He sometimes spent hours alone in his room listening to music, playing conductor and memorizing musical scores (a habit he would continue for many years). One day he expressed interest in learning to play the violin, but his father would not permit it. “He was a typically macho male who didn’t think it was becoming for a boy to play the violin,” recalls Mr. Vilar.
His parents divorced when he was 8. “My mother disappeared from our lives and I saw her very few times after that,” says Mr. Vilar. He claims that he always accepted his lack of a relationship with his mother matter-of-factly because of his nurturing grandmother.
At age 10, he moved to Puerto Rico after his father accepted a job transfer to the island. As a teenager, he preferred classical music to merengue, boleros, and even baseball. By age 18, he had memorized a handful of musical scores and was a fledgling connoisseur of Russian opera.
Mr. Vilar headed for Jefferson College in Washington, Pennsylvania, after graduating from high school. During his sophomore year, Fidel Castro seized power in Cuba. The family lost its wealth, and Mr. Vilar’s father landed a job with a small shipping company in Puerto Rico. Convinced that Mr. Castro would soon lose power, the elder Vilar encouraged his son to become a banker and prepare to return to Cuba to run a sugar business.
After graduating from college with a bachelor’s degree in economics and spending two years as a lieutenant in the army, Mr. Vilar heeded his father’s advice. “I began my job search with one wash-and-wear suit and little money. I was Hispanic and I didn’t have an Ivy League education. Offers weren’t banging down my door,” Mr. Vilar says.
In 1964, he joined Citibank and eventually became an international credit officer. While assigned to Colombia, Mr. Vilar subscribed to a stock newsletter and got hooked on the market. He embarked on a series of portfolio management positions at Drexel Burnham Lambert, M.D. Sass Investor Services, Endowment Management & Research Corp., and the Boston Co. Along the way, he earned an MBA from Iona College and completed a doctoral studies program in mathematical economics at New York University.
By the late 1970s, Mr. Vilar became frustrated with Wall Street bosses who shied away from investments in emerging technology companies. Convinced that Internet stocks could yield portfolio riches, he launched Amerindo in 1980. “Nobody knew how to evaluate technology, so there was no real competition for what I knew would be really big,” he says.
He named Amerindo after its first investor, the American Indonesian Singaporean Investment Co. In 1981, Mr. Vilar brought in Mr. Tanaka, a former portfolio manager for Crocker Bank who was born in a U.S. Japanese internment camp.
They made the rounds to institutional investors and pitched stocks of then-emerging companies such as Microsoft, eBay, Intel, and America Online.
It was a tough sell. Institutional investors knew little about high technology. Amerindo landed enough rich private investors, however, to carry the company until institutions climbed aboard. In 1996, Amerindo reached out to smaller investors by starting the Amerindo Technology Fund, followed later by the Health & Biotechnology Fund and the Internet B2B Fund.
Two companies Mr. Vilar believes will supply hardware for the next technological revolution are Sycamore Networks and Siebel Systems. Sycamore makes switchers and routers for optical data transmission, which it sells to Internet service providers and telecommunications companies. Siebel makes customer relationship management (CRM) software, which routes information among call centers, production distribution, salespeople, and customer relations staffers. Large corporations form its core clientele, and as more of these companies’ operations move online, their CRM needs will expand.
According to Mr. Vilar, the Internet serves two functions – helping companies transact business electronically, and helping them communicate. Products or services that facilitate those functions
stand to benefit. Besides Sycamore and Siebel, he names VeriSign Inc. and ONI Systems Corp. as well-positioned players for the future.
Despite the current downturn in the market, it’s easy to see why Mr. Vilar maintains a long-term faith in technology: Amerindo has made him a billionaire. He enjoys the opportunities that come with wealth, particularly the chance to support favorite causes. His list of beneficiaries includes New York’s Metropolitan Opera ($35 million), England’s Royal Opera House ($20 million), the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts ($50 million), Carnegie Hall ($5.6 million), and the Kirov Opera and Ballet in Russia ($20 million). In all, he has donated nearly $200 million to his love of opera. He also donated $10 million to establish the Vilar Center for the Arts in Beaver Creek, Colorado, where he owns a home.
The money lends Mr. Vilar access to the world’s greatest musicians and conductors. Recently, while recovering at home from surgery, he received a call from Placido Domingo, who was performing in Austria at the time. The Grand Tier at the Met bears his name. The Royal Opera House named its main foyer Vilar Floral Hall, and the gift earned personal thanks from Prince Charles.
After surgeons repaired Mr. Vilar’s arm following a skiing accident in 1996, he donated $4 million to open the Alberto Vilar Center for Research of the Hand and the Upper Extremity at New York’s Hospital for Special Surgery. That’s a high price for an operation, but to hear Mr. Vilar tell it, the sum will be insignificant once his technology investments start to mature. “In terms of price appreciation, you could say [the stock market of 2000–2001] was a bubble,” Mr. Vilar announced on Public Television’s Wall Street Week With Louis Rukeyser. “But in terms of technology, we are in the first inning. You are going to see the most important change in 20 years from the so-called client-server technology.”
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