April 25, 2011
The art of success
At a quarter to 7 in the morning, 32-year-old Israeli financier Dovi Frances pulls up in his nightshade Mercedes Benz — a fitting color since it’s still dark outside — on his way to run a company meeting in Santa Barbara. When the passenger door opens, a blast of hip-hop music shatters the early-morning quiet, the driver buoyant with the beat pounding his luxury-vehicle-cum-mobile-nightclub.
“I’m not into Matisyahu,” Frances says with a dash of defiance. “For me it’s Eminem, Tupac, Dr. Dre — you know, hard-core stuff.”
Frances is in many ways quite like the music he likes: experimental, aggressive and forceful. He’s a young, hungry Wall Street type with sharply good looks and a measure of recklessness, whose outsize ambition justifies impulsive risk-taking. Earlier this year, he bolted from a safe, six-figure finance job at Deutsche Bank to work for an obscure 45-year-old billionaire he barely knew. And nowadays he finds himself commuting four times weekly from Beverly Hills to Santa Barbara in order to manage Russian tycoon Sergey Grishin’s U.S. investment portfolio — which includes luscious multiacre real estate, a 164-foot yacht, a private plane and a recently launched luxury lending company, SG Cos., which Frances and Grishin co-own. But beneath the playboy veneer, the frequent trips to Moscow and Vegas, and the requisite benders that lifestyle affords, Frances fancies himself a kind of politely paid struggling artist, fashioning his own business destiny as opposed to ascending the corporate ladder — whose primary ambition is, simply, “to be successful.” Or, if fortune permits, a future prime minister of Israel.
“If you want to create the future, if you’re a visionary, somebody who can see inefficiencies and say, ‘Well, we can turn it into a business and monetize it,’ you literally change people’s lives,” Frances said.
His business philosophy, as he explains it, is fundamentally Darwinian, akin to “modern-day hunting” — which is to say, he believes that the accumulation of wealth and power will prove his ultimate fitness as a man — and as a mate.
“Women are attracted to powerful men,” Frances says as justification for his want of riches. “Back in the day, a successful man would bring home a bear or a deer; less successful [men] would bring home a chicken or a goose; now, we don’t hunt anymore, so how do you show that you’re a better hunter?”
The first thing for Frances was to prove his independence. Born to a middle-class family and raised in a suburb of Tel Aviv, Frances grew up in a secular home, the second-oldest of four brothers. His mother’s parents both survived the Holocaust and Frances likes to tell of how his grandmother got special treatment because of Joseph Mengele’s affinity for her. “She was blond with blue eyes, really blond, like white hair, a beautiful, beautiful woman, and he couldn’t believe that she wasn’t Aryan.”
Story continues after the jump.
Behind the scenes shots of photographer Anthony Bui in action. Photos by Lynn Pelkey and Anthony Bui.
As a kid, Frances watched his father transform himself from a lowly customs agent at an import-export company to the founder and CEO of Holon Motors, a consortium of car dealerships and auto service centers throughout Israel, which led to investments in real estate and restaurants. Though he worked for his father for several years, Frances felt the need to distinguish himself, and after serving as an officer in the army and studying at Ben-Gurion University, he moved to Los Angeles, where, in a much bigger business market, he would be able to build his own profile.
After graduating from UCLA’s Anderson School of Management in June 2008, he began a cushy but unsatisfying stint at Deutsche Bank, where he worked as a private banker and then a client adviser. It was there that he met Grishin, the titan behind the Russian-based RosEvro Group, which includes ownership stakes in one of the 50 largest banks in Russia, a chain of boutique hotels, a real estate development company and 7 Flowers, the largest flower distributor in Russia, according to the company’s Web site. It was also at Deutsche Bank that Frances developed a business concept for a full-service wealth advisement company that would cater to “ultra-high net worth” clients in the areas of consulting, lending and mortgage brokering.
When Grishin made him an irresistible offer to be his personal investor and included the start-up funds to launch a new business, Frances thought, “F—- the salary, f—- the title, I’m gonna start my own company.”
SG Cos., which was founded a little over a year ago and which currently has more than 30 employees in Santa Barbara, Los Angeles and San Francisco, aims to acquire loans for über-wealthy clients by borrowing against their holdings — what industry slang refers to as “jumbo assets” — like jets, yachts and art collections. When Frances isn’t playing CEO to his start-up, he’s overseeing Grishin’s investments in areas like real estate and technology; before lunch, he’s crunching numbers for the next seed round to benefit the start-up TekTrak, an iPhone and Android application that tracks lost smartphones. (Frances met the founders in business school and became an early investor; the company recently signed a deal with a major mobile manufacturer, which will offer the app on Android devices beginning this year, according to TekTrak CEO Arik Waldman.) After lunch, Frances is directing renovations to the Greco-Roman mega-estate, El Fureidis in Montecito, which Grishin purchased last year for $21.5 million and will likely sell.
If this were a hunt, you could say Frances is hedging his bets by aiming into a large herd. And he isn’t interested in being confined to any pack — he prefers to go it alone.
“I don’t wave the Jewish flag to differentiate myself in the business world,” he said of the sentiment that also applies to his social life: “For me, [being Jewish] is a cultural thing; I’m already Israeli, I speak Hebrew. I don’t have to go to synagogue on Saturday and shmooze with other Jews to define myself as a Jew. The question is, will I marry someone who is Jewish?”
At the end of a 12-hour business day, Frances boards Grishin’s private jet to scout properties in Nevada. Grishin, who is wearing jeans and a jeweled hoodie, sits across the aisle from Frances and orders a round of vodka from the flight attendant.
“Dovi’s really smart,” Grishin says, explaining why he trusts someone so young to advise him financially. “He’s much smarter than me. I don’t pay attention to details; Dovi pays attention to everything.”
Frances, relaxing into the spirit of flying at sunset over the sea, returned the compliment. “The guy totally changed my life,” he said. “You know what they say, that people succeed in this world because other people want them to? It’s not a cliché. Sergey wants me to be as successful as I can be. Sometimes you just need an opportunity.”