Bull in the Market

South Florida philanthropist Richard Bronson built his fortune on the shady side of Wall Street

Richard Bronson's fortunes have ripened in the South Florida sunshine like a juicy mango. A virtual unknown when he arrived six years ago, he has constructed a wealthy and glamorous lifestyle that could exist only in the subtropics.

Had the 44-year-old millionaire stayed in New York, where he started his business career, he'd have to fight cross-town traffic, battle for a table at Balthazar's, and dwell in a crowded Upper Eastside high-rise. On Miami Beach he can better enjoy the fruits of his success. He can relish his prosperity while steering his Ferrari to the office of his new fashion magazine. He can impress leggy models at the lethally cool South Beach nightclub he opened last year. And in quiet moments at his two-million-dollar oceanside villa, he can contemplate an art collection that includes some of the nation's hottest painters.

But not only possessions and business ventures define Bronson's recent success. In the subtle sport of social advancement, the ruddy-faced stockbroker has proceeded with an only-in-Miami speed. His philanthropy is legendary. He has distributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Miami Beach Police Athletic League, the Michael-Ann Russell Jewish Community Center, and the Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA) in North Miami. Even more important in fixing his place in the region's glittery constellation: one million dollars donated over the past three years to the Miami City Ballet.

"He is a phenomenal arts patron," says Susan Fox, the ballet's development director. "In Miami there is a small number of individuals who contribute to the arts. Mr. Bronson is among that number." Indeed, he's chairman of the ballet's board of trustees. He also sits on MoCA's board. And as one of the more recent arrivals to Greater Miami's culture club, he is a regular invitee at swank gatherings of deep-pocketed arts patrons.

But Bronson hasn't had much time for soirees lately. He's been too busy launching a glossy fashion magazine called Channel. No doubt he's hoping the publication will achieve the same success as last year's project, Shadow Lounge -- now one of South Beach's most trendy clubs. Opening that Washington Avenue hotspot made him more than just a rich guy; it made him a cool rich guy. Last October Tara Solomon, the Miami Herald's nightlife columnist, gushingly called him "as close to a real-life Bruce Wayne as mortal men can get."

In fact, the bachelor is becoming the stuff of gossip columnists' dreams. The walls of his Golden Beach home are decorated with the works of Keith Haring, among others. He drives not only a Ferrari but also an Aston Martin and a Harley-Davidson. And paparazzi regularly catch his grinning visage at various schmoozefests. With the debut of Bronson's magazine scheduled for this month, Bronson is poised to become this town's millionaire of the moment.

"I've had a history of getting involved in ventures that were high risk," he told the Miami Daily Business Review in an August 10 front-page story about his magazine. That's a telling quote. Much of Bronson's millions comes from Biltmore Securities, Inc., a Fort Lauderdale brokerage house he bought with fellow New Yorker Elliott Loewenstern in 1992. The two turned Biltmore from a modest business into a very prosperous one. (In a 1996 income statement, Biltmore listed revenues of $45 million.) Bronson hired and trained the brokers. He cajoled, berated, and even bribed them to improve. He and Loewenstern plotted the business strategy.

Biltmore has brought Bronson a distinction quite apart from that conferred by his South Beach club and high-society hobnobbing. To regulators and some of the firm's clients, his philanthropy is a crass attempt to buy the credibility he squandered while earning his millions. Like a doppleganger of the new and improved Bronson, the Bronson who runs Biltmore is known across the nation as president of a rogue company infamous for unscrupulous trading practices. Securities regulators have repeatedly accused Bronson and his company of bilking investors, many of them elderly and retired.

In 1993, a year after Bronson and his partner took over Biltmore, the Securities and Exchange Commission sued him and his company for defrauding investors by selling them worthless stocks, lying about the performance of some securities, and using clients' money to make unauthorized trades. The company paid a one-million-dollar settlement in 1995 and Bronson was suspended from supervising traders for a year. Neither Biltmore nor its president admitted any wrongdoing. Since then the company has suffered additional setbacks. State authorities in Alabama, Arkansas, California, and Indiana have either suspended Biltmore's license, negotiated the surrender of the license, or censured the company. Bronson has been named in most of these state actions.

Moreover, a June 16, 1997, article in Forbes magazine listed Biltmore among seven companies in "Wall Street's Hall of Shame." "Here are the worst brokerages in America," the article reports. "If a broker calls you from one of these firms, hang up." Bronson and Biltmore were even featured in charts showing the spread of suspicious brokerages at a 1997 U.S. Senate hearing on securities fraud.

"Biltmore is considered one of the bad boys of all time," says Arkansas Securities Commissioner Mac Dodson, whose office accused Biltmore in 1997 of unethical trading practices. "Biltmore is the classic case of a company that doesn't do what it's supposed to do."

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