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Lunch at The Four Seasons with: Ronald Baron

Published by The New York Sun on 2006-03-20

That Ronald Baron, chairman and CEO of his eponymous mutual-funds firm, says he's been "unbelievably lucky" is nice to hear, but hardly surprising in New York.

That the 62-year native of New Jersey says he plans to never retire is also in keeping with Wall Street's work-until-you-drop ethos.

That Mr. Baron transformed an initial investment of $100,000 in his company 24 years ago into a substantial closely-held business - well, that's impressive, of course, but to be expected from a guy who studied economic history at the age of 13 and vowed that he would make huge bucks.

That Mr. Baron advised a friend where to invest his $5,000 back in 1975 and saw that money mushroom into several million dollars - well, that's fabulous, but that's also the magic of compound interest at work.

That Mr. Baron's eyes well up with tears when he talks about how an immigrant employee started with nothing and made a success of herself in America - now that's something.

"What a place America is," Mr. Baron said. "This is the best place in the whole wide world."

It's an incongruous scene: here's one of the financial community's most successful entrepreneurs, one known for his unrelenting drive, dabbing his eyes discreetly in a room filled with some of the 700,000 clients who have invested more than $16 billion in Mr. Baron's mutual funds.

"The people I work with mean a lot to me," he said. "One's reputation is shaped not only by professional success. It's how you treat your co-workers. I have 60 employees, and I make it my business to care for every one of them."

Two of those workers are related to Mr. Baron - his sons, David, 26, and Michael 25.
"I'm blessed, very blessed," Mr. Baron said, whose face is scarcely less youthful than his sons' visages. (He attributes his trim build and high energy to daily elliptical training at his home gym.)

Mr. Baron started counting his blessings growing up in Asbury Park as one of two children of Morton Baron, an engineer, and his wife Marian. Those blessings came in the form of dollars he earned shoveling snow, waiting tables, serving as a life guard, and selling ice-cream - money that he began investing in order to pay for college. At one point, he converted $1,000 into $4,000 through trading stocks.

It was during his student days that his friends gave him an enduring moniker: "Count."
The Count's fascination with stocks wasn't exactly endearing to his parents.

"My parents wanted me to be a doctor, and I worked at a local hospital," Mr. Baron said. "Among my jobs was dress the wounds of people who'd been shot. I decided all that blood and death wasn't for me. At least stocks didn't kill people."

While he kept up his hobby of following the stock markets, Mr. Baron went to Bucknell University to study chemistry, worked as a teaching fellow in biochemistry at Georgetown University, and then attended George Washington University Law School on scholarship at night. He found a job as a patent examiner at the U.S. Patent Office.

And then - New York.

From 1970 until June 1982 Mr. Baron worked for several brokerage firms as an institutional securities analyst. He had toyed with starting a mutual fund while he was at law school, and decided to take the plunge.

Mutual funds were becoming popular with everyday people at the time.

"I wanted to help regular people rather than only the rich," Mr. Baron said. "I was lucky because the stock market took off soon after I started my business in 1982."

There are now more than 8,000 mutual funds in America; their assets exceed $8 trillion. More than 50% of America's 282 million people are believed to invest in mutual funds, either directly or through retirement plans. Half of their assets are invested in fixed income accounts, and half in equity.

Mr. Baron's experiences in finance, of course, weren't all sunny. He was hit hard by the 1987 stock-market crash, and his business - like others - took a dive. He took out a mortgage on his weekend home in order to meet his company's payroll.

"But we were nimble, and we not only survived but once again started doing well," Mr. Baron said.

He attributes his success to investing for the long term. Baron Funds has stakes in some 250 companies.

"We invest in companies that we believe have significant growth opportunities resulting from long-lasting societal, demographic and economic trends," Mr. Baron said. "We look for what a business might become, not just what it is at the moment."

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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