Kardon Manages Anxiety in an Hysterical Age


Bruce Kardon spoke at length about the challenge of counseling frightened investors in what he called an hysterical media environment.

Zika. ISIS. Ukraine. These days, with news coming at us from so many disparate sources so relentlessly, single words are enough to convey an entire landscape of fear and foreboding.
It’s the way the media functions these days, according to Bruce Kardon, founder of Conservest, an independent boutique financial planning and investment management firm based in Wynnewood.
“The media hypes up everything, so if oil goes down, then they bring out the bad guys who say oil’s going down a lot more. If the stocks go up, they bring out the people to say, ‘It’s a new day!’ It’s hyperbole to sell beer and potato chips.”
Kardon spoke at length about the challenge of counseling frightened investors in what he called an hysterical media environment.
“In a way, I’m in the anxiety-reducing business and not even in the investment business,” he said. “One of my main jobs is to make sure [clients] understand what is real and what is not real.”
Calm, self-effacing and distinctly not hysterical, the white-haired, 62-year-old Kardon may be just the right guy to shepherd a nervous flock through turbulent times — a sobering antidote to the frantic (and often incorrect) screeching of guys like Jim Cramer.
For Kardon, it’s all about putting things into perspective and educating clients while respecting their anxiety.
It’s not tough for him to do: Many of his clients are people who own or once owned local family businesses, which is where he got his start as well.
Kardon grew up in Lower Merion. His businessman father died at 41, when Kardon was 3 and when his mother, a professional singer in her early 20s, was pregnant with Kardon’s little brother.
“I grew older real fast,” Kardon recalled.
When Kardon was 4, his mother bought him a trumpet as a sort of physical therapy (he’d been born with underdeveloped lungs).
“And I just knew how to play,” Kardon said. “I [didn’t] need [sheet] music. I could just figure it out.”
His brother, too, was musically inclined: “My mother used to sing [while] my brother played the clarinet, and I played the trumpet. We would accompany her.”
He played music in school, too, which salvaged a somewhat rough high school experience.
“As long as I could play music, as well as study real hard, it got me through.”
The effort paid off: He was accepted early decision, with scholarships, to Wharton.
For doctoral studies, he went to the University of Chicago, where he studied with economic giants Milton Friedman and Eugene Fama.
His academic career was cut short, though, when Kardon’s uncle fell ill and asked him to return to Philadelphia to help with the family business, a packaging company. Kardon did his duty and returned, ultimately becoming the company’s president in his early 30s.
“When we sold the business, I wanted to go back to what I really loved first, which was investments,” Kardon said. “I didn’t like the way large institutions were managing money. I thought they had a lot of conflicts of interest, they were expensive and they were depersonalized. Most of them had no experience in actually running a business.”
He went from running a family business to working with family wealth.
“I started from zero,” he said. “The first few clients were business clients because they knew I knew how a business operated. They thought I’d be uniquely suited to be able to understand how hard it is make money and how easy it is to blow it.”
Now, 23 years later, Conservest’s 11 employees manage more than $1 billion in assets for its 200-plus clients.
The firm’s style is defined by Kardon’s “relatable” approach.
“A lot of people in my industry have no clue. They just see a lot of numbers; they don’t see the human side,” said Kardon, who tries to understand the driving forces behind a client’s questions and concerns. “Individuals who have money from a family business or sell a family business and now all they have is cash, they need someone to interpret what is actually going on.”
This means that when clients call him in a panic about the latest global crisis being covered on CNN, Kardon has to temper their concerns with realism — and maybe a dollop of Jewish humor.
One client said to him, “What are we going to do about Ebola? I have my money with you, and I don’t hear you talking about Ebola.” Kardon said, “My first suggestion is, don’t go to Africa.” Then the client worried that the disease could actually wipe out the entire community of New York stockbrokers. “I said, ‘You’re the first person who’s ever had empathy for New York stockbrokers,’” Kardon said with a laugh. “To me, that would not necessarily be a bad thing.”
A few weeks after Ebola faded from headlines, the economic crisis in Greece hit the airwaves, and his clients had a new concern.
“Maybe 2,000 years ago, BCE, Greece was relevant,” Kardon said. “The EU has about 580 million people and only about 10 or 11 million Greeks. Their economy has the vitality of Rhode Island and everyone is talking Greece, Greece, Greece.”
Putting things into context in plain language is key, Kardon said.
Information and education — without condescension — reduces anxieties.
“The deal I have with all our clients is: Let’s talk. Let’s not get hysterical. Crime isn’t up; it’s down.”
There’s an upside to media hysteria, too.
“From a technical standpoint, it creates opportunities,” Kardon pointed out. “When everyone’s selling because they’re crazy, we go in and buy, and when everyone thinks everything is terrific and someone’s talking on the radio about how many homes they’ve got because the market just is swooning, it may be time to sell a little bit. We’re able to use the volatility created by media hysterics as a way in which to participate in buying low and selling high.”
These days, Kardon said, clients are most anxious about “the three T’s: trade wars, terrorism and Trump. We have clients all over the political spectrum, so we have to be very gentle. But [we] just talk in terms of what-if scenarios.”
Being Jewish, Kardon said, helps with what-if scenarios because with Jews, “there’s always, ‘on the other hand…’” he said, lightheartedly pointing to the octopus as a sort of Jewish spirit animal. “A lot of religions outside of Judaism are very doctrinaire. We are very situational.” It fits together with his business: “Every client has a unique portfolio. There is no 100 percent all in. There’s always conflict.”
Until recently, Conservest has kept a pretty low profile. Kardon isn’t the type to toot his own horn, unless it’s the bluesy trumpet version of “Happy Birthday” that he sometimes emails to the family business leaders, entrepreneurs, widows and divorcees who make up his client base.
But as campaign 2016 kicks into high gear, as our smartphones ping with alerts and our TV sets blare with news of the latest crisis, Kardon may soon find himself explaining to even more anxious clients why Zika, say, won’t compromise their investments — even if the mosquitos attack every last stockbroker working in New York.
Contact: lspikol@jewishexponent.com; 215-832-0747


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here