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February 1, 2005

Cowboy Capitalism on Wall Street

By John A. Byrne

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  • Cowboy Capitalism on Wall Street

Jim Willsey grew up dreaming about cowboys and Indians. Now he has turned the dreams of his hardscrabble childhood into a reality. Willsey - a former professional footballer and a Vietnam vet - became wealthy in a conventional business career and, later, as a master of portfolio trading. So he bought a ranch and stocked it with four horses to ride in the wide-open spaces of Scottsdale, Arizona. Willsey has come a long way from a working-class upbringing in the shadows of the steel mills in Gary, Indiana. It was the steel mills that employed his father. The son became the first person in the family to attend college. Still, the cowboy influence was big in his childhood.

"Gene Autry and Roy Rogers were my heroes and I always wanted to own a horse," recalls Willsey, an executive vice president who now runs the five-person portfolio trading team for electronic aggregator Pulse Trading.

Sure enough, when Willsey, who is in his late 50s, had his moment as an executive hotshot with a fat paycheck, he bought his dream horse. It was purchased in Arizona from an 80-year-old New Mexico cowboy.

"I remember the guy saying, What do you know about horses?' and I said, Very little,'" recalls Willsey, a strapping man, an inch above 6 foot, weighing 240 pounds. "The guy says, I have a tame horse for you' and I looked at him and said, No, I want one that is unbroken like me.'"

Willsey looks back with fondness on this desire of a boy from a steel community who wanted to own a ranch, live a dream out of the Old West and ride horses. For two months he worked with the horse - a cranky Appaloosa - who warmed Willsey's heart but broke his arm. "I said to myself, boy this is great, this is going to work out fine. It's just like football," says Willsey. It took this former professional football player to tame the wild animal.

Football Scholarship

Willsey attended the University of Missouri on a football scholarship, where he achieved Big 8 Honors. He earned an MBA at the University of Indiana. In 1968, he was drafted by then St. Louis Cardinals (now the Arizona Cardinals) and stayed two years. Then in 1970 he joined the Marine Corps, staying for three years, completing two combat tours in Vietnam. Today, he remembers the sacrifices of the American army. Willsey wears a bracelet in honor of Pat Tillman, the former Arizona Cardinal who lost his life in Iraq. Mike McCauley, president of Pulse, is a Gulf War veteran who was recently promoted to lieutenant colonel in the Reserves.

But back to the horses. Willsey is married and living on a ranch that abuts the National Forest in the Scottsdale area. The house comes into view off a dirt road, about nine miles from a blacktop surface. On this isolated piece of paradise, his eight-year-old son, Cody, is living the life of an American Cowboy character.