Dave Sather's Money Matters: Arnold Van Den Berg Part I: Investing, sacrifice and forgiveness
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For quite some time, I knew Arnold Van Den Berg merely by reputation. His firm manages $2 billion in Austin and is widely followed by the value investing community. Since I had discussed him several times with my Texas Lutheran University students, I thought I'd get him on campus.
After sending letters and emails, I almost gave up, convinced that Van Den Berg was too busy for us. And then the phone rang. It was Van Den Berg himself.
I told him about our program at TLU and about previous speakers. He said he didn't think he was the right person to address my students. He explained that he did not have an MBA from Harvard, and that he didn't go there for an undergraduate degree either. In fact, he didn't even go to college. He is a completely self-taught student of the world.
As Van Den Berg spoke, I was quickly confused. How does a Dutch immigrant build a $2 billion asset management firm without the benefit of formal education? Although I focused on the lack of a college degree, I soon learned there was a far different story to be told.
To look at Van Den Berg, there is nothing unusual about him. He is 73 years old, has a sincere smile and tons of enthusiasm for life. His story is one of perseverance, the will to overcome, and the ability to forgive and love.
Van Den Berg's family name at birth was Mandelberg. Van Den Berg, along with a variety of other aliases, was chosen to hide his Jewish heritage from the Nazis. In 1933 Van Den Berg's mother and father moved from Germany to Holland to escape Hitler. Van Den Berg and his brother Sig were born in Holland, just four blocks from Anne Frank. Today, you can see the family listed in the Anne Frank Museum.
The Van Den Berg's challenges were quite similar to Anne Franks'. His parents hid in a small closet, just large enough for two people to stand in. They stayed in hiding for two and a half years, until the Nazi's found them and took them to Auschwitz - the notorious concentration camp, better known as an extermination camp. At the time, the Nazi's were exterminating 10,000 people a day.
Prior to being found, Van Den Berg's parents knew if a mother and child showed up to Auschwitz they would both be immediately gassed. In a "Hail Mary" attempt, Van Den Berg's parents sent him, carrying forged documents, with a 19-year-old girl they didn't know from the Dutch underground. At 4 years of age, complete strangers smuggled Van Den Berg across enemy lines to the safety of an orphanage - with full knowledge that if caught - they would be executed on the spot.
For the next three years, Van Den Berg suffered, but survived in the orphanage. There were extreme shortages of food and water, which took their toll. Van Den Berg said that food was so short that you didn't dare close your eyes during the prayer for fear of opening them to see all the food on your plate was taken by the other kids.
After the war, as a developing child, Van Den Berg was smaller than when he arrived at the orphanage. He was so emaciated that his father didn't even recognize him and almost left without him.
It took years for Van Den Berg's body and mind to deal with the stresses endured, but he was alive. More amazingly, after 15 months of being marked for death, both of his parents survived Auschwitz - a near statistical impossibility.
As Van Den Berg discussed this time with my students, he commented on how bad people can be if the wrong kind of leadership and thoughts are encouraged. He added that people assume he is bitter toward the German people but he is not at all. "I learned to forgive, and this is one of the most important things I can teach you about life. You must learn to forgive. If you don't, you get stuck in that moment. You become bitter and angry. If you retain bitterness, it will kill you. However, when you learn to forgive you see people in a completely different light."
While Arnold spoke, I looked around the room. The audience was speechless. They expected a talk on investing, but received a message worth more than any investment could ever return.
Part II of Van Den Berg's story will follow: how he turned a $2,500 loan into a $2 billion business.
Dave Sather is a Victoria certified financial planner and owner of Sather Financial Group. His column, Money Matters, publishes every other Wednesday.