Other People's Money

Richard Bronson's fortunes have ripened in the South Florida sunshine like a juicy mango. A virtual unknown when he arrived six years ago, he has constructed a wealthy and glamorous lifestyle that could exist only in the subtropics.

The road to glitzy prosperity started when Bronson and fellow former New Yorker Elliot Loewenstern bought Biltmore Securities, Inc., a Fort Lauderdale brokerage house, in 1992. In four years the two turned Biltmore from a modest business into a very prosperous one located on North Andrews Avenue. (In a 1996 income statement, Biltmore listed revenues of $45 million.) Bronson hired and trained the brokers. He cajoled, berated, and even bribed them to improve. He and Loewenstern plotted the aggressive, and apparently successful, business strategy.

That "strategy" is described in a lawsuit the federal Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) brought against the company in 1993: Bronson and Loewenstern would hire inexperienced young men to cold-call potential clients. The pair would put new recruits through a kind of boot camp, referring to investors as "degenerate gamblers," "piker pieces of shit" (people who would not invest large sums), or "whales" (people who would).

Bronson allegedly stalked the aisles between traders' desks, tossing out $100 bills as incentives, according to former Biltmore brokers interviewed by lawyers involved with the suit. He once paid a young broker a couple of hundred bucks to gulp down a wad of wasabi, the fiery sauce served with sushi. At morning sales meetings, he would belittle traders who weren't pulling in sufficient profits.

"Customers like a good fight.... You beat them up in the beginning, and once you break them then you hold their hands like babies through the closing," one Biltmore supervisor told employees, according to court papers. Bronson allegedly told brokers not to accept no for an answer -- until the prospect hangs up.

But the Bronson who once terrorized his employees in Fort Lauderdale has a doppelganger, a new and reformulated Bronson, a 44-year-old millionaire enjoying the fruits of his success and continuing to build a new image on Miami Beach. He can now relish his prosperity while steering his Ferrari to the office of his new fashion magazine. He can impress leggy models at the lethally cool South Beach nightclub he opened last year. And in quiet moments at his $2 million oceanside villa, he can contemplate an art collection that includes some of the nation's hottest painters.

In the subtle sport of social advancement, the ruddy-faced stockbroker has proceeded with an only-in-South-Florida speed. His philanthropy is already legendary. He has distributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Miami Beach Police Athletic League, the Michael-Ann Russell Jewish Community Center in North Miami Beach, and the Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA) in North Miami. Even more important in fixing his place in the region's glittery constellation: $1 million donated over the past three years to the Miami City Ballet.

"He is a phenomenal arts patron," says Susan Fox, the ballet's development director. "In Miami there is a small number of individuals who contribute to the arts. Mr. Bronson is among that number." Indeed he's chairman of the ballet's board of trustees. He also sits on MoCA's board. And, as one of the more recent arrivals to Greater Miami's culture club, he is a regular invitee at swank gatherings of deep-pocketed arts patrons.

But Bronson hasn't had much time for soirees lately. He's been too busy launching a glossy fashion magazine called Channel. No doubt he's hoping the publication will achieve the same success as last year's project, Shadow Lounge -- now one of South Beach's most trendy clubs. Opening that Washington Avenue hot spot made him more than just a rich guy; it made him a cool rich guy. Last October Tara Solomon, the Miami Herald's nightlife columnist, gushingly called him "as close to a real-life Bruce Wayne as mortal men can get."

In fact the bachelor is becoming the stuff of gossip columnists' dreams. The walls of his Golden Beach home are decorated with the works of Keith Haring, among others. He drives not only a Ferrari but also an Aston Martin and a Harley-Davidson. And paparazzi regularly catch his grinning visage at various schmoozefests. With the debut of Bronson's magazine scheduled for this month, Bronson is poised to become South Florida's millionaire of the moment.

"I've had a history of getting involved in ventures that were high risk," he told the Miami Daily Business Review in an August 10 front-page story about his magazine. That's a telling quote.

Bronson's time spent in Fort Lauderdale continues to haunt him. To regulators and some of Biltmore's clients, his philanthropy is a crass attempt to buy the credibility he squandered while earning his millions. Biltmore is known across the nation as a rogue company infamous for unscrupulous trading practices. Securities regulators have repeatedly accused Bronson and his company of bilking investors, many of them elderly and retired.

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Tristram Korten