No Mercy No Malice

How Scott Galloway Learned How to Invest at 13 — From a Stranger

Proof that kindness compounds over the long term

As the news keeps thrusting the CEO of Robinhood in my face, I have two thoughts. One: Is the Javier Bardem No Country for Old Men hairstyle back in vogue? And two: Investing in — and holding — stocks has changed my life profoundly. The risk my parents took in immigrating to America, the generosity of California taxpayers (funding my education at UCLA and Berkeley), and my investments in stocks are the reasons my sons have health insurance and a dad who can go to Burning Man (soon, I hope) without really going to Burning Man (no yurt at my age).

I started buying stocks when I was 13 — this is that story. (Originally published in March of 2018.)

Cy Cordner

In junior high I was invisible.

In the second grade, I was the only son in a nuclear family where Dad was a vice president for International Telegraph and Telegram (ITT) and Mom was a secretary. We lived in a house overlooking the Pacific in Laguna Niguel. By eighth grade, I was the son of a single mother, still a secretary, living in a condo in Westwood. In the third grade, Debbie Brubaker and I were sent to the fifth grade for math and English. By the eighth grade, I was failing calculus, and my teacher suggested I be downgraded to Algebra II.

In fourth grade, I made the all-star team as a pitcher and shortstop. By the eighth grade, a growth spurt unaccompanied by weight gain blessed me with the height of a 13-year-old and the coordination and strength of a nine-year-old. I was now at a bigger, integrated school. We had a kid who, in the eighth grade, could dunk. My two best friends’ parents pulled them from Emerson, deciding an integrated school wasn’t right for their kids, and sent them to private schools.

I was maturing from remarkable to remarkably unremarkable. Not excelling at anything, few friends, no real sense of self. Invisible.

My mom’s boyfriend, Randy, lived in Reno and owned a restaurant supplies company. He was rich—or seemed rich. More than that, he was generous and engaged in the well-being of his girlfriend’s son. Randy would spend every other weekend with us. I was always welcome on the trips they took, and he bought me my first nice skateboard, a Bahne. Randy paid the mortgage on our condo in Westwood, which my mom, as a secretary, could not have afforded. He made our lives tangibly better. Randy was also married with a school-age son. It’s a strange feeling to realize in your forties that you were the kid of some guy’s “other” family, referenced in the media but never featured. But that’s another post.

One Sunday evening, as he was packing to leave, I asked Randy about stocks. I had heard Jerry Dunphy, the local news anchor, reference the stock market on TV. As I watched Randy fold sweaters and place awesome toiletries in his leather Dopp kit (English Leather, Barbasol, and Skin Bracer… by Mennen), he gave me an overview of the markets. When the taxi honked, I carried his bag down. Randy stopped at the dining room table, took out his wallet, placed two crisp $100 bills on the table, and instructed me to “go buy some stock at one of those fancy brokers in the Village.” I asked how I would do that. “You’re bright enough to figure it out, and if you don’t by the time I’m back, I want my money back.” I had never seen a hundred-dollar bill before.

I placed them under a volume of my Encyclopedia Britannica, and the next day after school, I marched down to the corner of Westwood and Wilshire and into the office of Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith. I sat in the reception area, and… I was invisible. They weren’t unfriendly or mean — I was just invisible. I began to feel self-conscious (despite being invisible), so I left and walked across the street into the offices of Dean Witter Reynolds. A woman with big gold jewelry asked if she could help me, and I told her I was there to buy stock. She paused. I became self-conscious again and blurted, “I have $200” and took the crisp bills out of an envelope I had put them in that morning. She jumped up, gave me a clear-window envelope, and told me to wait a minute. Sitting, I rearranged the bills in my new envelope so one could see Ben Franklin’s hair and ear through the cellophane. A young man with curly hair approached me, asked my name, and introduced himself.

“I’m Cy Cordner. Welcome to Dean Witter.”

Cy took me to his office and gave me a 30-minute lesson in the markets. The ratio of buyers to sellers determined price movements. Each share represented a small piece of ownership. You could buy stocks in companies whose products you like/admire. Amateurs act on emotion, pros on numbers. We decided to invest my bounty in 13 shares of Columbia Pictures, ticker CPS, at $15-3/8.

Each weekday for the next two years, at lunch, I’d go to the phone booth on the main field with two dimes and call Cy to discuss my portfolio. Sometimes after school, I’d walk to his office to get the update in person (see above: few friends). He’d type in the ticker and tell me what CPS had done that day and speculate why the stock had moved: “The markets were down today.” “It looks like Close Encounters of the Third Kind is a hit.” “Casey’s Shadow is a bomb.” Cy also took the time to call my mom. Not to pitch her for business (we had no money), but to let her know what we discussed in the calls and say nice things about me.

The story would be more fun if I’d ended up a billionaire hedge fund manager. I’m not. But I know more about the markets than most marketing professors, and it’s served me well. Really well, even. More importantly, at 13, I was visible. Visible and worthy of an impressive man’s time every day. Randy and Cy instilled in me that remarkable men can become irrationally passionate about the well-being of a child that isn’t theirs. After heading to high school, I lost touch with Cy and, several years later, sold the stock to pay for a road trip to Ensenada with my UCLA fraternity brothers.

Deficits

In my forties, I became blessed with greater self-awareness: aware of my strengths, weaknesses, blessings, and what makes me happy. Problem is, I also became more aware of my deficits — where I had taken more than given. Friends who invested more in the relationship than me. Partners/mates who were more committed and generous. Even California taxpayers, paying for my education at UCLA and me reciprocating with striking underachievement — a 2.27 GPA (no joke). Taking, always taking.

I’ve been trying to fix that, and years ago, I decided to track down Cy to say thanks. I Googled him every which way, even called Dean Witter (now Morgan Stanley), but no luck. Chances were, I figured, that he was keeping a low profile or maybe totally off the grid. I told the story to my class when discussing mentors and how many strangers’ acts of kindness have had an impact on my life and prosperity. For a decade, I challenged them to find Cy. I even offered a $5,000 bounty figuring they’d come up empty-handed.

“We found Cy Cordner”

In March 2018, the day after issuing the challenge to the 170 kids in my brand strategy course, I got not one, not two, but three emails with the same subject line: “We found Cy Cordner.” The three budding Magnum PIs had found Cy’s nephew on Facebook, reached out to him, and gotten Cy’s phone number. (It’s important to highlight one of the millions of good things that happen on the social platform as I throw a lot of shade at Facebook.) So, I called Cy the next night, and we spoke for an hour. Our lives charted eerily similar paths: UCLA; financial services (both of us Morgan Stanley, via Dean Witter for Cy); divorce, two kids, and then entrepreneurship. After his divorce, Cy wanted to be closer to his daughters and moved to Oregon, where he owns a retail store called Monaco that sells furniture. After that call, our first contact in 40 years, I received the following email from Cy:

Cy Cordner <xxxxx@gmail.com>

Mar 27, 2018

Dear Professor Galloway {Scott},

It was an absolute pleasure speaking with you yesterday. Your life has traveled a remarkable path and in many cases parallel to my own life. When we completed our call I shared with my girlfriend much of the background of our conversation. She was equally amazed! Allow me to take a moment and distill my thoughts and feelings. Your perseverance and success reflect your upbringing and the love of your mom. Additionally, your character as a young boy who (as I) had an incredible thirst for knowledge is most apparent. I am proud that we met when you were so young and that I made a constructive impression on you. I AM VERY PROUD OF YOU!

I look forward to the prospect of meeting again. If you ever need anything, simply, contact me anytime.

Sincerely,
Cy Cordner

Forty years later, I was 13 again with a generous man who makes me feel less invisible.

Approaching his 70th birthday, Cy was taking stock of his blessings, getting remarried, and considering selling his business and easing into retirement. In my fifties, I’m also taking stock of my blessings and trying to repair my deficits.

Life is so rich,

Scott

P.S. Since reconnecting, Cy and I remain in regular contact. We’ve committed to getting together in person once we are both vaccinated.

P.P.S. Our most downloaded (to-date) Prof G podcast featured my colleague Aswath Damodaran on the GameStop saga and the markets more broadly. We’ve also featured Lina Khan, an antitrust expert and an associate professor of law at Columbia Law School, and economist Noreena Hertz to learn about the economics of loneliness. You can find our weekly show on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen.

Prof Marketing @NYUStern · Founder @L2_digital @redenvelope @prophetBrand · Contributor @bloombergtv · Cohost Pivot podcast · Weekly musings profgalloway.com

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