Gilman C. Gunn III is a veritable jack of all trades in terms of economics. He’s worked in real-estate, investment, bonds, and gone as far from the USA as Kuwait. He’s also a graduate from Florida State University returning to his Alma Mater later this month to give a talk on entrepreneurial success and the world of business. Prior to his talk though, Spire Magazine had the opportunity to talk to him about his time at Florida State, the turbulent times that he went to school during, and his whirlwind of a career.
Can you talk about your time at Florida State University? What years were you a student? It was a pretty turbulent time for college students in the US, and especially for FSU.
I was at Florida State University from 1964-1968. I got a BA in Government and minored in ROTC, because at that time you couldn’t minor in Business, so I took the balance in my electives and went into the Air Force when I graduated from FSU. I thoroughly enjoyed my time there. I would say half of my learning came from inside the classroom and everything related to academics and the other half of my learning came from outside the classroom.
I was in student government and I belonged to a small group of young men that started Tau Kappa Epsilon— which celebrated its 50th anniversary at FSU earlier this year. I was elected to ODK and Golden Key, two leadership fraternities at Florida State.
During my senior year, once a month, I drove my little Volkswagen Beetle down to Sarasota from Tallahassee to take sales training, because I was licensed to sell mutual funds while I was still a student. After I graduated from FSU, it’s a day I’ll never forget; I fell asleep at the wheel driving across the bridge of the Suwannee River and I almost killed myself. The car rotated 360 degrees and came to rest rightside up and I couldn’t move my neck. To make a long story short, I spent the next six weeks in a hospital in Boca Raton with a compression fracture. I reported into the Air Force in a neck brace!
That was my experience at FSU. Looking back on it, I think the key benefit of the learning that I did outside of the classroom was dealing with people and working on/managing projects. I knew I was going to go into the Air Force after I graduated because the Vietnam War was raging at that time and I was commissioned before graduating.
You were also involved with the founding of the first integrated fraternity at Florida State. What was it like to be on the front lines of integration in the 1960s and 70s?
The national TKE fraternity is known as the fraternity for life. We started a fraternity at FSU because at the time, the fraternity system there was very closed, very elitist. It didn’t make sense to create a new fraternity because there were so many, but we wanted a more inclusive one. Bob Levy, the faculty member that got us together, is Jewish and we had many brothers that were Jewish. One of my brothers at the time was a Native American named, Joe Quetone, who lobbied for native rights for years. Some years after I graduated, Ethan Stubbs, a young black man, was president of our chapter. We were a very diverse group and I was very happy that we were able to celebrate our 50th anniversary this year.
How did the focus on diversity impact your decision making process in the world of finance?
I would say that even Florida State was in turmoil when I was there in the late 1960s. The president, John Champion, resigned over a censorship matter. I remember demonstrations being held on campus over this issue. In a broader context, 1968 was a very troubling year for youth, not only in the US but in France, for example. All young men at that age had to contend with the draft. I received a commission in ROTC and was an officer in the US Air Force right after graduating. I experienced that period more due to my military service right after college than anything else.
How did your service with the Air Force change you?
I wasn’t exactly sure what I wanted to do, so I had a period of a few years to think about that very seriously. I spent the first year in communications and electronics school in Mississippi; I almost flunked out. I was really not interested in communications and electronics. I remember going to the major that ran the school and saying, “I would like to sell mutual funds part time and I need your approval on that.” He made a deal with me. He said, “If you promise me not to flunk out of this school, I’ll let you sell mutual funds part time.” So the first year I managed to complete training there and I also used that opportunity to sell mutual funds to my fellow second lieutenants.
The second year I was in the service I was stationed at Eglin Air Force base, part of a team that was testing a classified electronics system purchased by the Air Force. That team experience was very helpful to me.
The third year, I volunteered for transfer to South East Asia and that was a very good experience for me, to learn what it was like to live in an Asian country. I was a part of an inspection group that went to bases inspecting communications equipment in Thailand. Then, because I volunteered, I got a one year early out from the Air Force, so I only spent three years in the service. The following fall, I enrolled to get my MBA at New York University so I could pursue a career in the investment business.
What was work as an international financier like? Where did you do work?
After I got my MBA I worked in New York City for about a dozen years, mostly doing bond analysis. I wrote two chapters for the municipal bond handbook there. I went into that because I talked to a retired partner of the Saloman Brothers. I asked him, “in my position, what would you do as a specific career in the investment business?” He told me through municipal bonds, I could work towards starting my own business.
While I was in New York, another individual and I purchased a fund where we sold bonds to institutions and wealthy individuals. It was a difficult time because of the high interest rates. As bond yield increases, the price declines. As a result, if you have any inventory at all, its value declines. If you’re dealing on a leveraged basis, that can be a killer and for us, it was. I learned all about risk through that.
After that, I read an ad in the Economist magazine for a position as an advisor for the Kuwait International Investment Company. This position was based in Kuwait and it was to advise the investment division of this merchant bank on strategy relating to the funds they managed, including some of the government’s reserves. I received an offer and my wife and I moved out to Kuwait for two years. I studied Arabic while I was there as well and I think I knew more Arabic than my Kuwaiti colleagues thought I knew. That can be either good or bad!
It was a totally different experience for me, living in an Arab country. We talked earlier about diversity. That is where I, as a white man, felt like I was a member of a minority. I was treated as a guest working in that country, never treated as family. Before I went to Kuwait, I didn’t really need to know anything about currencies either. That was another big learning experience for me, coming to terms with the day to day activity that involved different currencies. You have to be flexible enough to work in a different cultural environment to know what the non-scripted signals are.
Once I left Kuwait, my next post was as head of investment research with a French bank in London. I built a multicultural team there and we produced research for the institutional investors around the world. That was also a very valuable experience for me; I learned a lot. Working as an American for a French bank in London, eventually I had to think about whether being there was a tactical or strategic move. I felt the way I could truly leverage my international experience was to return to the US. Funny enough, my two young sons spoke English with a British accent for a while!
After some careful thought about the rest of my career, I returned to the United States to turn around a badly performing international equity fund. Over the years, building assets with this equity fund, I built a team over the course of my time there. The team was very international. I wanted ambitious people on my team; people with a lot of brain power and who filled any gaps that I had in my background. To me, hiring people that were born and raised in different parts of the world and spoke different languages as their first language with English as their second was important. It wasn’t always easy for me to manage such a disparate group with all of our cultural differences, even though most of them had acculturated to US business practices.
Do you think it was an important experience feeling like a minority when you were in Kuwait?
It was like that in London, too! Even though London is a very international city, we had people on my team working from all over the world. The language in my office was English, but I was told at one point that I didn’t get a promotion because I was an American. While that was difficult to hear, it really crystalized my own thinking that as valuable as the experience was, it was tactical—for building upon—rather than strategic.
You’ve done work in multiple fields, like equity and real estate. Are there different kinds of skills that you apply in these different fields?
I’m a generalist when it comes to my career. My passion has always been to try and buy a dollar for fifty cents. There are many ways to make money in the investment business, you just have to find the one that works for you.
For me, attitudinally, I was always interested in finding something that had the value of a dollar that I could buy for fifty cents. Most of the time, that meant the thing you bought had some hair on it. I got my start here in the states in the bond business and I was there when NYC was going through its near default crisis. When I retired in 2007, I was in a small way buying condos in South Florida. The banks were loaded to the gills with foreclosed assets, so I bought a number of them. That’s an example of buying something that is worth a dollar for fifty cents; the banks were forced sellers.
How was your field changed by the 2008 recession? Were you personally affected by it?
Before I retired, I worked for Evergreen Investments, a subsidiary of Wachovia. All of my share options became fully vested and I immediately sold them when I retired. I was able to personally avoid the meltdown of Wachovia and that ensuing market crash. Their shares were bought for almost nothing by Wells Fargo a year after I retired, so I was very fortunate to have avoided that debacle.
I always say that the best investment decision that I ever made in my life was to retire, since I was able to sell my Wachovia shares at a good price a year before the market crash. Not only did I avoid the crash financially, but I was able to avoid the stress of having to be a portfolio manager professionally during that period. It was a very frightful period.
Based on your experience, what would you tell someone in college who’s interested in doing international finance?
I would mention a number of things. First of all, make sure that it’s really international finance that you’re interested in. You’re really talking about two different things here. Finance and something international. I would say if you’re interested, talk to people doing it now so you can hear what the positives and negatives are. Not just finance, this goes for any career! If you decide it is for you, you should try to major in a foreign language and pair that with business in college. One of the best ways to get an international experience is to go on one of FSU’s learning opportunities abroad. In my junior year, I went to Spain and studied Spanish intensively for the summer in Valencia. It was a life defining experience for me. Whether it’s a summer or a year abroad, really try to nail down language fluency. You can also get experience overseas with the military, volunteer work, teaching English; there’s a lot of ways to get that experience.
There are many ways at FSU for you to take advantage of the tremendous amount of resources. For example, there’s the new Jim Moran School of Social Entrepreneurship. It’s a great opportunity for people that think they may be interested in something international and entrepreneurial.
I’m also going to be giving a presentation at FSU on Wednesday, October 24th in Diffenbaugh 009. The presentation is called Turbo Charging Your Life Entrepreneurially. I would encourage readers of this article to spend an hour at that presentation; I’ll be going over some of the tools that I used to define my own career. The other thing that I would recommend is that people take advantage of the FSU Trends Conference on October 25th and 26th. This is a real-estate conference held at the College of Business where professionals from all areas of the real- estate business. I have been at that conference for the past two years and I think it’s an excellent opportunity.
Lastly, it’s very important to know how to deal with people. In the course of your life, you’re going to run into people that are smarter than you are, about the same intelligence as you are, or maybe less smart than you are. You have to treat all people that you meet with respect. You have to be flexible with yourself because everyone is different, find out what people are motivated by. If you can use that motivation, you can move a whole team forward.