NEW YORK In his heart, Dennis Smith says he would still like to be fighting fires. Jumping into a fire engine, rushing to the scene of the disaster, tending to the wounded, helping the stranded – these are the everyday challenges of a firefighter that Mr. Smith describes wistfully these days, and with such success long ago in his best-selling “Report From Engine Co. 82.”
“That kind of adrenaline rush isn’t available anywhere else. I loved it,” the now desk-bound Mr. Smith says. “There’s also the exuberance of doing something important.”
Today, Mr. Smith is trying to parlay his considerable reputation as a Bronx-based firefighter and ground zero volunteer into a company called First Responders Financial Services LLC. His vision is sizeable, as is his ambition. Both embrace developing a broad package of financial products especially suited to firefighters, police officers, nurses, and emergency medical technicians.
He intends to provide this “affinity group” with credit cards, life insurance, mortgages, and investment vehicles that are particularly appropriate for first responders. Because he estimates there to be 15 million potential clients, including retirees and family members, he figures he will be able to offer individuals substantial savings and benefits.
The analogy, in his mind, is TIAA-CREF, a long-standing and huge organization providing financial services to teachers across the nation. The company was founded by Andrew Carnegie in 1918 to make sure that lowearning teachers had some funds available to support them in their retirement years. The difference is that CREF is a not-for-profit, while Mr. Smith certainly hopes First Responders will be anything but.
He offers no apologies. “The way to accomplish great things is to make it for profit and provide incentives,” he says.
Getting First Responders off the ground has been a struggle. But, just last week, the fledgling firm concluded agreements the brought it closer to reality. The Hartford agreed to sell auto insurance through the outfit and an online broker, FOLIOfn, is offering fire companies FDIC-insured cash accounts paying 5.07% APR. The accounts must have a minimum of $50,000 to qualify; Mr. Smith explains that the product is targeted at equipment acquisition funds or working capital accounts held by fire companies.
It is not the first time Mr. Smith has turned his entrepreneurial energies toward the firefighter community. In 1976, following the success of his book about the Bronx, he launched Firehouse Magazine, which quickly became a must-read for his colleagues and today boasts more than 80,000 subscribers. He also produced a convention called Firehouse Expo in Baltimore, which will be held in July this year and features five days of training for first responders.
The successful sale of these ventures, as well as royalties from his 14 books, have supported Mr. Smith’s numerous not-for-profit activities, which have included leadership positions at the Boys and Girls Clubs of America and Kips Bay Boys and Girls Clubs. He also has a foundation that supports health- and safety-related causes benefiting firemen.
The plan for First Responders was hatched some years ago. His optimism was founded in part on the notoriety he himself had achieved through his books.
“I have a huge fan base,” Mr. Smith says. “Thousands of firefighters wrote to me after my book – and many nurses. They appreciated the nice things I wrote about them.”
The first breakthrough was the development of a credit card, in conjunction with Visa; he then enticed Chase to provide mortgages to his fellow first responders.
“We have to provide more than service. We need to really understand our clients, to empathize with them, and to see their needs.”
The company was incorporated in January 2001. Mr. Smith then retired from firefighting, hit the road to raise the required seed capital, and was well on his way when terrorists flew into the World Trade Center. “The attacks on 9/11 completely changed my life. I went down there and worked with the firefighters for 60 straight days.”
“I feel blessed,” Mr. Smith says. “I was part of a large group of very motivated people. I was part of it – not an outsider looking in. Writing a book about it was the hardest thing I ever did. It was so terribly sad.” The book, “Report from Ground Zero,” again thrust Mr. Smith into the limelight, but distracted him from building First Responders.
The next few years, as he returned to the project, were frustrating. He formed alliances with large companies that came unglued, and toyed with venture capitalists who took him, in his mind, in the wrong direction.
“I was trying to create a huge visionary company,” he said. “I wanted to structure it so that it would last for 100 years, and become an important American company. I had some great disappointments.”
Eventually, Lehman Corp. agreed to develop a co-branded money management product with First Responders. The reality, which ultimately scuttled the deal, is that Lehman’s investment management arm, Neuberger Berman, required too large a portfolio minimum. The bigger reality is that building a financial services company for a group that does not earn a great deal of money is uphill work.
Eventually, a former president of Smith Barney, William Grant, a one-time chairman of money manager MacKay Shields, became involved. With his extensive Wall Street contacts, Mr. Grant helped raise sufficient money to get the firm rolling. Today, Mr. Grant serves on the board.
Another key individual is Peter Hayden, who recently joined the firm as vice chairman. Mr. Hayden is one of the most respected firefighters in the country. He led the rescue and recovery operations at ground zero, and ultimately became chief of the New York City Fire Department. “I was completely moved by his role,” Mr. Smith says. “He really inspired me.”
That Mr. Smith is also inspired by his cause is clear. He has worked among and for first responders nearly all his life, and feels they deserve a financial “leg-up.” Whether First Responders will become the enduring provider of that boost remains to be seen. One key will be to tap into the legendary fraternal closeness of the group; bringing Mr. Hayden onboard certainly lengthens the odds.