A newly minted University of Manitoba business school graduate, Marty Weinberg was desperate to get a job. He intended to ask his girlfriend, Gina Frieman, to marry him, and her father, a Hungarian-born Holocaust survivor, was not the type to take kindly to an unemployed son-in-law. Weinberg's search took him to the Winnipeg-based head offices of Canada's largest life insurance company, Great-West Life Assurance Co., where he underwent three days of intensive interviewing. Confident his career was about to be launched, Weinberg proposed and Gina accepted. Then came Great-West Life's personnel assessment, which Weinberg recalls went something like this: "You are far too aggressive. You would never survive at a large corporation. And, sorry, but you are on your own."
Fast-forward 17 years. Weinberg, who turns 39 this week, is now chief executive officer of Assante Corp., a financial services conglomerate that employs 3,000 people, has over 500,000 clients and administers assets totalling $26 billion. He has recently been on an acquisition spree, culminating in the purchase in late October of one of the world's best-known sports agencies, Steinberg Moorad & Dunn. (Superagent Leigh Steinberg was the real-life inspiration for Jerry Maguire, portrayed by Tom Cruise in the 1996 movie of the same name.) Hooking up with Steinberg means that, on any given Sunday, half of the starting National Football League quarterbacks - including Troy Aikman of the Dallas Cowboys and the New England Patriots' Drew Bledsoe - are Assante clients. They join the likes of David Letterman, Michael J. Fox, Roseanne Barr and Cruise who arrived in the Assante fold after similar acquisitions over the past year of California-based business management firms that cater to the stars.
Marty Weinberg is on a roll. And he has done all this from Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. Does that present an obstacle? Do prospective partners sometimes balk at hitching their wagon to the whiz-kid from Winnipeg? "Oh, yes," says Weinberg, smiling broadly during an interview in his 15th-floor office overlooking the historic intersection of Portage and Main. "Every time."
Take John Bowen, the chief executive officer of the San Jose, Calif.-based RWB Advisory Services, an investment counselling firm for the affluent, which became Assante's first American acquisition last year. Bowen had been in merger talks with a number of large banks and insurance companies from London, New York City and Los Angeles when Weinberg knocked on his door. "So I'm thinking," says Bowen, "here's some young guy from Winnipeg who wants to get involved in the United States, and mainly on the sports and entertainment side. You just wonder if the winters have been too tough and he wants to hang out with the stars."
At Weinberg's urging, Bowen travelled to Winnipeg to check out Assante's head offices. "I'm from upper-state New York originally, so I knew where Winnipeg was, or so I thought," says Bowen. "But I remember my first flight up there in winter and we're preparing to land and all I can see from my window is frozen tundra. You start pulling out your airline guide and wondering when the next flight back is, thinking it might be a very short business trip." But Bowen kept his appointments - and was impressed by the brain trust of accountants, tax lawyers and financial analysts that Weinberg has assembled, most of them Winnipeggers and FOMs (friends of Marty). "I think," Bowen speculates, "the long, cold winters, the time for introspection and midwestern values of hard work and loyalty really allow them to grow and build a team."
Weinberg is accustomed to winning over doubting Thomases. He has been doing it most of his life. "When somebody says you can't do something," he says, smiling again, "I spend all my time and energy trying to prove them wrong." Weinberg traces his tenacity to his early years, as a member of a large and rambunctious family. The middle of three children, he was only six years old when his father, Israel, a highly respected actuary with Great-West Life, died in a car crash. When he was 12, his mother remarried and his stepfather, whose first wife had died of cancer, brought four more kids into the family. "So it was like The Brady Bunch," he says, "a crazy place to live."
Weinberg's appetite for high finance was whetted during his freshman year at university, when he carpooled with students from Winnipeg's tony Tuxedo district. Weinberg, who grew up in middle-class River Heights, noticed his prosperous friends "had all the fanciest toys." When he asked how their parents afforded them, he got his first lessons on playing the money markets. Weinberg quickly co-founded a university investment club. It was not his finest moment. "We lost half of everybody's money," he says.
After graduating in 1982, and after being rebuffed by Great-West Life, Weinberg landed a job with Winnipeg-based Investors Group Inc., Canada's largest mutual fund company, where he had the chance to study market trends in depth. Weinberg left there in 1986 to work as controller at his father-in-law's electronics company. In the evenings, as a hobby, he started his own firm, Loring Ward Investment Counsel Ltd., which developed customized portfolios that stressed such factors as managing a client's risk, minimizing taxes and providing detailed estate and trust fund planning. To do all that - and enhance customer loyalty - Weinberg decided to assemble under one roof all the different financial and legal experts people normally seek out on their own.
Weinberg began by offering to act as a kind of freelance sales force for Winnipeg lawyers and accountants, recruiting new clients for whom they would draw up comprehensive financial plans. "Everyone laughed and said it wouldn't work," he recalls. "But then there were a couple of gentlemen who said, 'OK, we'll give it a try.' They both work here now because we made up to 80 per cent of their client billings."
By the early 1990s, Weinberg was ready to expand. He spent a lot of time on Bay Street looking for potential partners. Again, he got the bum's rush. "I'd knock on the door and say, 'Here's a good idea,' " he says. "They'd say, 'We've heard a lot of good ideas before; come back when you grow up, little boy.' " But he found a sympathetic ear in Michael Nairne, a fellow Winnipegger and president of Toronto-based Equion Group Ltd., a high-flying mutual fund dealer. In 1995, Equion and Loring Ward partnered to form Assante.
As it evolved, Assante targeted so-called high net worth individuals - those with $500,000 or more to play around with. And, increasingly, it has acted as a chief financial officer to its clients, managing every aspect of their economic lives. In both regards, the pampered movie stars and athletes Assante now represents seem a perfect fit. Mickey Segal, president of Los Angeles-based NKS Management Inc. - which Assante acquired in June - described for Maclean's what he does for clients like Cruise and Letterman: "We pay their bills, do tax and estate planning, invest their money, build their houses, sell their houses, hire the nanny, fire the nanny. You name it, we do it."
Segal says what his clients gain from the merger is access to Assante's "tremendous investment expertise." Steinberg, who closed his own deal with Weinberg for a reported $120 million (U.S.), foresees a signal change in the role of superagents. In addition to negotiating lucrative contracts for clients like former Toronto Blue Jays right fielder Shawn Green - who is now earning $84 million over six years to play for the Los Angeles Dodgers - Steinberg says he will now be able to provide in-house the kind of financial management he traditionally farmed out. Serving as chief executive of Assante Sports Management Group, Steinberg also has bold plans to buy at least another dozen agencies, creating the largest single grouping of team sport athletes in the world.
That kind of talk is music to Weinberg's ear. In fact, it's obvious the blunt and sometimes brash Winnipegger, who often stresses the importance of pursuing a "vision," speaks the same lingo as the celebrity managers. Asked what attracted him to Weinberg, Bowen says: "I knew I had to partner with someone who had the capital, but who also had the vision." Shortly after meeting Weinberg, he adds, "we were having conversations, enjoying each other's company and the vision." (They really do talk that way in southern California.)
But the Americans noticed something else about Weinberg. "I don't think," says Bowen, "that I've ever met a harder-working guy." Segal agrees: "He's clearly driven." Weinberg prefers to describe himself as "balanced," noting he always spends weekends with Gina and their two daughters, Mara, 11, and Cayli, 7. He likes to camp with the kids in the summer, go boating and scuba diving. Weinberg is also a film buff. He collects movie props and has a private screening room in his posh home in (of course) the Tuxedo area.
Then again, Weinberg concedes, "I'm always working." He explains: "The people I work with are also my friends and they'll come to the house on weekends. The kids run around together and we chat." While in Los Angeles closing the Steinberg deal, several other investment opportunities came up - some while he was out for dinner, another when he was on a mountain bike ride. "Is that working?" he asks.
No matter. Weinberg's industriousness has earned him a place among Winnipeg's - and Canada's - business elite. And after achieving so much so fast, how accurate does he consider that initial dismissive personnel assessment? "Oh, I'm absolutely unemployable," allows Weinberg. Lucky for him, he's found the perfect boss.
Maclean's December 6, 1999