Real Leaders

From Sparta to Chicago: How a Legacy of Values Built a $25 Billion Company

When then 76-year-old John Calamos decided it was time to hand over the reins of his multi-billion dollar investment company to the next generation, he chose someone who shared his immigrant roots — another American with immigrant roots.

The son of Greek nationals, Calamos, a first-generation US citizen, was searching for someone to help steer the company he had built since 1977 — Calamos Investments. He wanted someone who embodied the qualities of a leader, and not just the qualities of an efficient manager. He found that person in the form of then 50-year-old John Koudounis, who’s leadership qualities were best suited for the ebb and flow of financial markets — someone with a broad worldview; who can comfortably accommodate diversity of thought and who is not afraid of change.

Koudounis, who has now been at the helm of Calamos Investments for three years, is a shining example of a succession plan and the role that values can play across generations, while Calamos, who has no immediate plans to retire, is delighted to have found a partner with values that translate well into a company culture he has nurtured for decades. 

If you walk past the hard, glazed exterior of the Naperville, Chicago headquarters today, you’ll find inside a welcoming atmosphere that exudes family. “The acceptance of my Greek heritage while growing up in the US, certainly influenced my later decision in life to become more accepting of others,” says Calamos, who has created an extended family of more than 300 employees.

After hearing countless questions around his retirement plans, Calamos realized that the hallmark of a great leader is to have a good succession plan in place. “It was less about finding someone with financial and investment skills, and more about someone with strategic planning skills,” he recounts. “It helped move the company from a one-team system to a multi-team system. After being a company founder for 41 years, it was important to remember the value of fresh talent and ideas for a successor — the same energy that kickstarted my company decades ago.” Putting a value system in place that combines hard work and an appreciation of heritage seems to have paid off. Calamos is fond of reminding people that honoring your past is critical for your future. “You don’t know where you’re going unless you know where you came from,” he adds.

Beyond his Greek heritage, Koudounis knew precisely where he had come from — large American corporations, where he had held senior positions, but where he had never felt a real sense of belonging. “Partnering with John in a much smaller company was not a step down,” he says. “It was instead a step toward partnering with shared values and ethics. I got to know John as a person first, over many years, and only then as a business partner.” For Koudounis, their first meeting was slightly surreal. “I recognize in you the hardworking Greek-American from Chicago,” recalls Koudounis of the encounter. Then he asked the startled CEO, “Can you fly with me next week to Athens to help resolve some issues with President Papandreou?” As with any courtship with an eye on longevity, it took a further five years for Koudounis to join Calamos Investments.

“John is highly successful, and could have generated a lot more wealth in the world of finance if he was unethical,” explains Koudounis. “But he isn’t, and that’s why I work with him. You’ve got to get up every morning, look in the mirror, and be able to live with yourself.” The foundation for his family values goes back 2,000 years to a place 100 miles south of Athens.

Koudounis’s grandparents both came from Sparta in Greece at the turn of the century. Ironically, a word (spartan) associated with frugality and starkness has borne such wealth two generations later. But Koudounis is quick to remind me of the warrior legacy of Sparta. “It’s rumored that it took 15 men to bring down one Spartan in battle,” he says. While Koudounis didn’t bring the power of 15 men with him to Calamos Investments, he did bring much-needed support for its founder.

Finding yourself doing everything in a business is not a sustainable strategy, and Calamos knew he’d have to let go at some point. Letting go is never easy, and it shouldn’t feel as if you’ve lost something. For Calamos, letting go meant going back to what he loved — focusing on investments and finding more time to interact with employees on a personal level. “Company culture is so important; I’d hate to think there is talk behind people’s backs here. Keeping lines of communication open, and an accepting attitude creates positive working environments.” Part of this culture is a talent program started during the company’s early years. Interns straight from school are trained to become potential staff members. Some are still with the company, 20 years later. “I like to build teams for the future,” adds Calamos, who’s love of teamwork comes in part from his experience of being a US Air Force fighter pilot in Vietnam during the 1960s.

While financial markets remain obsessed with the future and rely progressively on technology to predict it, Calamos is adamant that human values will always triumph. In an age where trading companies have physically moved closer to stock markets to take advantage of split-second latencies when getting stock prices over fiber-optics, he stresses the importance of one-on-one interactions between investors and those managing their money. “It’s still people who drive the markets,” he says. “Why would you want to lose sight of that?” 

One of the first people to invest in an Apple computer, Calamos has always been an early adopter of things that might move the needle for him. “I recall thinking, ‘boy, imagine the smarter decisions I could make with access to more information and data,” says Calamos. “Today, we’re so swamped with data; it’s difficult to know what to use! We’re almost back to a time before big data; another great reason to keep nurturing human interaction.”

As a child, his curiosity unearthed a pile of old stock certificates in an apartment above his parents Chicago grocery store, that were worthless but sparked his interest in investing. Always searching for new opportunities (out of necessity), and asking “what can I do with this?” is a common trait among many immigrants — which in Calamos’ case, led to a company that now manages more than $25 billion in assets. “I used to run downstairs as a child to give customers a quart of milk at 10pm,” recalls Calamos. “It was the foundation for my work ethic and an early lesson in how to treat customers with respect.”

Recognizing that Koudounis had experienced a similar upbringing, Calamos felt he was safe to assume he’d find the same values inside. He was right. “We came here to live the American Dream,” says Calamos. “Not to be given a check, but to earn it and succeed.”

The value of money and investment wisdom has changed over the decades, and a willingness to adopt fresh ideas is key to long-term success, according to Calamos. “You can’t assume things will stay the same from year to year, change is inevitable, and this assumption must be built into your business plan.” Ongoing market adaption, while still keeping an eye on the legacy you’ll leave behind for future generations, can be tricky. “Just acknowledge that the only thing certain is change, and you’ll already be halfway in solving that problem,” says Calamos.

“Training yourself for change will future-proof your product and leadership style. Pay attention to global events and realize that they can affect your business from anywhere in the world. With the volatility we see in today’s markets, short-term market timing doesn’t work anymore. You can get out at the right time, but you’ll never get back in — farsighted, longterm investments will ultimately deliver more value, as will your investment in the right people.”

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