Early on, Brian Schmucker exhibited excellent entrepreneurial skills. Just like any American lad, the Bethel Park native operated a lemonade stand. Bored with that capital adventure, he invested in a miniature golf operation – at age 10, he dug up his parents’ backyard, constructed the course and charged the neighbors to play. In addition to offering boxing lessons for a fee, Schmucker, then 13, created wood carvings and peddled them at his own craft show.
“We never had to give Brian money,” says his father, Bob, “he had his own. It was evident as a child that Brian had a mind for business.”
Today, Schmucker applies that mind to his endeavors with RiverNorth, an SEC-registered Investment Adviser that provides investment solutions to individuals, investment professionals, institutions and retirement plans. Schmucker founded the Chicago-based corporation in 2000. As CEO, he is responsible for firm-wide management, strategic planning and business development. Most recently, “Forbes” Magazine featured the 41-year-old executive and highlighted the $2.3 billion company’s success in the closed-end mutual funds market.
Of the notoriety, Schmucker says that it is nice to be recognized, but acknowledges there is much work to do. “Exposure that highlights superior risk adjusted returns or very unique investment strategy is good exposure, but I don’t get too excited,” he says. “I try to keep my eye on the ball. As my father would say, ‘Don’t lose sight of the forest through the trees.’ I adhere to that theme. Although I am proud of what our team has accomplished to date, we have a long way to go. This is a long race and we are only a few miles into it.”
To reach the top, Schmucker has traveled many miles and his life has been full of twists and turns along the highway to success. Although he would deny that fact, he attributes his rise to what he terms the “Pittsburgh influence.” “I don’t consider myself successful and may never,” he says, “but whatever I am, it is a direct result of my family and Pittsburgh.”
Born Oct. 27, 1971, the youngest of Robert and Donna Schmucker’s three children, Brian emerged on people’s radar due to his prowess in sports. By age 16, he had the world at his fingertips. A left fielder on Bethel Park’s state championship baseball team as a sophomore in spring 1988, Brian suffered a debilitating injury during pre-season football camp that summer. Home- schooled for months, he did recover. While the shattered bones in his leg and knee ended his football career, Brian returned to baseball and led the Hawks to two more playoff appearances and the WPIAL finals his senior season. He also earned a scholarship to play baseball at Penn State University. But, he was never the same.
“The injury occurred Aug. 25, 1988, at 10:30 a.m. EST. A day I will never forget,” he says. “It was a humbling experience to say the least. Age 16, just got a driver’s license, won a state championship, scouts at a lot of games, professional tryouts, feelings of invincibility and huge confidence and then,” he trails off, “I can’t move or feel my leg and future plans are erased across the board.”
Brian adds quickly the injury may have been the best thing that could have happened to him. It grounded him, brought him closer to family, including sisters Sharon and Judy, and friends and taught him countless lessons. Yet, he says that he is “still bitter”
t this happened to him. “I feed on it often. It fuels my desire to do great things.”
Though he did few phenomenal things as a Nittany Lion, Brian earned a degree in education. However, he would not follow in the footsteps of his father, who taught for decades in the Mt. Lebanon School District. “Although my PSU experience was a good one and I am proud to be an alumni, I just wanted to get my diploma and then get to work,” he says. “For me, college was a ‘rite of passage.’ There is a big difference between theory and practice. I am long on practice and short on theory.”
Before making the big time in Chicago, Brian tuned up in the bagel business. Pittsburgh natives Adam and Garen Smith welcomed him into their operation, which employed a few hundred people and cranked out 20,000 bagels a day. While Brian never really made any money, he said the experience was priceless. He learned a ton and is forever grateful to the Smiths for giving him a chance.
“Brian has many wonderful and excellent role models,” say his parents. “He respected those people who have influenced his success, but he always worked hard.”
According to Brian, that only makes sense. His work ethic was evident from the time he accepted his ‘first, real job’. During the summer months, he helped his dad paint the interior of Mt. Lebanon High School. From that experience, he established habits upon which he relies to this day. Among the lessons he learned working side-by-side with his father, Brian rattles off the following: show up on time, work hard, do a good job, anticipate things, be fair and reasonable, take pride in your work, do what you say, finish what you start, say please and thank you.
“These all seem like common sense things and they are,” he says, “but few adhere to them. What my dad taught me, you don’t learn in school and it seems that it is rarely taught at home, which to me is very unfortunate.”
In his life, Brian has been fortunate to marry his “best friend.” He and his wife, Julie, have a son, Adam, 4, and a daughter, Anna Berlin, born Dec. 14, 2012. “Julie is one of those people that ‘gets it’. She shops at Old Navy and Target and doesn’t get caught up with ‘material things.’ She’s a very caring and giving person that would take care of those before herself. She keeps me grounded and focused at all times. She keeps it real.”
While reality at home is with the children and the two dogs, Dottie and Goo Goo, his existence in the business world may seem like a fantasy to many, as he gambles with billions of dollars on a daily basis and makes oodles of money for his customers and his company.
But as he has learned through his participation in sports, it takes teamwork to run a successful corporation. Brian says that sports has taught him to work as a team, find a way to win, aggressiveness, competitiveness, sportsmanship, preparation, do the right thing and above all make no excuses. Win or lose, it’s all on you and the team.
“We have an amazing team of eclectic and bright people that share a common core belief system,” Brian says of RiverNorth. “Economics aside, it is awesome to build a company. It is up to each of us to make it a success or a failure. The bucks stops with all of us. No excuses, figure it out and get it done right. We all are determining our future. We are competing against the biggest and most recognizable firms in the country and we are excelling. I would not trade spots with anyone. I am fired up to go to work every day.”
And, Brian works constantly. He states in an email relayed on a Sunday from his office that the only time that he is not working is when he is asleep. “And even then, I sometimes dream about work.”
Some 20-plus years ago, Brian identified success with a purpose as his dream. However, with that success, he also wanted to made a difference in other people’s lives. He is actively involved with Hedge Funds Care, The Otis Wilson Foundation and other charitable organizations throughout Chicago.
“Whether it’s my family or strangers, I am on a mission to do great things,” he says. “When I first met Julie, we agreed that I would make a fortune and she would give it away. The plan is in motion. My hope for the future is to be a success and with that success make a difference in other people’s lives.”
All along the way, Brian has made a difference. Just ask his former baseball coach. While Tay Meister recalls how Brian repaired the bus when it broke down on its way to the WPIAL finals to play North Allegheny, he relates that nothing Brian does surprises him. “He was always confident of his abilities. He was smart and talented. He had his own vision of life. He is a very good young man and it was just great being around him.”
Check out South Hills Living magazine in this week’s issue of The Almanac.