A. Alex Porter, a member of the Wall Street generation that popularized the hedge fund and himself a successful practitioner of that now-familiar investing craft, died at his farm in Davidson, N.C. He was 75. The cause was cancer, according to his sister, Sarah Porter Boehmler.
When Porter landed a tryout with the money-management firm of A.W. Jones & Co. in 1967, hedge funds were still enveloped in mystery. Alfred Winslow Jones, the founding partner of the firm, had originated the idea in the 1940s. Such a fund would be “hedged.” It would buy some stocks, expecting them to go up, and sell others short, expecting them to go down. It would employ reasonable amounts of margin debt to amplify its returns. It would charge its investors a 1 percent management fee and a 20 percent share of the profits. A properly managed hedge fund would thus be in a position to deliver satisfactory returns in bull and bear markets alike, or so Jones reasoned.
A probationary hire, Porter was asked to invest one million imaginary dollars. He promptly lost them. Given a second chance — not the usual policy at Jones — he succeeded in causing his make-believe pile to appreciate, after which he was hired for keeps.
Following a stint at the firm of Sanford C. Bernstein in the early 1970s, Porter founded his own money-management business in 1976. As he often told the story, there were 30 people on whom he was sure he could depend for an initial investment. Just three wound up writing a check, and they contributed a grand total of $360,000. The holdouts presently had cause to regret their reluctance. Between 1976 and 1993, Porter’s fund, which he called “Amici,” generated a net compound annual return on the order of 20 percent. Amici Capital today manages $2.2 billion.
Porter was born in Charlotte, N.C. in 1938, attended the Woodberry Forest School in Virginia and was admitted to Davidson College, Davidson, N.C. on a football scholarship. He played guard and end and wrestled besides, lettering in football for three years and wrestling for four. An English major, he graduated in 1960.
Porter wrestled competitively into his fifties. He continued to read and write until his death. He died before completing a book-length critical study of Dostoevsky’s “The Idiot.” He sponsored (always anonymously) numerous lecture series and scholarships at Davidson and served on the boards of the Library of America, and The John Simon Guggenheim Foundation. He wrote poetry, painted and played the guitar. His intellectual interests ranged widely including Biblical scholarship and cryptology.
Porter was a voracious and competitive reader. “Have you seen the new issue of the Albanian Quarterly Journal of Ethnic Anthropology”? he might begin a conversation. Almost invariably, one had not. “Well,” Porter would reply, “there’s a fascinating essay on page 58 concerning . . . . ”
In the prime of his wrestling career, Porter stood 6 feet 2 inches tall, weighed 220 pounds, could bench-press 350 pounds, and wore a pony tail. His wrestling friends were just as bemused by his painting and poetry as his fellow aesthetes were by the matches he fought with large and ferocious-looking opponents.
On Wall Street, Porter was known as a gentle and courteous giant. In his company, one invariably felt his hand on one’s shoulder at a doorway; Porter insisted on entering second. He had an abhorrence of foul language and would walk out of a bar rather than be subjected to it.
The spoken and written word ever fascinated him. He quoted from a seemingly infinite personal store of reading, historical anecdote and country-and-western song lyrics. A Porter email of a few years back began characteristically: “The Everly Brothers had a song entitled `Nobody Calls from Las Vegas Just to Say Hello.’ Similarly, no one writes mid-afternoon just to say `Hello.’ So I’m writing to ask a favor. . . .”
Porter had a special gift of friendship and accounted himself rich on that score alone. Everyone seemed to know him, including — unexpectedly — such luminaries as the author Robert Caro and the cabaret singer Bobby Short. These acquaintances, which others might treat as a kind of social currency, Porter never mentioned. “I am unaware,” relates a friend and fellow money manager, Michael Harkins, “of any expression in the English language for someone who does not drop names, and, of course, in New York there is no demand for it, except in the singular case of Alex Porter.”
Porter was a longtime trustee of his beloved Davidson College and of Queens University of Charlotte. Among others, he served on the boards of Rollcast Energy, Distribution Technology, SLM Corp., the Library of America, and the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation. In addition to his sister, he is survived by his nieces Elizabeth Anne Boehmler and Alexis Porter Boehmler of New York City, and Jean B. Reynolds and her children Sarah Hollingsworth Reynolds and Margaret Grier Reynolds of Haverford, Pennsylvania.
Visitation will be held on Friday, April 25, 2014, from 4 p.m. – 7 p.m. at the home of Sarah and Bill Boehmler. A service to celebrate his life will be held at Davidson College Presbyterian Church on Saturday, April 26 at 1:00 pm.