Chris Gardner has gone from sleeping in a San Francisco subway bathroom to luxuriating on the 63rd floor of New York's Trump Tower. The high-rise is one...
CHICAGO — Chris Gardner has gone from sleeping in a San Francisco subway bathroom to luxuriating on the 63rd floor of New York’s Trump Tower.
The high-rise is one of three homes the millionaire, who is an owner and partner in a Chicago-based brokerage, now owns.
Next stop? Hollywood.
The 50-year-old’s storybook tale is about to be widely told. In January, actor Will Smith signed on to play Gardner in “Pursuit of Happiness,” a film about his life to be released next year by Columbia Pictures. A HarperCollins autobiography also is in the works.
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Both will detail Gardner’s rags-to-riches journey. Where he once had to haul everything he owned out of a homeless shelter each day, Gardner currently can’t find time to play with all his possessions, which include a Ferrari Testarossa once owned by Michael Jordan.
Though Gardner will soon be swept up in publicity as the movie nears, he insists he remains focused on what got him off the streets: brokering deals.
Moving beyond stock trades, Gardner is trying to leverage his big-money relationships to raise a $1 billion fund for investments in South Africa.
“I have yet to see my life’s wealth,” Gardner said. “I see it coming.”
His 18-employee firm, Gardner Rich & Co., operates out of a squat building near the Chicago Board Options Exchange.
Since starting the firm, Gardner has been particularly adept at building relationships with labor leaders, who he hopes will provide a good portion of the funding for the South African venture.
Gardner has made his living cultivating similar connections with pension-fund managers and other moneyed individuals to steer stock-brokerage business to his firm. He does it with a directness and boisterous charm that he once used to talk his way into a night’s stay in a homeless shelter for mothers.
“He’s the kind of person who walks into an office and knows all the assistants and the person at the reception desk,” said Mellody Hobson, president of Ariel Capital Management in Chicago and a friend of Gardner’s.
“He’ll know people’s birthdays and their kids’ names. Somehow he’s able to do that with hundreds, if not thousands, of people,” she said.
Gardner grew up in a series of Milwaukee homes with his mother, stepfather and three sisters.
“My stepfather was fond of letting me know, quote, ‘I ain’t your … damn daddy,’ ” Gardner said. “That was something that was painful, to put it mildly.”
Anxious to set out on his own life, Gardner said he lied about his age to get in the Navy at 17. He spent three years in the Navy’s medical corps in North Carolina, leaving to work as a research assistant for a former Navy doctor in San Francisco. He then took a job as a medical-supply salesman.
Gardner said his career path changed dramatically in 1981 when he spotted a “gorgeous, red Ferrari.” When he learned the driver was a stockbroker who earned $80,000 a month, he began hunting for a job at a brokerage firm.
After 10 months of searching, a brokerage firm offered him a job. He quit his medical-supply sales job and showed up for work only to learn the hiring manager had been fired and his services weren’t needed.
“Nobody knew who I was or why I was there,” Gardner said.
Gardner said he did whatever he could for money — cutting grass, painting houses, cleaning basements and other assorted jobs. The woman he considered his common-law wife left him, taking away his young son and locking away his possessions.
That same day his family left, the police arrested him for having $1,200 in unpaid parking tickets. He landed in jail for 10 days.
Immediately after his release, Gardner went to a previously scheduled interview at Dean Witter in smelly clothing and paint-spattered sneakers.
“I could not think of a lie bizarre enough,” Gardner said. “I told the truth.”
He was hired.
As a stockbroker-in-training, Gardner worked the phones. He cold-called 200 prospects a day, and colleagues noticed his zeal for the job.
“Chris had an amazing intensity and desire,” said Bob Muh, whom Gardner worked for at Bear Stearns after leaving Dean Witter. “He just had a passion for wanting to learn and absorb as much as he could. He was willing to work tremendously long hours.”
For much of that time, he had nowhere else to go. A few months after she left, Gardner’s common-law wife returned and handed over his son. They had to leave the boardinghouse where he was living because it didn’t accept children.
They spent the night in friends’ homes, cheap hotels, bus stations, the airport and a subway bathroom. He eventually got into a homeless shelter for mothers.
The Rev. Cecil Williams, a San Francisco pastor, remembers Gardner showing up at his church’s soup kitchen.
“He came through the line every day with a baby in his arms,” Williams said. “I said, ‘My God, this man really has some commitment.’ ”
Several former colleagues said they encouraged him to take advantage of special opportunities for minority-owned brokerage firms.
Gardner said such set-aside programs have helped his firm, but he’s had to fight for business.
“He’s butted heads with (Citigroup Chairman) Sandy Weill to get access to bond deals,” said Michael Conners, who runs the Eventus hedge fund in Chicago and worked with Gardner at Bear Stearns. “He’s fearless.”
Gardner’s story came to public attention in 2002 when a San Francisco television station did a story on Williams’ church, including how its programs helped Gardner become successful. The television show “20/20” picked up his story, and Hollywood came calling.
One man pitched a reality show where Gardner would decide which homeless contestant would win a job, a $300,000 house and $100,000 in cash. Gardner said he responded, “Homelessness is not a game and if it is, I already won so send me the money.”
He was more interested in a movie based on his life. Gardner sold story rights, and the project is now being shopped to directors.