Never invest in anything that eats.
That bit of financial advice sounds unorthodox until you learn it comes from the mouth of Evan Roth, co-founder and co-CEO of BBR Partners, a boutique wealth management firm that deals strictly with ultra-high-net-worth families, those with investable assets of $30 million or more. In other words, people with enough disposable income to invest in horses, animals whose care and feeding can become a fiscal sinkhole.
Roth advises against such extravagances. He is well-acquainted with the instinct of coveting thoroughbreds, given that he is a native son of the Bluegrass State of Kentucky. Never mind that he’s been a New Yorker for many years; you cannot take the Bluegrass out of this man.
He’s been to the Kentucky Derby dozens of times and can still get a little choked up during the playing of My Old Kentucky Home. Though he follows his own advice and has never owned racehorses in search of a derby victory and millions in stud fees, Roth knows the sport well enough to understand the extraordinarily long odds of owning and training a championship thoroughbred.
He insists there was not a single dollar of smart money bet on 2022 Kentucky Derby winner Rich Strike, an 80-1 long shot selected to run among this year’s field only days before the race. Still, he marvels at Rich Strike’s remarkable closing speed during its derby victory, something he recalls seeing only one other time, from a horse named Silver Charm that thundered its way to the 1997 derby crown. Roth was in attendance with a group of friends that day and counts Silver Charm as his favorite of all horses.
Although Roth successfully resisted the seduction of racehorses, he did succumb to another Kentucky classic: bourbon. BBR has clients in the bourbon business too, one of them a multigenerational bourbon producer with whom Roth enjoys talking about how the bourbon industry has changed in recent decades.
“Bourbon kind of caught the wave in the last 15 or 20 years,” says Roth. “It has gotten so much better, the varieties and the flavors. I can go to any dive bar or cool New York restaurant and know they have a lot of bourbon options.”
Roth imbibes his bourbon with a single large square of ice, which melts more slowly than a flotilla of smaller pieces and doesn’t dilute the bourbon’s carefully cultivated flavor so quickly.
About five years ago he added a lemon twist, after reading a Pappy Van Winkle biography and discovering the old master took his bourbon that way.
“It takes just a little of the harsh spiciness out of it,” he explains.
If you’re not familiar with the Pappy Van Winkle brand of bourbon, you are not alone. According to one media report, no one paid Pappy much mind until 1997, when the Beverage Testing Institute in Chicago got its hands on a bottle and scored it a 99 out of 100, the highest rating ever given to a whiskey. Ever since, Pappy has become one of the most sought-after and expensive bourbons anywhere. Fanciers have been known to camp out through the predawn darkness to get their hands and taste buds on a new release. Some stores have even resorted to using a lottery to more fairly distribute their limited supplies.
And let us not forget collegiate basketball, another mainstay of Louisville culture. Count Roth as a fan, as evidenced by the stats he compiled going all the way back to the mid-1980s, during the glory days of head coach Denny Crum (and later Rick Pitino), and the many star players such as Darrell Griffith and Pervis Ellison. Eight trips to the NCAA Final Four and three national basketball championships later, there is no denying the roundball had a way of bouncing the University of Louisville’s way.
SPLENDOR IN THE BLUEGRASS
Roth is a product of Louisville, his sensibilities distilled in a “forgiving” milieu where neighbors looked out for one another and showed no propensity toward the cutthroat competitive instincts of other American cities. It was that sense of security that convinced Roth he could take risks without the threat of ensuing calamity.
Consider that he started his own business at just 29 years of age when he and some likeminded associates founded BBR Partners in the less forgiving climes of the Big Apple. Roth took the wealth of knowledge he had accumulated through those early years and let it ride on the new venture.
It is the “R” in BBR that stands for Roth, sensibly enough, while the “Bs” signify the presence of Brett Barth, Roth’s co-CEO, and Arthur Black (a now-retired founding partner).
“We could not come up with any creative name for our firm, no clever combination of words, nothing like Verizon,” he says. “It didn’t hurt that BBR sounded like KKR, a firm that we always admired.”
Other founding partners included Michael Anson and Todd Whitenack. Shortly after the firm’s founding, a sixth partner, Stephanie Gromek, was named. In 2010, the firm took on a minority investor named Lincoln Peak Capital, a firm run by two gentlemen with whom the partners had a personal relationship.
In time it turned out to be a winning combination, as BBR focused exclusively on families, and today counts more than 170 client families as part of its stable, managing about $26 billion of their wealth.
“Families have a very different dynamic — their investment needs, tax issues, legal issues, education issues — institutions frankly don’t face,” says Roth. “We would rather work one-on-one and help wealthy families than we would with a board or a group of people who are acting as agents of the capital rather than owners of the capital.”
THE YOUNG AND THE IMPULSIVE
Roth earned two degrees from the University of Pennsylvania, a bachelor of science from Wharton School with a concentration in finance and a bachelor’s in international relations, courses of study that comported with his aim for a career in either politics or business. The family accounting business, started by Roth’s grandfather and passed along to his father, was a likely consideration. He also deems his father and grandfather’s innate comfort with numbers to be something genetically bequeathed his way.
Efforts to earn a foreign service job in Washington, D.C., or become a senatorial staff member, didn’t pan out, though he did get a job offer from Goldman Sachs straight after graduation.
“The decision was made for me.”
Goldman Sachs, one of the gold-plated names on Wall Street, was quite the score for a new college grad. Things were good until Roth got impatient for the lack of the appreciation he felt he deserved — or so he thought at the time. He decided to bust a move, leaving Goldman in his mid-20s for Global Asset Management.
“I knew within a month or two it was a mistake,” he says. “It turned out I was loved by Goldman, I was just impatient. I had blinders on.” The lesson learned? “Your career is long and making impulsive decisions tends to lead to mistakes. I learned endurance and patience. I’m happy I went through that experience so I could learn from it, not to mention that I met two of my two co-founders through that other firm.”
Global Asset Management was a good industry player, according to Roth, but it lacked the camaraderie he came to know and value at Goldman, and the firm’s hard-charging ethos.
SOME TWISTS OF FATE
Things weren’t always hunky-dory for BBR. The early years brought plenty of rejection from prospective families, and growth came in fits and starts. Then a Boston Consulting Group professional was invited to assess the sputtering operation. At the end of an eight-hour session, he observed that Roth and his fellow partners were running the firm like a “schmatta” business (a term for garment businesses on the city’s Lower East Side). In other words, being run for survival rather than prosperity. His prescription: Stop thinking about spending and start thinking about investing by committing to a higher level of spending within the firm, and that meant hiring more people, the firm’s only real assets.
“One of the first things we did was hire an HR director who was focused purely on recruiting and on staff retention,” Roth recalls. “That really changed who we are and oriented us around the importance of attracting talent. It stopped us from working 20-hour days and hundred-hour weeks and turned us into an organization that was actually sustainable.”
Recruiting and retention have become elements of the business Roth is most excited about these days.
“The talent level and diversity of the people we are seeing who want to work at BBR has never been higher,” he says. “We offer a path for young people to grow.”
That last point is critical, Roth says, because, as a smaller firm, BBR cannot offer the compensation packages touted by McKinsey, Goldman Sachs and other brand-name firms.
Also key to Roth’s maturation was a mentor Mary Lehman, one of the first women to hold very senior positions in wealth management in the ’80s and ’90s. She was the gray hair in the room, the person with the industry experience the founders were still earning.
“She was willing to do anything to help us get the business off the ground,” Roth says of Lehman. “And talk about fun. So much fun.”
The revelry came to an end when Lehman reached her mid-50s and passed from cancer.
“Without her, BBR would not be who we are today. I really wish she was here to see what she helped launch.”
SELF-MADE WEALTH, ENDURING THRIFT
Many of BBR’s clients arrived sporting self-produced first-generation wealth and remember the days of paucity or middle-class means, a time when they spent gingerly out of necessity. Today, regardless of the financial windfalls from their efforts, many are slow to adjust to their new financial realities.
“A lot of our clients are savers and sometimes you have to encourage them to spend more,” says Roth. “I had a client once tell me that, despite the fact they have hundreds of millions of dollars, when they got to New York they felt obligated to take public transportation, not because they wanted to take public transportation, but because they didn’t feel they could afford cabs and Ubers. I take public transportation. I love public transportation, but if you are doing it because you don’t think you can afford to take a cab, then we need to have a deeper conversation.”
Roth, who counts himself a saver, can relate to the instinct for thrift, though he does spend liberally on a few priorities, such as family travel (in 2018 the Roth family took an extended vacation to Croatia, Tibet and Hawaii, among other places), or bicycles, some of them used in his training and competitions as a triathlete. Indeed, Roth is also a “very small investor” in a simulated bike company named Zwift, a Peloton alternative for cycling enthusiasts who attach their street or trail bikes to a flywheel and enter a virtual world where they compete against other riders.
THE ANSWER IS ‘NO’
One would imagine BBR Partners would make a tempting takeover target by a large RIA looking to scale higher still, or a bank with notions of cross-pollinating the firm’s well-heeled family clients with the bank’s other lines of service, and vice versa.
“We have no interest in selling,” says Roth. “We are very protective of our culture and our values.” One ritual that hints at the firm’s culture is the Monday morning all-staff meetings that have been part of the firm’s operation for more than 20 years, with each week’s confab mulling a different topic.
Other characteristics of the firm culture include a commitment to continuous improvement, offering sabbaticals to its long-term employees, as well as a commitment to happiness and laughter.
What’s more, the firm’s founding partners were only in their 20s and 30s when they launched the venture 22 years ago and are still relatively young and driven. Roth, for example, is father to three children ranging from ages 17 to 13, and not at a stage of professional life where being sidelined or turned into a cog in a corporate-style org chart has any appeal.
For now, though, it’s a foreign idea, especially for a firm that has never acquired another organization and takes pride in its independence, and that its economic expansion has been 100 percent organic — though Roth adds, “We don’t want to have our head in the sand, as far as what the future looks like. We want to be able to pounce on opportunities.”
While Roth got his aptitude for numbers from his father and grandad, his inclination toward optimism came from his mother — and that, he says, was critical to surviving the grueling early years. In this case, Roth defines optimism as the ability to see challenges in a way that presents opportunity.
“I think you need that as an entrepreneur to be able to face challenges in a way that don’t get you discouraged,” he says, especially when considering BBR’s success rate during its first few years was only around one in10. “For every 10 times we got in front of prospective clients, nine would reject us. Either they stopped calling back, or they said we were too young, or pointed to something else about the business we couldn’t control. If you aren’t optimistic you tend to raise the white flag too quickly.”
The optimist can also be prone to becoming Pollyannish, and on that front Roth expresses gratitude toward Barth, his co-CEO, whose sense of realism brought balance to their shared perspective.
Roth, Barth and their other partners sought to create something that allowed people to work together for the long haul, because the success allowed them to put their kids through college and to retire well.
“That to me is what career fulfillment is all about.”
None of this would have happened without his partners, Roth stresses. They needed one another, much as Buffett and Munger would not have become Berkshire Hathaway without their special chemistry, (my exaggerated analogy, not his).
Roth doesn’t even claim the vaunted “entrepreneur” title.
As he phrases it: “I won’t say I’m an entrepreneur, but I had an entrepreneurial zeal to make a mark. I feel like I had one good idea — and then I found partners who had that same idea.”
And what an idea it has been.
Mike Consol (email@example.com) is editor of Real Assets Adviser. Follow him on Twitter (@mikeconsol) and LinkedIn (linkedIn.com/in/mikeconsol) to read his latest postings.