There are caddie success stories.
And then there’s Mario Gabelli’s caddie success story.
Gabelli — a billionaire stock investor, investment advisor, financial analyst and founder, chairman and CEO of Gabelli Asset Management Company — spent time as a kid caddying for specialists who worked on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.
Those loops with movers and shakers at Sunningdale in Country Club in Scarsdale, N.Y., piqued Gabelli’s interest. He started making investments of his own with the money he made from caddying and other gig jobs, ultimately earned himself a Reinach-Turnesa Caddie Scholarship to help pay for his education at Fordham University (where he recently made a $35 million donation to the business school that bears his name) and his dedication to hard work and determination opened a number of doors.
“I think I was probably 11 or 12 years old and growing up in the Bronx,” Gabelli told The Caddie Network. “I had a brother-in-law, who has long passed, that liked to play golf and owned a car. So, he suggested that he take me to a golf course. Somehow, we wound up at Winged Foot and they did not have an age limit. I was somewhat reasonably strong at the time. So, they started me out as a rabbit. Fast forward – I think it was about age 12 – and I remember the caddie master and I did singles for a while as a rabbit and then as I got a little more along in terms of knowledge, I wound up going to Sunningdale Country Club in Scarsdale.”
While the other caddies were being bused in and out from Yonkers, Gabelli said he stayed at the club later than most and would use public transportation or even hitchhike to get to and from the course.
And that’s how special opportunities cropped up.
“This wasn’t exactly the first year, but I started carrying doubles and I would carry doubles for specialists on the New York Stock Exchange and they would start talking about how the market did that day, blah, blah,” Gabelli said. “I must have been 13 years old at the time. Maybe 14. By the way, the pro was Whitey Voight. And he had two sons — Wes, who is a rock star under a different name and John Voight. So, I caddied or shagged for John Voight. That’s the background and that’s how I got interested in the stock market and started buying stocks within a year of caddying. I must have been 13 or 14 years old.”
Gabelli estimates that by age 14, he was making about as much money as his father with caddying and “whatever my other gigs were at the time.” Gabelli paid his own tuition at Fordham Prep in the Bronx.
Believe it or not, Gabelli’s entrepreneurial path in life started long before he became a caddie. He remembers shining shoes outside of train stops as a kid when he was as young as 6 years old, collecting between 10-15 cents per shoeshine.
Whether it was helping a community group with Christmas trees in the winter, shoveling snow, cutting grass, or whatever, Gabelli always had plenty of gigs going.
“The strangest one I ever had was when I was walking the streets in the Bronx and one guy pulls over with a big truck and says, ‘hey, would you like to make some money?’” Gabelli recalls. “I said, ‘what do you do?’ He says, ‘well, I recycle boxes in which fruit is delivered to supermarkets and I take boxes and I bring them to a recycling plant.’ I said, ‘good. How much you going to pay me?’ XYZ. I said, ‘done.’
“So, he asked me to go to the bottom of the supermarket and take these boxes that were stored down there, put them on a little escalator-type conveyor belt and he would take them and throw them in the truck. Except for one problem… huge rats. So, I said to the guy, ‘you know what? This isn’t working.’ You remember certain ones like that. So, he decided that ‘hey, instead of you doing that, you stay at the top and I’ll go to the bottom.’ And I said, ‘you’ve got a deal.’ I had a lot of gigs like that.”
While all these gig jobs instilled a remarkable work ethic that has never wavered for Gabelli, it was lessons learned on the golf course that were most helpful in applying to life. And connections he made also helped professionally years later.
“You learned how to read people, how to read greens,” he said. “You got into the notion of a service. It was a buck and a half a bag, plus a small tip. So, you knew how to generate that kind of a dynamic. You knew how to handle the client; you knew how to handle a customer. You knew how to handle BS. And then, what you didn’t like, is when somebody kicked the ball. Even today, I watched somebody not too long ago – I was playing with him – move a ball. And I won’t play with the guy anymore. I couldn’t say anything to him. I just couldn’t. So, you develop certain senses of fairness and play. So, that’s one element.
“The second part was that because you weren’t getting out on the loop right away, you would sit down on the bench, or all the caddies would play softball in the morning, so you’d really get into comradeship with the other caddies,” Gabelli added. “One thing that did happen was that some of the members were also active on Wall Street. So, when I’m coming out of Columbia Business School being interviewed by the firm that I started with, this guy comes up to me and says, ‘Mario. What are you doing here?’ I said, ‘I’ve been asked to come down for a second interview.’ He walks into the boss and says, ‘Hire this guy. He’s fantastic.’ So, you know, that was very helpful.”
Gabelli noted what a great opportunity being a caddie can be for youngsters even today with the possibility of a coveted scholarship.
“I think that point is lost,” he said. “And significantly lost on a lot of individuals that come from working-class families, or families that may need help with regards to that. Secondly, when you’re out there you learn a sport that has certain capabilities that extend into the social part of your life for a long-term period.
“Golf is a disciplined game. It really lends itself to the characteristics and basics of what you have to do to be successful in life,” Gabelli said. “If I were in eighth grade, ninth grade, 10th grade and I can caddie, think about the optionality. Keep the options open. Think about who you’re caddying for, what [kind of] individuals they are, what their interest is as members and learn something.”