He came from a broken one, spent a year without one and now his own home is a multimillion-dollar penthouse in Chicago’s Trump Tower. For stockbroker, author and philanthropist Chris Gardner, there’s no place like home.
“My home is nothing like the stock market, it just stays right there,” he explains in a comforting, joyful baritone.
“It doesn’t fluctuate or go all over the place like a Disney rollercoaster. Even now, I travel 200 days a year. I can go through four different time zones in one day, but my favourite times are when I walk through the door and sit down on my couch, or go outside and water my garden, Gardner says.
Such simple pleasures are rarely associated with highflying international stockbrokers, but the school of life has repeatedly taught Gardner to be thankful for what is really important.
His education has been a long one from a childhood spent in and out of foster homes, to single fatherhood on the streets of San Francisco, to making millions on Wall Street and now travelling the world as author, guest speaker and CEO of Christopher Gardner International Holdings. With so much movement, it’s little surprise that he loves being home.
This week, life has brought him to the Gold Coast, where he will be keynote speaker at the Australian Real Estate Conference (AREC) on May 19 and 20. The top billing is reserved for those who have an incredible story of success and in the past has included Donald Trump and former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani.
Gardner’s success is largely due to his incredible work ethic, respect for others and ability to stay grounded in stressful situations. He credits these traits to his late mother Bettye Jean.
“It’s all about spiritual genetics” he says. “It’s not about whether you have your mother’s eyes, it’s who you want to become as a man or woman. I saw the light in my Mum and I embraced it.”
Bettye Jean taught Gardner to get the job done, no matter what the obstacle.
“She used to say ‘son, I had to do so much, with so little, for so long, that I could do anything with nothing’. When that’s your example, it’s up to you to go forward. She would say ‘the cavalry ain’t comin’ son; it’s just me and you’.
“Of course, when you tell your kids they can be anything, you’ve got to be careful. I told my kids that and I ended up with a music producer and an interior designer,” he laughs. “But they’re doing it.”
Little known outside the USA until 2006, Gardner was introduced to the rest of the world by Hollywood, when played by Will Smith in The Pursuit of Happyness.
The film touched on a chapter of desperation in his life – it was 1982, he was broke, living alone in budget accommodation and trying to get a foot in the door as a stockbroker, when his estranged partner left their son Chris Jr. in his care.
His building did not allow children, so the pair was forced onto the streets. The next year saw them on the move constantly, staying in shelters, train stations and even public restrooms.
Meanwhile, Gardner continued to work tirelessly in his trainee role, arriving early and leaving late, driven by the need to succeed and provide for his son.
It was a story of triumph over adversity. A victory made possible by Gardner’s determination to be the father that he never had.
“A father is everything in the world,” he says.
“Unfortunately, some of the best fathers are mothers. In the USA, 38 per cent of all households are headed up by single parents. If we could address that one issue, men being there for their children, it would directly impact gang violence, drug abuse, teen pregnancy and education.”
He regards raising Chris Jr and daughter Jacintha as his greatest achievement in life and recalls his joy at finally being able to put a roof over his son’s head.
“There are no words to describe what that feels like,” he says.
“I remember the day my son and I got that first place to live like yesterday, even though it was thirty years ago.
“On the first night we slept on the floor because we didn’t have any furniture yet. The next day we were walking out the door and my little boy got very upset. He said ‘papa, you forgot to bring our things’. He was upset because he was used to having to take our stuff with us every day, wherever we were. I don’t know how to explain the beauty of it, to be able to say to my little boy ‘we are home now, we don’t have to bring our stuff anymore’.”
Gardner’s children have since grown up and he now has a five-year-old granddaughter.
“Your kids don’t know it, but after the grandchild comes along, they become obsolete, their only purpose is to bring me the baby,” he laughs.
“It’s funny, the things grandchildren make you do. The baby’s mother calls me one night and says ‘she won’t go to sleep until you do it. You’ve got to do it’. Now, ‘do it’ means I’ve got to rap Green Eggs and Ham. I’m in a business meeting in South Africa and I’ve got to step outside and start rapping into the phone. People in the hallway are staring at me, but that’s just the kind of thing grandbabies make you do.”
Now living in his luxury apartment, Gardner regularly reflects on where he came from.
“When I moved into my dream home, I brought in the picture of my mother and put it right in the kitchen, which was always her office,” he laughs.
“I talk to her every day. She moved to heaven twenty years ago, but every day she still asks me the same thing. ‘Did you do your work? Yes Ma’am’. ‘Did you pray on it’? Yes Ma’am. ‘Well keep working because God is busy and he’s got other people to help’.”
The hardships of homelessness lie many years behind him, but Gardner’s life education continues. Last year, he found himself tested once again; forced to face the loss of his partner Holly Norwick to illness.
“I lost the love of my life to brain cancer, eight months and four days ago,” he says.
“They tell me that the fact I can’t also remember how many hours and minutes ago means I am making progress. The greatest honour in my life was that I got to be primary care giver to the love of my life and to have her know that I was there for her.
“One of the last things Holly asked me was ‘now that we know life is so short, what will you do with the rest of it?’. I have changed since then. I make sure I take the time to appreciate the things in life. And one of the most important is home.”
Chris Gardner …
On business: Don’t ever be afraid to hire people that are smarter than you. Just because they are smarter than you, doesn’t mean they have to make more money.
On fatherhood: Men being there for their children directly impacts gang violence, drug abuse, teen pregnancy and education.
On home: I travel 200 days a year, but my favourite times are when I walk through the door and sit down on my couch, or go outside and water my garden.
On life: The greatest honour in my life was being the primary care giver to the love of my life and having her know that I was there for her.
Tim McIntyre, Herald Sun – Business, May 12 2013