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March 1, 2003

Up From Homelessness: Meet a Chicago trading executive who was once homeless and is now a star.

By Gregory Bresiger

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  • Up From Homelessness: Meet a Chicago trading executive who was once homeless and is now a star.

For many young people, Christopher Gardner has become a role model. This former resident of some mean streets is a Horatio Alger of the securities industry.

Gardner, a veteran trading pro, urges high school students to hit the books. "I want them to understand that there is a very direct relationship between what you learn, and what you earn," he said. "The message I give them simply is no books, no bucks."

This is key, Gardner said, because kids constantly are trying to measure the validity of advice they hear from adults: Gardner, who has his own Chicago-based institutional trading firm, notes that they generally want to know one thing: "How much money do you make?"

Gardner obviously makes a lot of that these days, given the generosity of his donations to numerous charities.

Nevertheless, he doesn't want kids to take the same path that he did to success. That's because Gardner, a trader who had stints with Dean Witter Reynolds and Bear Stearns ("I learned this business at Bear Stearns," Gardner stresses), is a man who has lived through some of life's greatest challenges.

Raises His Son

Gardner raised a son by himself. That's tough enough, but there is one more detail: He raised his boy, now a young man and finishing his higher education, at a time when they were both homeless. He's had to wash up in a public bathroom in a station of San Francisco's Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART).

(In one of the ironies of Gardner's topsy-turvy life, Gardner's firm would later act as an underwriter for some of BART's bonds).

He lived in a shelter run by Rev. Cecil Williams, the founder of the Gilde Memorial Church in San Francisco. He is one of the people who helped Gardner begin his climb to success. Rev. Williams stressed self-help. His church started the first homeless hotel in the country.

"The deal was you could sleep there. But you gotta get up and be out at eight in the morning. You get no key so don't leave your stuff in the room. You can't be back until six in the evening," he said.

Gardner always believed in the principles of self-improvement even when his life seemed hopeless.

"I was homeless, but I never was hopeless. There's a very important difference between those two things," he said.

Yet even before the long road to success, Gardner was used to hard times. He was raised in a single parent household. Gardner says that he persevered through countless problems because of the values given to him by his mother.

"I remember watching one of the first guys to make a million dollars in the NBA in the 1970s and saying I'd like to make a million dollars. And I remember my mother telling me that I could do that," Gardner recalled.

Those values, and his history of homelessness, were critical factors in building his business, which he began from his home in 1987. He started with about $10,000 in capital. He became a great success in a business that had few African-Americans.