From music to money to museum exhibits and HopCat

November 1, 2009
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You may have seen him on television or read about him in national financial publications. Or you may have seen his company’s Titanic exhibition when you visited New York this summer.

Maybe years ago, you saw his band, Two Headed Sam, open for Bad Company at Wings Stadium and for Blue Oyster Cult at the State Theater. Maybe you’ve invested in his capital fund. Or maybe you’ve watched him wipe down the bar at HopCat.

For someone who just turned 41, Mark Sellers has recorded a lot of highlights in his multiple career paths stretching from Boston to Los Angeles. But his latest route landed him at 25 Ionia Ave. SW, where he and his wife, Michele, opened HopCat, a highly rated beer bar with a full menu, almost two years ago.

“If someone had told me three years ago that I’d be the guardian of the most famous shipwreck in history and own the No. 3-rated beer bar in the world — and that I’d do that while living in Grand Rapids — I would have thought they were off their rocker,” he said.

Sellers said the biggest break he got in his successful financial career came after he earned his accounting degree from Michigan State University. He moved to Chicago and went to work for GE Capital. But it wasn’t long before Morningstar brought him aboard as a stock analyst in its Chicago office.

That was an unusual step for the financial firm to take back then because Sellers didn’t have an advanced degree, which is normally required for such a key post. But the times were different then, as activity on the market was hectic.

“I didn’t have a master’s degree yet and it’s very difficult to get into equity analysis with just a bachelor’s degree. But it was during the dot-com bubble and it was very difficult for them to hire qualified people. Everybody had their own dot-com back then. All the kids that came out of MBA programs from Harvard, Chicago or Northwestern, they all wanted to work for a dot-com,” he said.

“Because of that, Morningstar was kind of willing to hire people that didn’t have an MBA or a CPA or CFA designation yet. So I got a lucky break and took full advantage of it, and moved up the ladder very quickly,” he added.

Sellers went from being an analyst at Morningstar to becoming the firm’s chief equities strategist in just a year. During his stay there, Morningstar helped him complete the MBA program at Northwestern University. He worked full time during the day and went to classes part time at night for nearly three years.

“That was a crazy time in my life. I’m working 50 or 60 hours a week, and two nights a week I had classes. Every Saturday, I had a four-hour group meeting to write a paper or do a project. It was the longest two-and-a-half years I ever lived,” he said.

“But I kept saying to myself that once I have an MBA from Northwestern, I’m set for the rest of my life.”

Sellers survived that rigorous experience and had his crucial master’s degree from one of the most prestigious programs in the country. At the same time, he developed a dedicated group of investors through the Morningstar newsletter he wrote for 40,000 subscribers. He was picking the stocks they were buying, so his financial management career was launched. Still, he said, he was about seven years behind the normal curve. At 32, he was older than many of his co-workers and competitors.

“But that really made things a lot easier for me in the workplace because I had a lot of life experience that other people didn’t have. I was more mature, I guess,” he said.

Sellers left Morningstar after five years to start his own fund, the Sellers Capital Fund, and a good number of the investors he had advised became his clients.

“About 15 of them joined right away, and every month after that I would get a few more people. So that’s why I say the Morningstar thing was my lucky break, as I had exposure to thousands of investors. When I started my fund, I immediately had more than 100 people e-mail me asking for information on my new fund. Without that position at Morningstar, I never could have started my own fund,” he said.

The Sellers Capital Fund stands at $60 million today. At one point, it was almost $200 million. But like every other fund, it took a major hit last year when the financial industry teetered on the brink of collapse. Although the market has rebounded nicely from last October, the economy hasn’t, and Sellers sees more bad days ahead despite the federal government’s stimulus package.

“It’s not fixing the economy; it’s just delaying the inevitable meltdown we’re going to have,” he said.

Even though his financial insight took Sellers to appearances on CNBC, NBC, CBS and the PBS Nightly Business Report and allowed him to write a monthly column for the Financial Times for three years, he didn’t start out looking for a career in financial management. He was a keyboard player and a songwriter who wanted to make his living by playing music.

“But I was always struggling to pay my rent and was very broke all the time, sleeping on people’s couches sometimes. I was 26 and got sick of that lifestyle. I came to the conclusion that I was never going to make it as a famous musician,” he said.

While nearly broke and living in L.A., Sellers picked up a book written by Peter Lynch, “One Up on Wall Street,” and reading it led him to a life-changing epiphany.

“I don’t even know how I came across that book. But he mentioned Warren Buffet a lot in it. So I decided to read some Warren Buffet stuff and then I was hooked on investing, because Warren Buffet is the best business writer ever. He can take very complex topics and can make them easy enough for anyone to understand,” he said.

“Then I decided that was what I wanted to do: I wanted to invest. But I didn’t have a college degree. I had dropped out of Michigan State after two years and moved to Los Angeles. So I decided to read as much as I could and go back to school to finish my degree. But this time, instead of being an English major, I’d be an accounting major.”

It’s likely there aren’t very many accounting majors who become the chairman of a major provider of touring exhibitions for museums. In fact, Sellers may be the only one, leading the board of Premier Exhibitions Inc. The Atlanta-based firm owns the rights to the Titanic wreck and opened an ongoing exhibition displaying some of the luxury liner’s artifacts in Times Square last June.

Sellers got to be chairman because his capital fund bought falling Premier Exhibitions stock until it owned 16 percent of the company. The fund became the firm’s largest shareholder and demanded two seats on the nine-member board because it didn’t like the way the business was being run. But two seats weren’t enough to effect any change, so the fund started a hostile proxy fight last January to take over control of the board.

“We won the proxy fight. So we owned 16 percent of the company and controlled the board. We kicked out the chairman, the CEO and the CFO, and installed new board members, and I was voted the chairman,” said Sellers.

“Subsequent to that, we did a financing for the company where Sellers Capital purchased more shares. So now we own about 46 percent of the company.”

Sellers is a Kalamazoo native who was largely raised by his mother, as she and his father were divorced when he was 15. His mom taught high school at Forest Hills Central for 35 years, while his dad had difficulties finding consistent work. “My mom supported three kids and put us all through college by working two or three jobs at once, teaching nights and summers in addition to the Forest Hills job,” he said.

Mark and Michele live on the northeast side of Grand Rapids with Stella, their 2-year-old yellow Labrador. Mark and Michele met through mutual friends at a party in Detroit. They dated for six years and have now been married for three years.

Their business, HopCat, was rated the third-best beer bar on the planet by Beer Advocate magazine after just a year of being in business. Mark said Michele spends more time with the daily operations than he does, but Garry Boyd, a 12-year veteran from the Gilmore Collection, handles most of the managerial duties.

“He knows everything about how to run a restaurant and bar,” said Sellers.

“Business has been amazingly good. It has just exceeded my wildest expectations. This year, for instance, we’re up by about 20 percent over the previous year. We had an excellent first year, better than I ever budgeted for.”

Another one of Sellers’ achievements was his appearance on “That’s Incredible,” a television show that ran on ABC from 1980 to 1984.

“When I was 13, I was really good at video games. So I was invited to participate in the North American Video Games Olympics, and ‘That’s Incredible’ filmed it. I got 17th place. I was only on ‘That’s Incredible’ for about 10 seconds.”

When Sellers has some spare time he likes to travel for business and pleasure. He went to Europe this past summer and loves going to Alaska and Hawaii.

Soon Sellers will be traveling to Roanoke, Va., and not for fun, but for a lawsuit that involves his exhibition firm and the Titanic. While Premier owns all the diving rights to the sunken ship, it only has title to a third of the artifacts from the ship.

“Basically, we’re trying to secure titles to all the artifacts, and that is in court. So I’m spending most of my time on Premier Exhibitions right now. The other two-thirds are in court to determine whether we have sole ownership,” he said.

“I can tell you that it is the most-followed case in the history of maritime law. It’s also the highest-profile case in the history of maritime law. We have the best maritime lawyers in the world working for us. It’s just a really interesting case. There will be a lot of books written about it when it’s all said and done.”

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