Jordan Belfort is the poster child for every cautionary tale about greed ever written. In the 1990s, his firm, Stratton Oakmont, took the stock market by storm. It was the brokerage house that every young financier wanted to work for and every huge finance company wanted to work with. During his heyday, Jordan Belfort was the biggest rock star broker in the world. He partied hard, hung with the rich and famous and literally printed money. Unfortunately, when someone's life looks too good to be true, it often is. Eventually, the less than honest business tactics that had shaped his meteoric rise were discovered, and his entire empire crashed as quickly as it rose. The ripple of Jordan's demise was felt around the world, and multiple businesses and individuals suffered severe financial losses. You would think that after a fall like his, no one could climb back up. Amazingly, over the years Jordan Belfort has successfully managed to turn his infamy into full fledged fame thanks to his two best selling autobiographical books. As you may have heard, this Christmas, Jordan's first book, "The Wolf of Wall Street", will be immortalized in the Leonardo DiCaprio/Martin Scorsese film of the same name. But who is Jordan Belfort in the first place and what did he do to inspire so much notoriety? This is the story of his incredible rise and shocking fall.
Jordan Belfort was born in Long Island, New York on July 9, 1962. He launched his first business when he was in his late teens when he began selling Italian ice with a childhood friend during the summer, and managed to earn an impressive $20,000 profit. He intended to use the money to pay for his dentistry degree, but instead decided to use it to fund his next business venture. Over the course of the next few years, Jordan would start multiple businesses, including a meat and seafood company. All of them failed. He decided it might be better if he worked for someone else, and was ultimately hired to work as a "connector" for the brokerage firm, L.F. Rothschild. It was his first exposure to the securities industry, and after seeing how much money his fellow brokers were pulling down, he quickly made the decision to shift his career path. He spent the next few years working for multiple firms, learning as much as he could, and becoming more and more adept at crafting successful sales pitches. In 1989, he decided to branch out on his own.
In the early 1990s, Belfort launched his own trading company, Stratton Oakmont. The firm was almost immediately successful. By placing childhood friends and relatives in positions of power within the company, including hiring his own father as Chief Financial Officer, Jordan created a close-knit group of upper managers who were were willing to keep the firm's secrets. The firm started out on as an honest venture, but with the goal to make as much money as possible, as quickly as possible, their tactics quickly took a nosedive. Have you seen the movie "Boiler Room"? That's what we're talking about here. In fact, Boiler Room was loosely based on Jordan Belfort's life.
Specifically, Stratton Oakmont perfected what is known as a "pump and dump" scheme. The brokers at Stratton Oakmont would aggressively push particular stocks on their clients, urging them to buy as much as they could, as quickly as they could. Mortgage your house, cash in your 401K, empty your child's college fund and buy as much of stock XYZ as you can. The sudden surge in demand would instantly inflate the stocks' price. Stratton Oakmont would then sell its own holdings of the particular stock as the price peaked, making a very large profit in the process. After a few days or weeks, the stock would come crashing down and in the process wipe out all the investors who were duped.
But from the outside, Stratton just seemed like a hugely successful brokerage firm. Word of their instant success spread quickly and young men and women, hungry to make money, began to apply to work for the firm in droves. Jordan Belfort frequently hired inexperienced and often desperate employees and taught them to make the sale, no matter what. Their motto was "Don't hang up until the client either buys or dies". The entire staff threw money around almost indiscriminately, buying expensive items and property and just generally engaging in increasingly wild behavior. Drug use was rampant, and Belfort himself developed a serious and debilitating addiction to Quaaludes. He crashed a helicopter and sank a yacht as his company continued to take Wall Street by storm. His firm continued to hire employees who were willing to get rich by any means necessary. He opened off-shore accounts, and recruited friends and family members to smuggle cash to Switzerland, strapped to their bodies. He later commented on this time to the New York Post, saying, "It's easier to get rich quick when you don't follow the rules."
That willingness to ignore the rules would eventually be his downfall. The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission began investigating Jordan and Stratton in 1992 and by 1994, he was banned from working in the securities industry. The FBI began to investigate Jordan for money laundering and a slew of other fraud allegations. Soon he learned that various members of his inner circle, including the man who controlled his off-shore accounts, were working with the FBI. His drug use spiraled out of control, culminating with him kicking his then-wife down a staircase. He also attempted to kidnap their children in a drug-fueled rage. The Belfort family placed Jordan in rehab and after a few months of sobriety, the FBI arrested him for money laundering and securities fraud.
In total, Stratton Oakmont bilked more than 1500 individual investors out of $200 million. Jordan Belfort was eventually sentenced to four years in prison and ordered to pay a fine of $110.4 million. He ultimately chose to cooperate with authorities and inform on his colleagues. The prison term was reduced to just under two years.
While in prison, he began writing a memoir titled "The Wolf of Wall Street". He was released from prison in 2006 and his book was released in 2008. The sequel, "Catching the Wolf of Wall Street" was published the following year, and details his arrest and his life after prison. Jordan eventually moved to Los Angeles to be closer to his children, and opened a new business, called Straight Line. The company is dedicated to sales training and wealth building, and Belfort insists he is only teaching people how to work legally. He considers himself "reformed", and has become a highly sought-after motivational speaker.
While a portion of the business community has embraced the kinder, gentler, "Wolf of Wall Street", the government and his victims have been less impressed. He is currently in negotiations with the government regarding the massive $110 million fine that still hangs over his head. To date, he has only paid about $11.6 million of the $110 million fine. For the last few years his income has stemmed from book royalties, motivational speaking fees, and profits from the sale of his story to Paramount and Red Granite Pictures for the upcoming film. The government is now understandably clamoring for a bit more restitution to come their way. For the rest of Jordan's life, 50% of his income will go straight to the government. So what's the lesson of Jordan Belfort's life story? The most simple and obvious lesson is probably that there really are not short cuts in life. Success takes hard work and patience. It also doesn't hurt if you treat people well and follow the rule of law on your way up!
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