Gluckstadt — The new Rotary Club in this Madison County city got off to a strong start recently. A standing-room-only crowd gathered at the Madison House to eat, network and hear an entertaining presentation by the keynote speaker, James W. Brinkley, chairman of the Baltimore-based investment firm Legg Mason Wood Walker Inc.
Legg Mason operates an office in Jackson, and Brinkley made it clear that he was no first-time visitor to the Magnolia State. “I don’t know who was in charge of putting together the menu today, but, oh, I love collards,” Brinkley said with a grin. “And I had the best grits for breakfast. I always love coming to Mississippi.”
Personable and self-effacing, Brinkley does not meet the stereotypical view of a Corporate America executive, but his credentials say otherwise. A graduate of the College of William and Mary with a degree in economics, Brinkley and Raymond A. Mason were the first two employees of Mason and Company, which in 1972 merged with Legg & Company to form Legg Mason. He serves and chairs numerous boards and committees while leading the company that now has $295 billion under management and operates more than 140 offices across the U.S.
Brinkley opened his presentation by warning attendees about the “noise” being created by the presidential election. He said that the economy, both at home and abroad, is in relatively good shape.
“The demagoguery is overcoming the facts. We’re reading an increasing amount of negatives. It’s not that bad,” Brinkley said.
However, Brinkley added that what he considers unfounded pessimism means an opportunity for the wise investor.
“If you want to be a successful investor, look what everybody else is doing, and do the opposite,” he said. “You have to be greedy when others are fearful. It’s a tough thing to do. Remember this, in America, economic optimism is economic realism.”
Brinkley backed up his optimism with a presentation he developed when asked by a college to come and tell its students the keys to America’s economic growth since the cessation of World War II. His keys, a seemingly disparate string of events that Brinkley wrapped neatly into a package, included: the G.I. Bill and its offering of college tuition and affordable home mortgages; the Marshall Plan, which helped rebuild what became our strongest trading partners — Germany and Japan; the dawn of the Space Age and its focus on mathematics and science skills; the breakup of the telecommunications industry, the fall of the Soviet Union; among others.
Brinkley freely admitted there were a number of concerns on the national and international front. The price of oil, the threat of terrorism and the war in Iraq ranked high on his list. He added that the “scars of 9/11 remain, and probably will throughout our lifetime.”
Another factor, with which Brinkley has a love-hate relationship, is credit cards. In his keys to America’s recent prosperity, Brinkley included the advent of the credit card. He said consumers wouldn’t see all the retail development, strip malls and shopping centers if it weren’t for credit cards. But he also sees them as a potential source of disaster.
“I asked my wife not long ago, ‘How many credit cards do you have?’’” Brinkley said with a wry smile. “She said she wasn’t sure. And I said, ‘Oh, come on. I’m doing a little primary research here. Help me. Is it, say, five?’ She said that sounded like a good number. Then I asked her, ‘What about the other cards — Home Depot, the department store?’ She said, ‘Oh, they don’t count!’”
“They do count. The average American is up to their eyeballs in debt. If the credit card industry were to crumble today, we would be faced with a depression the likes of which the world has never seen. We have to take personal responsibility. Remember, what is, is; what was, was. What will be is up to me.”
For Brinkley, his mantra of personal responsibility is built off a foundation called education. Ignorance breeds poverty, and self-sufficiency is learned.
“Education, education, education — that’s what it is all about,” Brinkley said.
Contact MBJ staff writer Wally Northway at email@example.com.