Tom Stevens creates opportunities for success at Wisconsin School of Business and beyond
Photos by Paul L. Newby II
Years ago, Tom Stevens (B.A. ’72, BBA ’75, MBA ’76) built a cradle for the baby of some friends who now use it for their grandchildren. When his daughter got married, there was no need to rent a photo booth—Stevens just built one himself. Somewhere in the Hamptons, there might still be a deck or another structure built by a long-haired college student who could wield a hammer.
Stevens likes to build things, it’s clear. The long hair might be long gone but the desire to take something from nothing and turn it into something useful and meaningful has never gone away.
Stevens is chairman and CEO of Los Angeles Capital, an investment firm he co-founded in 2002. But halfway across the country, he and his wife, Barbara, help students at the Wisconsin School of Business and University of Wisconsin–Madison build a future for themselves by providing opportunities through philanthropy.
“I’ve always felt a debt of gratitude, and I think most people, if they’ve managed to do OK in their lives, are grateful and want to step up,” Stevens says. “It’s a Midwestern thing, it’s a Wisconsin thing. And I am proud of my Midwest and Wisconsin connections.”
Stevens’s time in Wisconsin was brief in the overall arc of his life and career. Yet it was meaningful and transformative for him to witness the hard work and sense of place of the people around him. It’s also where he received guidance from business school faculty who inspired him to find a way to apply his many skills and interests.
With the right connections and education, Stevens could discover that the common thread through his younger years—from tending bar in a Madison bowling alley to owning a salmon fishing outfit in Alaska—was an entrepreneurial one. He wanted to create opportunities for himself and others and work to make them succeed.
“When I think of the things that made an impact on my life, I think, ‘Oh my gosh, what a mishmash of stuff,’ ” Stevens says with a laugh.
He also brings variety to his WSB giving, helping make an impact across a wide range of initiatives. He has served on the Dean’s Advisory Board, has supported the Stephen L. Hawk Center Fund, the WSB Innovation Fund, the WSB Fund, helped establish the Thomas D. and Barbara C. Stevens Distinguished Chair in Finance, and the Stevenses also funded an athletic scholarship. He helps organize and host WSB events in Los Angeles, and serves on the School’s Campaign Steering Committee.
Stevens was born in California and grew up on ranches in the Central Valley. His father was a supervisor for Del Monte Foods and the family moved around a lot. When Stevens was in high school, the company transferred his father to a plant in Markesan, Wisconsin.
“I loved being in a community where everyone had lived their entire lives,” he says. “It was so different than California. I came to realize there was something special about Wisconsin.”
He arrived at UW–Madison during the tumultuous time of the Vietnam War, majoring in sociology with little interest in business. Away from campus, Stevens sought adventure with his summer jobs. One year he worked in an Alaskan salmon cannery and headed back to Alaska the next year with a different plan—to run his own business. With two friends made the previous summer, Stevens bought a boat, a net, and camping supplies to launch a salmon fishing company.
The partners worked hard. They were ready to go each Sunday at midnight to try to catch as many salmon as they could until regulations required them to stop on Wednesday. In between, they grabbed an hour or two of sleep and ate only what they hunted or caught as long as it wasn’t salmon. It was dangerous work; Stevens lost five friends in one wreck. It wasn’t lucrative; Stevens had to go back to the cannery for two weeks to afford his trip back home to Wisconsin.
“When you’re up there and you’re living in the open you come to realize there are only a handful of things that are really important—where you are going to eat, to stay dry, and stay out of harm’s way,” he says. “It really made it seem as if everything had a purpose.”
Inspired by his summer jobs, Stevens realized he had an interest in business after all and went back to school to pursue it after earning his bachelor’s in sociology. The continued need for summer work took him to the Hamptons on Long Island where he tended bar for the rich and famous, while also working as a carpenter and other odd jobs in the area.
The most valuable part of the bartending gig, however, was meeting a waitress named Barbara who was also working a summer job. Shortly afterward she was a regular in the stands when Tom joined the firefighters and police officers on their local softball team. “It was such a fun time working there,” she says. “All the tourists and celebrities were there on the weekend and during the week it was all college students and the people in the community.”
— Tom Stevens,
(B.A. ’72, BBA ’75, MBA ’76)
Back at UW–Madison, the business bug had bitten Stevens hard, particularly with Stephen Hawk as his advisor. The beloved finance professor and founder of the Applied Security Analysis Program (ASAP) suggested Stevens apply for the program, then the only one in the nation that gave students the opportunity to manage real money.
“Investing is just making money out of less money and I realized that fit with my appetite for building,” he says.
The ASAP connection got him his first job, as portfolio manager at the National Bank of Detroit. A job offer four years later at Wilshire Associates took him back to California, and six years later he took over Wilshire Asset Management. In 2002, he and other Wilshire colleagues founded Los Angeles Capital, an innovative global equity firm that manages assets for leading institutions in the U.S. and Europe.
“I used to say I would live anywhere except Los Angeles,” Stevens says.
Yet L.A. is where the Stevenses have been able to hone their commitment to community. Los Angeles Capital, which has grown from nine employees to 83, has been named one of the Best Places to Work in Money Management by Pensions & Investments magazine five years in a row.
When the Stevenses’ two daughters were young and playing softball, Tom was persuaded to lead a new league. Under his watch, an organization of 125 girls grew to 950 and included a team that won a national championship. The league had become a small business of facilities at multiple schools, a concession operation at five facilities that generated income, and a line of clothing and apparel that helped brand the program.
“The best part was putting together the team of people to keep the whole thing running smoothly,” he says.
Stevens has had an equal impact on another organization—the Special Olympics. He joined the local board in the 1990s, and got busy building that, too, helping grow sponsorship tenfold. He works closely with L.A. sports legend Rafer Johnson, the 1960 Olympic decathlon champion and founder of Special Olympics California. Last year, the organization honored Stevens with the Rafer Johnson Humanitarian Award.
From early on, the Stevenses tried to lead by example when it came to volunteer work and philanthropy so their children, now grown, would understand the importance of lending a hand.
“We’d bring our kids to fundraisers to give them exposure to people whose experiences were quite different from theirs,” Barbara Stevens says. “It helped to give them perspective and we’re proud of how it guided them all going into adulthood.”
Tom Stevens was an influence on at least one of his children when it came to a college choice: His son, Matt (B.A. ’04), is also an alumnus, and works with his father at Los Angeles Capital as a portfolio manager.
Stevens isn’t done making an impact. He is committed to staying active and generous with his alma mater, while also contemplating what else comes next for him. For all he knows he might end up back on a softball diamond; after all, his grandchildren might need a coach or commissioner one day, too. If it involves starting something at the very beginning, that’s okay, too.
“To this day I enjoy getting my hands dirty, rolling up my sleeves and doing something, making something, or building something,” he says. “Looking back at what you’ve accomplished at the end of the day is the best reward.”
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