During uncertain economic times, it helps to have a financial adviser like Louis R. Benzak on your side. While some nonprofits anxiously watched their investments crumble as the stock market deteriorated over the past few years, MDA’s investments have held their own, thanks in large part to steady management by Benzak, a member of MDA’s Board of Directors for more than 30 years.
MDA’s investment funds, the Research and Patient Services Fund and the Working Capital Fund, are collectively known as the reserve fund. These reserves provide a safety net that ensures MDA can run its programs for at least a year in the event of an economic downturn, or can quickly follow up on a research breakthrough.
Benzak’s careful stock picks have enabled the funds to outperform the stock market for three of the past four years (2000, 2001, 2003).
An intensely private man, Benzak eschews the limelight despite the numerous nonprofit funds he’s voluntarily nurtured into prosperity.
“Lou is a gentleman,” explains fellow MDA Board member Joseph S. DiMartino, chairman of the board of the Dreyfus Family of Mutual Funds.
“His enjoyment in life is doing well for those who’ve entrusted him with their money. But he’s quiet about it — the way he gives his report (at MDA Board meetings), you wouldn’t even realize he’s knocked the cover off the ball.”
Sharing his expertise
Benzak, 64, of Rye, N.Y., grew up in Bethlehem, Pa., just down the road from his grandfather’s farm and surrounded by miles of grass-covered fields. He gravitated toward the stock market at an early age and majored in finance at Pennsylvania State University in College Park. Graduating in 1961, he headed for the Big Apple and his heart’s desire — investment management.
By 1969, Benzak was a senior vice president at the Wall Street investment banking house of Loeb, Rhoades & Co. when he was asked to oversee the $600,000 account of the Muscular Dystrophy Association.
“One of the most fortunate days in MDA’s history was when Henry M. Watts Jr. (then MDA president and chairman of the Board of Governors of the New York Stock Exchange) introduced me to Lou and urged me to get him involved in MDA activities,” recalls MDA President & CEO Robert Ross. “He’s been a tremendous asset to the growth of MDA.”
In 1971, Benzak was made a national MDA vice president and the following year was invited to join the MDA Board, which named him assistant treasurer.
He served as MDA’s treasurer from 1977 to 1986, and chairman of the Board (at the time called president) from 1989 to 1991. He’s currently chairman of the Investment Committee, a member of the Finance and Audit Committee, and MDA’s investment adviser.
A founder and now vice chairman of the investment management firm of Spears, Benzak, Salomon and Farrell, Benzak quietly helps a number of nonprofit and educational institutions develop their prospects.
He’s co-chairman of the President’s Advisory Council for American Farmland Trust, and serves on the Board of Visitors and National Development Council at his alma mater. He’s helped raise millions for Penn State’s library and a biomedical building, endowed the Benzak Professorship in Finance, and has been named a “distinguished alumnus,” the highest award the school confers on a graduate.
“I enjoy it, I don’t really see it as work,” Benzak says of his volunteer activities. “Nonprofits always have a need for some sort of financial experience.”
A way to give back
Benzak, his wife, Virginia, and three adult children love to travel, especially to the south of France. He’s an avid Penn State football fan, admits to enjoying a round of golf, and once was spotted at an MDA Muscle Team dinner dancing the night away to 1950s rock ‘n’ roll. But in general, he’s most content reading about and searching for investment ideas.
Benzak has mastered the difficult and subtle task of choosing the right stocks without exposing MDA funds to much risk, DiMartino says. “He knows he has to protect that reserve while still making it grow. It’s an extraordinary accomplishment.”
Benzak admits he’s proud that the reserve fund has kept pace with MDA’s growth. He says his work for the Association is his way of giving back some of the good fortune that marks his life, but he’s quick to duck out of the spotlight.
MDA’s current Board “is as good as any I’ve ever been involved with,” he says. “We’re lucky to have people of this caliber on board.”
MDA Treasurer Victor Wright shines the light back on Benzak. “Lou is the last guy in the world who likes publicity or a pat on the back. But the job he’s done and the decades of service he’s given to MDA are absolutely astonishing.”