Issue 6, 2015. December-January


Jordan Belfort's Wall Street Cred Still Sells

The Notorious Wolf of Wall Street Visits Tbilisi

Laurie Kelleher

Pacing the stage in his untucked blue business shirt, Jordan Belfort lives up to The Hollywood Reporter's description as "buff, bombastic and full of unrepentant braggadocio."

"Who here is a natural born salesman?"Belfort proselytizes. "There are only a few of us. Who knows that they have the gift?" A few hands shoot up in the full house of Georgian entrepreneurs, MBA students, and others just seeking a brush with fame.

"Everyone" is in sales

Only about a fifth of the crowd volunteers that it has seen Martin Scorcese's film about Belfort, "The Wolf of Wall Street." Financial analyst Mari Tsutskiridzeadmits that did not know anything about Belfort before getting her ticket for the day long master class organized by Alliance Group Holdings, the company that brought Belfort to Tbilisi. She wants expert advice on how to present herself to clients. Among thefew diehard fans in the audience is mathematics student Luka Tikanidze who read Belfort's memoir and saw the film.

For the uninitiated, Jordan Belfort has led a colorful life. He was arrested in the United States in 1998 for securities fraud and money laundering for running a penny stock scam in which he and his partners defrauded investors and made millions for themselves. Belfort's fall from Wall Street grace included the usual prolific excesses (drugs, alcohol, etc.) and some original excesses, such as wrecking helicopters andyachts.

According to the U.S. Justice Department, Belfort has only paid about $11 million of the $110 million in restitution that he owes his former clients.In jail, Belfort's cell mate, Tommy Chong of "Cheech and Chong" fame, encouraged him to write his memoir and to launch a speaking tour. Belfort is supposed to use the profits from his international tour to pay back defrauded investors. Some have questioned whether Belfort's tour is simply a way for him to parlay his celebrity into yet another sale.

Indeed,a tenant of Belfort's presentation is that,"Everyone is in sales one way or another," and that, "Every sale has the same straight line from open to close."His brochure promises that his Straight Line System can take any company or individual, regardless of age, race, sex, educational background or social status, and empowerthem to create massive wealth, abundance, and entrepreneurial success, without sacrificing integrity or ethics.

A complicated mentor

Belfort is an engaging trainer, especially for those with a beginner or intermediate level of knowledge about sales. Many people in the audience take notes, including me.

He imparts wisdom about technique, tone, and buyer psychology. His strategy, however,assumes that sales techniques are internationally universal. It would have been interesting for him to engage more on what might work in Georgia's specific business culture.

Further, he does not acknowledge that the legendary sales from his glory days were, in many cases, based on misleading the customer. Heonly wades into ethical questionsonce, acknowledging that while individuals can learn the skills to persuade others and make a lot of money, "without integrity and ethics, it does not last." Belfort could have drawn more meaningful lessons from his failures about the need for regulatory compliance and corporate responsibility, for example.

In the end, the details of Belfort's sordid past and the question of whether his master class is a massive sales pitch of Belfort himselfdid not seem to matter much.

Tikandize, joined by several friends who are launching an online sales and consulting company together, concluded that, "Belfort is cool. His advice is useful." Management student LadoJishiashvili agreed, "Belfort has deep personal experience, and one way or the other, something to share." Many audience members came wanting business skills and left feeling like the got some, albeit from a complicatedmentor.

Laurie Kelleher is a writer and international trade consultantbased in Tbilisi, Georgia