Talk to Chuck ... and Willie Brown


Charles Schwab -- King of the discount brokers, philanthropist and SFMOMA Board President -- has developed an economic stimulus plan of his own.

And former Mayor Willie Brown plans to “borrow” that idea and run it in his Sunday column, with Schwab’s blessing.

Now, relax -- we’ll get to this brilliant plan shortly. As we all know, the economy ain’t goin’ anywhere at the moment.

This dynamic duo starred in a lively conversation on leadership Wednesday night at the downtown campus of San Francisco State University.

Hosted by SFSU’s Willie L. Brown, Jr. Leadership Center and SFSU’s College of Business Dean Nancy Hayes, the conversation was titled, “Willie Talks to Chuck” -- a clever play on the customer-first ads of Schwab’s famous and home-grown brokerage company of which he is founder and chairman.

And among this sold-out crowd of students and community leaders, it was no surprise to watch as Willie and Chuck were swarmed like rock stars.

OK -- as for Schwab’s stimulus plan? Here it is, in a nutshell.

According to Schwab, 75 percent of business in America is comprised of some six million small businesses. So if each of those six million businesses just hired one new employee, there would be an immediate uptick of six million jobs.

“Due to time constraints, you can go to the website and find out about the Willie Brown Center yourself,” said Mayor Brown as he introduced his guest. “Because I’m really excited to talk to Chuck. Normally you’d have to pay a lot of money to access this kind of expertise!”

Soft-spoken and somewhat folksy, Charles Schwab was born in Sacramento and grew up in Woodland just after World War II when times were tight. He vividly recalls his family’s numerous discussions about the fact that they did not have enough income.

“Because of that reality, it became ingrained in me that if you can’t afford to pay for something in cash,” said Schwab, “You shouldn’t buy it.”

And because blogs are supposed to be on the short side (though this Report rarely is), herewith, a (semi) brief outline of the words of wisdom gleaned from listening to Chuck.

  • He started his discount brokerage business in 1974 with $100K he’d raised and four employees. He now employs around 13-14,000 employees.
  • In the beginning when your resources are limited and you're the CEO, you find yourself doing things that other employees don’t want to do. During those lean years, Schwab couldn’t afford a postal machine to mail out customer statements. So he spent a lot of time personally licking envelopes.
  • As you grow, a CEO must learn to become comfortable delegating work to employees more competent in areas in which the CEO is not.
  • Regarding the current Wall Street crisis, Schwab said that until 2007 there was excessive leverage coupled with compensation levels that were completely out of whack. The current mess, Schwab believes, is that those high-flying brokers forgot that they were supposed to be working for their clients and their client’s money.
  • Schwab’s mantra for longevity and success: Client focus, customer focus. Period.
  • Banks should not lend money to people they perceive as unable to repay the loan.
  • As for the Recession? Hard to predict as there are two cycles involved. First there is the equity cycle and stock cycle. Typically the economic effect is not felt for 12 months after whatever is churning in the equity cycle. Right now, we probably won’t know the bottom of the equity cycle until the end of this year or early next year.


Schwab (whose eponymous firm now manages more than $1 trillion in assets for more than 8 million individual and institutional clients), also touted the benefits of children learning early the value of money and work. For Schwab, it happened with his youthful chicken operation.

“First I realized I could sell the eggs. Then the lady down the street started buying the chicken droppings for her garden. Finally I started selling some of the chickens as fryers. And I loved making the money!” explained Schwab. “But more important, and as important, I was developing my self-esteem.”

The Willie Brown Leadership Center Internship Program mentors the next generation of leaders by preparing students to meet the ever-changing challenges of governing and managing cities, counties and regional governments.

Amanda Haslam and SF Student Mark Wirtz

Studiously taking notes throughout the talk was Mark Wirtz and Amanda Haslam. Wirtz studies Business Administration at SF State and is a member of the first Willie Brown Center Internship alumni group.

Wirtz said the two most important things he learned during his internship: “The political answer: Networking! And never burn any bridges, as Mayor Brown can well attest to.”

During one meeting between the interns and Mayor Brown, Wirtz also learned the third, and perhaps, most important tenent of leadership.

“His book, Basic Brown, had just come out. And I remarked to Mayor Brown that I was surprised he had devoted an entire chapter to fashion,” said Wirtz.

Now Wirtz did not mention what Mayor Brown was wearing at the time but we can only imagine it was something of the Kiton or Brioni variety.

“Mayor Brown told me that if you dress for success,” said Wirtz, “It will never let you down.”


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