed his licensing exam in 1981 on the first try. He arrived early, stayed late and worked the phones day after day to lure new clients. He and Chris Jr. got an apartment, and in 1983 he joined Bear, Stearns & Company. After becoming a top producer, first in San Francisco and later in New York, Gardner left in 1987 to establish Gardner Rich & Company, Inc., an institutional brokerage firm specializing in the execution of debt, equity and derivative products transactions.
With a network of offices in New York, Chicago and San Francisco, GRC has grown by focusing on its commitment to provide quality service and excellent trade executions for clients. The firm executes trades for some of the nations largest institutions, public pension plans and unions. Under Mr. Gardner's directions, GRC has adopted a "give back to the community" program. The Company donates 10% or more of the company's earnings toward school and educational projects in the communities it serves.
Chris Gardner's remarkable story of struggle, faith, entrepreneurialism, and fatherly devotion has catapulted him beyond the notoriety he has found on Wall Street. He has been featured on CBS' Evening News with Dan Rather, twice on ABC's 20/20, as well as being the subject of profiles in newspapers and national magazines.
Gardner will present at the Free Enterprise Dinner in Hobbs, NM, Monday, April 2, 2007 at 6:00 p.m. at the Lea County Special Events Center and at the Hatton W. Sumners Speaker Series at NMMI in Roswell, NM at 7:00 p.m. on April 3, 2007. For more information on either event, or for tickets to the Free Enterprise Dinner, please contact the CSW Office of Advancement at 505-392-6561, extension 1014.