Northern Exposure

I’ll make you the same bet I make everyone who comes here for the first time,” says Bob Gillam, CEO of Anchorage, AK-based McKinley Capital Management, arguably the hottest investment firm on the planet. At 10:30 p.m., Gillam is standing on an outdoor deck of the Regal Alaskan Hotel, sipping a draft beer and soaking up the midnight sun. “How much do you weigh, about 185 pounds? I bet you that you’ll take your weight in fish every day you’re here. In fact, I guarantee it.” Reading the bland skepticism on my face, Ed Smith, a Merrill Lynch vice president in charge of the firm’s Private Client Group in Beverly Hills, leans in close. Smith, who funnels some of his clients’ investment capital to McKinley, and who has accompanied Gillam to the glacier-fed waters of Lake Clark three years running, whispers: “He’s not kidding. It’ not so much fishing as catching.”

For Gillam and a cadre of executives here by invitation, the prey are spawning Alaskan red salmon. Each year, 45 million strong, these powerful, tenacious creatures begin a grueling upstream journey from the Baring Sea, through Bristol Bay and dozens of frigid rivers and streams, seeking the precise pools where they were born. Like anything associated with fishing, there’s an element of exaggeration to Gillam’s claims: This year’s run is late, and the only can’t-miss fishermen are the grizzly bears perched atop “fish ladders,” five- to six-foot mini-waterfalls where they snare in their jaws salmon leaping against the current. Nonetheless, there are plenty of fish left over, and if there’s a human who knows how to land them, it’s Gillam, 49, an Alaskan native who cashed out of a pair of brokerage firms sold in the 1980s to Shearson/American Express and Kemper Insurance. He used the nest egg in 1990 to establish McKinley, recently cited by The Wall Street Journal for a nine-month stockmarket performance of 60 percent-thirdhighest in the U.S. (see sidebar). Wharton-educated Gillam, who handles investments for a spate of celebrity clients, including an NFL ‘quarterback, has been running these expeditions for five years, entertaining the likes of Sandy Weill and financial journalist Louis Rukeyser.

This time, the CEO contingent includes Gillam and Tom Willison, chairman of Dakin & Willison, a San Rafael, CA, marketing firm. Along for the ride are Merrill Lynch’s Smith; Bob’s son, Robert Gillam, a McKinley marketing representative in the firm’s Dallas office; some McKinley portfolio managers and technology specialists; and the sous chef of Alaska‘s five-star Alyeska Hotel. Home base is Gillam’s five-room hunting and fishing lodge, one hour from Anchorage as the float plane flies.

You’re gonna do some serious fishing and some serious drinking,” Gillam promises of the week-long excursion, a boys-only affair where executives masquerade as fraternity brothers and the only currency that counts is bottles of 18-yearold Macallen scotch, Macanudo cigars, and the 600 pounds of Alaskan king crab, prime rib, fresh-baked pies, vintage wines, and other necessities he taxies to the party in his single-engine, four-passenger Cessna 206. “You’re gonna see caribou, Dall sheep, American Bald Eagles, and bears. You’re gonna haul home a box of salmon heavy enough to break your arms.

“Only two things matter in life,” Gillam says as we prepare to fly through Lake Clark pass, a purple- and gold-peaked gap in the Alaska mountain range, 70 miles southwest of Anchorage. “Getting rich and catching fish.”

There are five species of salmon in the Western Hemisphere. Ranked by color and taste, Alaskan reds, or sockeyes, top the list, followed by silver salmon (cohos), kings, pinks, and chum salmon. The last two, Gillam says, are most frequent in the 48 contiguous states, with pink salmon cured to become the lox of big-city delicatessens. In a sweep over the lake as we come in for a landing, the fish are evident down below as murky, black pools, a striking contrast to the brilliant, aquamarine water and the spongy, khaki-colored tundra, populated by scrub pines, stunted birch and black spruce trees, and moldy sedges and grasses.

Soon after touchdown, we climb into clunky, rubber hip waders; state-of-the-art, synthetic thermal underwear; and Goretex, waterproof windbreakers. Though it’s a temperate summer day, with temperatures in the low-70s, it’s prudent to “dress for disaster,” as Gillam puts it, guarding against a sudden drop in the mercury and the torrential, wind-whipped downpours Alaskans describe as “raining sideways.”

A half-hour ride in a pair of 20-foot boats, and our squad disembarks on a sandy beach near the mouth of the Newhalen River-one of the dozens of streams that drains Lake Clark. Gillam, an able tour guide, is regaling our group with a running commentary on the area’s Indian folklore, fish and game, and frequent volcanic eruptions. A typical, stockbroking jock inside the office, out here, he takes on a larger-than-life man prone to dark aviator sunglasses, he packs a .44 magnum Smith and Wesson revolver in a holster and carries a 300 magnum Winchester rifle in his boat to ward off Gentle Ben’s not-so-gentle cousins.

As we prepare to wet our lines, fish race back and forth, large, dark streaks just feet below the surface. At first blush, salmon fishing seems anything but subtle-toss a three-inch silver spoon with a single hook out into the water on light spin-casting tackle, and retrieve it with a jerky motion designed to imitate a baitfish. Some salmon don’t even strike the lure, Gillam says, as he wrestles in his first fish.

I get a solid hit, the rod buckles, and I begin to reel in-only to have the fish slip away some 10 feet from shore. Gillam hauls in a pair of fish in succession-one a splendid six-pounder that breaks the surface of the water several times before conceding defeat. With the score Gillam, 2; Crew, 0; the boss sidles up beside me for an impromptu clinic. Apparently, my jerky retrieval isn’t jerky enough-Gillam lets his lure sink toward the bottom, counting to five before giving the reel five or six quick rotations. He pinpoints eddies protected from the current by fallen trees and other obstructions where salmon like to hide. With yet another fish on his line, Gillam hands his pole to me, and the drill continues: “Keep the rod tip up. Butt of the rod buried in your belly. Don’t horse him right away, let him run.” Gillam reaches over to loosen a mechanism on my reel called the “drag,” which allows a bit of line to spool out in response to a fighting fish. Mine is too tight-Gillam doesn’t want the fish to snap my 10-pound monofilament line. Three or four minutes later, and I’ve landed my first salmon.

Of course, this fish doesn’t count-it was hooked by Gillam-but there will be plenty of others on this five-day excursion. Like most Alaskan first timers, I am smitten, fishing 8-10 hours a day, bugging Bob to go for salmon in the morning, rainbow trout in the afternoon, and delicate grayling-a cousin of the trout-on fly rods as the light wanes around 11 p.m. A bit overboard, perhaps, but nothing Gillam hasn’t seem before.

“Ask Eddie [Smith] about his first time here,” Gillam says back at the cabin, his boots drying near a crackling, pine-log campfire. “Had to pick him up by float plane for the ride home. He made the trip in soaking waders and a pair of muddy hip boots. Had to have a box of salmon for each of his Beverly Hills clients.”

Gillam is polling his guests for their next-day’s fishing preferences. “There’s salmon in the Newhalen, rainbow trout down Big Eddy, grayling off Grayling Island, or [northern] pike down Back Bay.” Hmm. It’d be nice to bag a pike, a savage, snout-nosed fish with half-inch teeth. I open my mouth to register my vote.

“Salmon,” says the single-minded Man from Merrill. “We’ve got just four days left to fill up the freezer. And besides, there are no other fish in this lake.”


GUNNING FOR PROFITS

Money manager Bob Gillam likes to tell a story about an investor who called him up a few years ago, wanting to know the business focus of Newbridge Networks, one of the largest positions then held by Gillam’s firm, McKinley Capital Management. Gillam says he told the guy that Newbridge made bridges. It wasn’t until he hung up the phone and looked it up that he realized Newbridge creates computer networks.

Gillam is a model-driven manager who places relatively little emphasis either on what a company does or its fundamentals. Instead, he relies on McKinley’s proprietary “Big Gun” computer system, which identifies stocks that have done well over the prior 12-month period without excessive volatility. These keepers are known as “high-alpha” stocks. Alpha pickers like to have their cake (significant growth), and eat it too (relatively low risk).

So far, it’s been a feast. In October, The Wall Street Journal cited McKinley-with $250 million in assets under management-for a nine-month stock-market performance of 60 percent, third-highest in the U.S. But Gillam says if the Journal researched Big Mac’s one-, three-, and five-year annualized gross returns, it could have found that figures of 36.33 percent, 26.95 percent, and 31.31 percent, respectively, place the Anchorage company squarely in the top 10 for all periods, among all brokerage firms. The S&P 500 gained a measly 12.09 percent over the five-year timespan.

Gillam’s current picks? Modem maker U.S. Robotics, digital switching manufacurer ASDN, and fast-food chain Boston Market. Though heavily technology-based, Gillam’s gradually rotating his holdings into both the airlines and financial-services industries.

Ed Smith, a Merrill Lynch vice president in charge of the firm’s Private Client Group in Beverly Hills, calls Gillam’s style “momentum investing.” Its proponents are a dying breed, he says, largely because of the approach’s reputation for hemorrhaging badly in bear markets. Gillam says he aims to do no worse than the market in down years, and to beat the market by a mile in good years.

joseph l. mccarthy :