Turning Ordinary Events into Golden Opportunities
By Helen Watkins Norman
Photography by Tony Cenicola
Even 40 years ago as a student at Rhodes, Wall Street titan William J. Michaelcheck ’69 had the Midas touch for turning ordinary events into golden opportunities.
He was sitting in a Palmer Hall lecture room on campus one fall day waiting for class to start when a female student sank into the chair in front of him. Michaelcheck, a junior, couldn’t help but notice the mail she had in her hand.
“She’d received a letter from the dean about a scholarship for this round-the-world travel opportunity asking if she’d like to apply,” recalls Michaelcheck, sitting in a window-lined conference room at the midtown Manhattan office of Mariner Investment Group, a hedge fund management firm of roughly $10 billion in assets. Michaelcheck is chairman of the global firm, which he founded in 1992 after leaving a spot on the management committee at investment giant Bear Stearns.
Michaelcheck, a smile creasing his boyish face, concedes that the moment class concluded he marched straight to the dean’s office. “I’m your man,” he boldly asserted, asking the dean to nominate him for this highly-competitive travel-and-study opportunity. The dean gladly complied.
That year, the International Honors Program selected him to participate, an honor that went to only 30 college students from around the country, and no one else at Rhodes. Michaelcheck, known to his friends as “Bill,” spent what would have been his entire senior year living in Japan, Thailand, India, Russia, France and Israel, where he studied the effects of modernization on those countries.
Michaelcheck, his signature mustache now mostly gray, chalks up the travel opportunity to serendipity—being in the right place (a lecture hall seat in Palmer) at a propitious time. Others chalk it up to Bill Michaelcheck being Bill Michaelcheck.
“(Michaelcheck) was very bright. He had a much clearer sense than the rest of us of what he wanted to do in life,” notes Deborah Sale ’70, a close friend since their days at Rhodes. “He had extraordinary talent, extraordinary intellect,” says Sale, executive vice president at the Cornell-affiliated Hospital for Special Surgery in New York. “But he also took advantage of opportunities that came to him. (The International Honors Program) was open to juniors, but he hadn’t learned about it until he was to be a senior. And yet he knew that would be an important thing for him. He went after it, and he did it.”
Football quarterback at Lake County High School where he was also voted “Most Likely to Succeed,” Michaelcheck grew up in Tiptonville, TN, the son of Frances Jeter Michaelcheck, a school teacher, and William D. Michaelcheck, a businessman. His dad served as town mayor and owned a small department store—Caldwell’s—where Bill worked as far back as he can remember, delivering packages, wrapping presents, tidying stacks of shirts left in disarray by customers.
Even back then Michaelcheck knew how to parlay educational achievement into better job opportunities, a skill he perfected in later years. Seventh-grade Spanish helped him land a job as sales clerk at Caldwell’s.
“I was the only one who could talk to the migrant workers who came in to buy pants or a suit,” he says.
In tenth grade his aunt, a guidance counselor at a Memphis high school, convinced him to visit Rhodes and meet her good friend, economics professor Ralph Hon.
“My aunt and Ralph Hon decided I was going to go to Rhodes,” he recounts, laughing. “They figured it out right there. I didn’t apply anywhere else.”
“I really instantly loved the college,” Michaelcheck confides. “Everything about it fit me perfectly. I made a lot of good friends. I really enjoyed the academics. I had to work hard, but I made good grades.”
Michaelcheck entered Rhodes planning to major in business and economics. He was soon anointed one of Dr. Hon’s “chosen,” a handful of students who excelled at economics and received extra tutelage from the sought-after professor.
“He took a great interest in me from day one,” says Michaelcheck, remembering the times Dr. Hon and his wife entertained students at their home.
Still, Dr. Hon could be very tough, he recalls.
“We had economics at 8 a.m. on Saturday morning,” Michaelcheck remembers. If a student were a minute late, the professor would look directly at the tardy offender and say, ‘Well, you obviously aren’t planning to major in economics. You might as well leave the class now.’”
Michaelcheck won the Seidman Award in Economics his first year as well as his senior year at Rhodes. He was president of Bellingrath residence hall his sophomore year and an officer with Alpha Tau Omega Fraternity, a position from which he resigned in protest when the national fraternity tried to keep his chapter from pledging a black student.
Every year he was at Rhodes Michaelcheck served on the Honor Council. He was elected president his senior year although he could not serve because of his senior year abroad. The trials and decision-making process were “agonizing,” he remembers.
“Going through that was a tremendous learning experience. It was so serious. So real.”
Despite his senior year absence from Rhodes, Michaelcheck’s fellow students elected him to the Hall of Fame before graduation.
The Road to Wall Street
Michaelcheck was planning to follow up his years at Rhodes with graduate school in economics. With Dr. Hon’s help he secured fellowships at Princeton and University of California at Berkeley. He aspired to be a college professor, but at the last minute he applied to Harvard Business School and got in.
“That hadn’t been the plan,” he acknowledges.
After earning his M.B.A. at Harvard in 1971, he pursued his dream of an international career. He was one of only two Americans appointed to the Young Professionals Program at the World Bank. Recruited by World Bank President Robert McNamara, former U.S. secretary of defense, he spent a year in a training program working with Latin America. Then he was assigned to the treasurer’s department to manage the World Bank’s investment portfolio.
When the oil shock of 1974 hit, McNamara sent Michaelcheck, a senior investment officer, and a couple of other treasury department staffers to Saudi Arabia to help that country invest the petroleum dollars that were gushing into the country. Saudi Arabia was still relatively undeveloped then.
Michaelcheck remembers the Saudi Arabian Monetary Agency was located in a dilapidated stone house with only one teletype machine through which all the country’s financial correspondence flowed.
“When the oil shock hit,” he says, “they had so much money and so much happening that when we came to work in the morning, you’d open the door and the teletype paper would be up to the ceiling and falling out into the hallway.
“Our big contribution,” the self-effacing Michaelcheck jokes, “was helping Saudi Arabia get another teletype machine.”
After his stint at the World Bank, Michaelcheck worked a few years at J.F. Eckstein and Co., a U.S. government securities firm. In 1979 he and a partner from Eckstein joined Bear Stearns and cocreated its government bond department.
Michaelcheck started in the trading side of Bear Stearns and discovered he was good at it. By the time he left Bear Stearns in 1992, he had co-established the mortgage department with Rhodes graduate John Sites ’74 whom he helped recruit to the firm. He had also been named an executive vice president in charge of the trading unit.
“(Trading) is something you’re naturally good at or you’re not. I like fast-paced activity,” he says, snapping his fingers and admitting that’s why he loves living in New York City. “You can walk over to the Bear Stearns trading room, and there will be 800 people in one room yelling. I lived in that room for 10 to 15 years. Some people would go in and say, ‘This is bedlam…I can’t even think what day it is.’ But I found it relaxing. It calmed me down.”
Currently Michaelcheck maneuvers the fast lane as chairman and chief investment officer at Mariner Investment Group. He started the company after his 1992 retirement from Bear Stearns. The name “Mariner” echoes Michaelcheck’s longtime love of the sea and boating. He keeps a boat in the Bahamas and flies down eight to 10 times a year to fish. And there are boats at the Michaelchecks’ summer home in Southampton.
“I originally thought it would be a small business,” says Michaelcheck, “a place for me to go and get out of my wife’s hair every day and hang out with my friends. That’s what it was for a few years. But then it started to grow and continued to grow.”
Today, Mariner manages portions of the assets of 400 to 500 institutions, many of them colleges and universities. (Although Mariner does not manage Rhodes’ endowment, Michaelcheck’s leadership on the Rhodes Board of Trustees and the Investment Committee has resulted in the college outsourcing the management of its endowment to a firm that specializes in that area, helping protect the college’s endowment and maximizing the return.)
Mariner’s headquarters are in Harrison, NY, outside Manhattan, and the business also has offices in Manhattan, Boston, London and Tokyo.
“We have 22 trading groups—groups of 4 to 6 people like the ones you see out here,” he says pointing from the conference room to a larger room beyond. “Each group trades a particular instrument like corporate bonds or government bonds. We’re one of the larger hedge funds in the world.”
Mariner trades in almost every country 24 hours a day, executing thousands of trades a day. With the average trade at $5 to $10 million, hundreds of millions of dollars flow through his company hourly. As the chief investment officer, Michaelcheck oversees all the trading that goes on, a fact underscored by the two cell phones—ignored during the course of this interview—that vibrate constantly at his waist.
“If there’s a flap in France or Thailand, I can feel my finger bump because it will hit some market,” Michaelcheck explains. And it isn’t really the money that keeps him loving this job, he says. “I wouldn’t tell my partners I’d do this for free, but I probably would,” he confesses. “I like having my finger on the electric current of the world’s economies.”
Closer to home
Despite the apparent joy Michaelcheck derives from his work in the global investment arena, friends say if you want to know what really makes him tick, look closer to home.
“He’s extraordinarily focused on his family,” says alumna Deborah Sale.
Another longtime friend, Sid Strickland ’68, vice president and dean of graduate and postgraduate studies at Rockefeller University in New York, describes Michaelcheck as “humble, caring about friends and family, inquisitive about others…a tremendous human being.”
Back in the fall of 1989 while conquering Wall Street, Michaelcheck was a single dad after his divorce from Lisa “Loretta” Madison ’72. His oldest daughter, Geneva, was about 10 and his twins, Elena and Stefan, were in nursery school up at the Presbyterian Church. Michaelcheck received a letter announcing a meeting at another parent’s home on Tuesday at 10 a.m. to plan the church nursery school’s Thanksgiving pageant.
“Now men never go to these meetings, but I didn’t want my kids to miss the chance to be a turkey in the pageant. So I got an intern and a taxi and one of those old-fashioned portable cell phones that we had then and we drove to Mrs. Smith’s apartment,” Michaelcheck recalls.
At the time he was in the middle of several deals and mergers, so he left the intern and the phone in the car parked at the curb.
There were five women at the meeting.
“They couldn’t have been happier that I was there. We had tea and we talked about who was going to be a turkey and whether we should have pilgrims or not, and I was actually enjoying it. But every 15 minutes I’d say, ‘Pardon me,’ and I’d run downstairs to the taxi and yell: ‘sell, sell, buy, buy.’ Then I’d run back to the elevator and upstairs to talk about turkeys.”
In the early 1990s Michaelcheck married Pam Furer, a longtime friend of the family. His daughter, Geneva, and Pam’s daughter, Lynn, had been playmates since they were babies. Their blended family expanded by one when the Michaelchecks had Charlotte, their youngest, who turns 14 this summer.
Still very involved in his children’s lives, Michaelcheck continues to take Charlotte, a “budding actress” to school at 7:30 a.m. several mornings a week. He carves out time to attend “strategy sessions” for daughter Lynn Devon, who recently won the nation’s Young Fashion Designer of the Year Award and is a rising star in the fashion industry. On weekends he often meets to talk economics with daughter Elena who, “to his great joy,” this year took a course on the history of economic thought at New York University.
Time for Rhodes
No matter how busy Michaelcheck has been throughout the years, he has never been too busy for Rhodes.
“When I got to Rhodes from Tiptonville, I felt like I had arrived home. I identified with everything about the place. And I still do,” says Michaelcheck. “It is the formative experience for me.”
He has served on Rhodes’ Board of Trustees for 17 years and now holds the position of vice chair. He was the international chair of the annual fund campaign the year it broke fund-raising records. He established a summer internship program for a Rhodes student at Bear Stearns while there. And he has been a member of Rhodes’ highest level giving society, the Diehl Society, for 25 years. He was the first alumnus from his era to join. He has likewise been a generous supporter of the college’s endowment.
Rhodes President William Troutt met Michaelcheck the fall Troutt took over the college presidency, and they have remained close friends since.
“(Michaelcheck) is a generator of ideas, someone who forms ventures brilliantly. He could do anything. He could run anything. But he knows he can get other people to run things. His real gift is in creating things,” says Troutt.
A master at pulling together the right ingredients to make a venture succeed, Michaelcheck has put his talents to work for Rhodes. Troutt was visiting Michaelcheck in New York when the topic turned to Teach For America, the program that funnels the nation’s brightest college graduates into teaching assignments in under-resourced schools that serve the poor.
Michaelcheck mentioned that he knew Wendy Kopp, the founder of the organization, and suggested the two of them pay her a visit. Within minutes, Troutt and Michaelcheck were meeting with Kopp. Before they left her office, Troutt had invited her to speak at Rhodes. One thing led to another. Now Teach For America has designated Memphis as one its teaching sites with Rhodes as the home base of that effort.
“We talk in our vision statement about developing in students a lifelong passion for learning and a compassion for others. Bill embodies our Vision,” says Troutt. “He is Rhodes at its very best.”