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Lunch at the Tribeca Grill with Samuel R. Ramirez

Published by The New York Sun on 2005-05-10

The lessons that Samuel A. Ramirez, founder and chairman of the eponymous investment bank, has learned in four decades of being a successful financier can be neatly summed up in his own words:

"There's plenty of business out there. There's plenty of money to be made. But you have to be straight with people. You must always do the right thing. And you must do the best job you can. Just keep it simple -- and just keep your eye on the ball."

Mr. Ramirez has done very well indeed by these lessons. His company manages more than $2 billion entrusted to him by high-worth clients, many of Hispanic origin, whose individual portfolios are mostly above seven figures. Operating out of seven offices across America, he makes investments in municipal debt, such as that of New York City and Puerto Rico, among other portfolios.

One reason clients are drawn to him is that he emphasizes the preservation of capital; not for him foolish risks.

Mr. Ramirez -- who was born of Puerto Rican parents in Spanish Harlem -- has also done well by recognizing early that America's Hispanic population, currently 40 million, or some 14% of the country's population of 288 million, would grow demographically and economically. Indeed, by 2009 Hispanics will have more than $1 trillion on purchasing power; by 2040, 1 out of every 4 Americans will be of Hispanic origin.

"Now you can understand what I mean by opportunities being out there," Mr. Ramirez said over lunch.

And how did he acquire the ability to spot opportunities? Where did his financial acumen come from?

"If you develop sound knowledge of the marketplace, and you surround yourself with good people, your ability to conduct business is strengthened immensely," Mr. Ramirez said.

But, he added, he'd started early in the financial business: while at St. Francis College in Brooklyn, where he studied economics, he worked summers as an equity order clerk for Kidder Peabody on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. His father, Regino -- who was employed at the Brooklyn Navy Yard -- and mother, Amilia -- who was a seamstress -- inculcated in Mr. Ramirez and his five siblings the importance of acquiring a good education.

"They were very religious people," he said. "And they always said, 'Nothing comes easy in life -- you've got to earn it.' My parents taught me how important it was to be loyal to those you worked with. I've respected that all my life. I've found that if you give loyalty, you receive loyalty."

His summer experiences, his excellence at numbers, and his ability to get along with people, proved good qualifications to get into the financial services industry after graduation in 1965. At Stoever Glass & Co., he developed expertise in municipal bonds. He branched out into asset management, government and corporate debt, and equities.

He also came up with the Ramirez Hispanic Index, which demonstrates the performance of Hispanic-owned publicly traded companies in America. America's population was being nourished by the arrival of more and more people from the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Nicaragua, and, of course, Puerto Rico.

So, with $50,000 of the money he'd saved from his employment, he started Ramirez & Co. in 1971. It was the first investment bank in America founded by a Hispanic person.

"I didn't go into business thinking of only serving the Hispanic community," Mr. Ramirez said. "I went into business with the determination of serving every client honorably. I had confidence in my professional abilities. I knew that I wasn't going to fail."

Then he paused, smiled, and added: "But, of course, there were a few anxious moments."

He knew there were pitfalls out there. New York's financial health was deteriorating. There was a danger it would default on its obligations. The Municipal Assistance Corporation -- which came to be popularly called "Big Mac" -- helped the city regain its fiscal health. Mr. Ramirez, who'd specialized in the secondary market, managed to do very well indeed during and after the crisis.

"Many of the firms of the 1970s are gone, but we're still very much here," he said. "To me, it has everything to do with the quality of one's product."

In addition to his own financial acumen, Mr. Ramirez said that he always found it useful to frequently talk to his clients. "It's about helping them make the right decisions concerning their money," he said.

This means he's on the road a lot. The day before he'd come to lunch with The New York Sun, for example, Mr. Ramirez had been in San Juan. The week before, he was in Houston. Miami was next on his schedule, then Los Angeles. These are place, of course, with large -- and growing -- Hispanic communities. By one estimate, there are more than 4,000 high-net-worth Hispanic individuals in these communities, all potentially people with whom Mr. Ramirez could do business.

His business currently is conducted with clients who come to him through referrals. But his company also advertises in publications that are widely read in Hispanic communities, such as El Diario and La Prensa.

"There's a lot of opportunity out there," Mr. Ramirez said. "That's why those of us who're in the business of serving people's financial needs must be especially careful about ethics and about doing business straight. If you do something wrong, the word travels fast. My word is my bond. I have only one name, and that's the one on my door."

His nameplate will soon move to a nine-story building that he's raising in downtown Manhattan. His son, Samuel Jr., works with him. (Mr. Ramirez's wife Diane, to whom he's been married for 37 years, is president of Halstead Properties, one of the city's biggest real-estate companies.)

He's fit enough -- through golf and working out -- to continue in business for a long time. But Mr. Ramirez has been paying special attention to hiring young people at his firm, which now has 90 employees.

"I look for a good individual, someone who not only has a good brain and who understands what we're doing but also who has a heart," Mr. Ramirez said. "Show me a person who has a heart, and I'll work with him or her any day of the week."

His longstanding emphasis on personal ethics spawns concern in Mr. Ramirez about recent corporate scandals.

"It's greed that I cannot stand," he said. "How much is enough? It's this manipulation, this constant urge for more that bothers me. And the victims, the customers and employees who lost so much -- they didn't deserve that. In business, it's very important to play within the rules."

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist


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