A proud graduate invests in his alma mater
As a young child of Dutch immigrants, J. Sebastian van Berkom, BComm 69, came from humble beginnings. Decades later, he’s happily investing a tidy sum in his alma mater.
Through a $1 million donation, the Montreal investment manager will help top-rated John Molson School of Business students manage small-cap portfolios — with real money.
Van Berkom’s transformational gift will establish the Van Berkom Small-Cap Investment Management Program, where eight students per year will manage funds with a view to achieving above-average returns long term.
Why give to his alma mater? “It’s pretty simple,” says van Berkom, whose companies Van Berkom and Associates Inc. (Canada) and Van Berkom Golden Dragon Limited (Hong Kong) employ 20 people and manage a portfolio of international small-cap stocks worth $4 billion. “Sir George accepted me as a student and I’ve done tremendously well ever since.”
Van Berkom has to date donated $2.3 million to Concordia. “There’s only a certain amount of money one needs in life,” he says. “After that, I believe in giving back to society.”
His gifts at Concordia support the Van Berkom Chair in Small-Cap Equities Endowment, the Van Berkom JMSB Small-Cap Case Competition, the Van Berkom and Associates Inc. Bursary, the Frederick Lowy Scholars Endowment and now the Van Berkom Small-Cap Investment Management Program.
“Sebastian’s latest contribution to the John Molson School of Business builds on a legacy of tremendous generosity towards his alma mater,” says Concordia President Alan Shepard. “Students will gain exceptional experience — knowledge that opens doors to careers in global capital markets, thanks to his remarkable gift.”
A champion of healthcare and the arts, van Berkom made headlines last November when his $500,000 gift to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts enabled the institution to permanently acquire a popular bright yellow blown-glass sculpture — the Sun — by American artist Dale Chihuly.
The decision, van Berkom says, was a no-brainer. “My father was a commercial artist through whom I learned to love art. I saw this as a great opportunity to save the Sun for the museum and Montrealers.”
Back in the 1950s, when van Berkom’s family emigrated from the Netherlands, cash flow was tighter. “We were poor,” he recalls. “If I needed something I had to make the money myself.”
That work ethic resonates with John Molson School of Business Dean Steve Harvey’s impression of van Berkom, a man he calls ethical, hardworking and committed.
“Sebastian represents what we want our students to be when they graduate,” Harvey says. “He appreciates the support he received at Concordia. One of the best ways to thank his supporters — and to ensure support continues for others — has been for Sebastian to give back.”
Van Berkom learned the value of a dollar growing up in Rosemère, Que. He shovelled driveways and delivered newspapers. “I needed money to go to dances on Saturday nights,” he says.
As an entrepreneurial undergraduate, van Berkom and classmate Danny Rafman sold shirts in the corridors of the Henry F. Hall Building. Profits from their garments funded van Berkom’s commerce degree.
He’s grateful to Concordia. “I was a terrible high school student. I did everything but study.” Yet the day came, van Berkom recalls, “where I wondered where I was going in life.” He applied to Sir George Williams University, one of Concordia’s founding institutions.
Gumption won him a place as a marketing major. “The admissions officer said: ‘Mr. van Berkom, we’re going to give you a chance.’ I was ecstatic. “I graduated with top marks. My professor said ‘Sebastian, you’ve got to go to Harvard.’ I said ‘I don’t have the money, I’m going to work.’”
Van Berkom landed a job at DuPont Canada in 1969. Incredibly, he wanted to be president from day one. “I wanted to run the show.”
Instead, he left for a marketing job at CN. “I had to find the right place where I could do what I wanted to do — put things together, find a direction.” At CN he got wind of an opening at Bell and, by 28, was running the Canadian equity portfolio of the firm’s pension fund.
“We worked 18 hour days,” van Berkom recalls. It was at Bell where Scott Fraser, a mentor, offered him a partnership in LRM Investment Management. “Scotty really loved the way I chose stocks.”
Irrepressible, van Berkom grew frustrated. “We had only $200 million in assets under management,” he says. “I wanted to build this investment counselling firm into something big.”
The growth he sought came in the form of Montrusco, an investment management company that grew out of Montreal Trust. “I was one of the founding partners and I did that for seven years,” van Berkom recalls. “We grew it substantially. I made a lot of money.
“However, my love for small-cap investing and being a master of my own destiny became so compelling that I quit Montrusco to start Van Berkom and Associates Inc. in 1991 to concentrate my efforts solely on small-caps.”
Three years ago, van Berkom founded Van Berkom Golden Dragon Limited, in Hong Kong, to begin investing in Asian small-cap equities.
The future? “My dream is to build a global small-cap equity management firm,” van Berkom says adding that he plans to retire at 80. “Eighty is the new 60. I think if you stop working you die.”