Gross Gets Personal: ‘I Just Wanted to Run Money and Be Famous’

At Pimco, Bill Gross built a reputation as the world’s best bond trader. Now, at Janus Capital, he’s managing a much smaller fund—all while being measured against his younger self.

‘I don’t want to be a guy who hung on and hung on,’ says Gross.

‘I don’t want to be a guy who hung on and hung on,’ says Gross.

Photo illustration: Justin Metz

Bill Gross is here for his favorite doughnut, the cake one with coconut frosting, but he’s not going to get it, not today. Jacketless under the Southern California sun, Gross ducks beneath the black umbrellas outside Rose Bakery Café, south of Malibu, looking every bit the merry old bond king. A royal-blue tie, with a cheerful pattern of white birds, is draped around his open collar like a Renaissance chain of office. His Mercedes sits hard by.

But make no mistake: This Bill Gross, the one eying the French crullers, isn’t that Bill Gross, the one who bent markets to his will at Pacific Investment Management Co., who built one of the most enduring track records in bond management history, who moved markets with his pronouncements. That old Gross wanted fame more than power and riches, and he wanted it with a hot eagerness that made enemies. By the time Pimco cast him out, he was considered by colleagues—there’s no way to sugarcoat this—to be a world-class jerk who’d lost his touch.

This story appears in the July/August Rivalry Issue of Bloomberg Markets magazine.
This story appears in the July/August Rivalry Issue of Bloomberg Markets magazine.

The Bill Gross at this bustling cafe off the Pacific Coast Highway, it must be said, is a lot like that other one. He, too, has more money than he knows what to do with. (He’s vowed to give away his entire $2 billion fortune.) He, too, has an enviable job managing money, this time at Janus Capital Group. And he remains a rock star, one who makes ears prick up when he chirps on anything from the German bund to U.S. Federal Reserve interest rates.

But this Gross is searching for something even more elusive than fame and fortune. He’s looking for redemption, even a kind of love. At 71, he feels the weight of time. He figures he has a few good years left to prove the new Bill Gross is every bit as good as the old one. Maybe even better.

The best investors, Gross says, are “people that are so needy, it’s never enough.” He’s talking about himself, too: “It’s a neurotic quest for love.”

In this milieu, what Gross means by love is about as romantic as a bond table. He means investment performance and the acclaim it brings. He was Pimco’s brightest star—until September, when he suddenly found himself looking in from the outside of the firm he co-founded in 1971.

These many months later, Gross is still coming to grips with what happened. He feels better than he did in December, which was a real low point, he says. But he misses the love. His wife, Sue, keeps telling him to get over himself.

But Bill Gross refuses to bow to anyone—least of all Bill Gross. These days, he spends a lot of time looking over his shoulder. Every day at 3 p.m. California time, he checks the daily performance of Pimco’s bond funds—the funds he used to manage—to see how he’s stacking up. “I have a happy night if I’m doing better and a not-so-happy night if I’m not doing better,” Gross says.

His nights have been rough of late. The Janus Global Unconstrained Bond Fund lost 0.2 percent since Gross took it over Oct. 6, trailing 58 percent of comparable funds, according to data from research firm Morningstar Inc. The $9 billion Pimco Unconstrained Bond Fund gained 0.9 percent, better than 72 percent of rivals.

Most mornings, as he has for years, he comes to the cafe for his favorite doughnut and a coffee. But on this particular May afternoon, his favorite coconut variety is sold out. Figures. The bond king settles for a cinnamon twist and a carrot juice.

Nowadays, Gross’s flyspeck empire pales next to the $1.6 trillion Pimco. He manages $1.5 billion—less than 1 percent of what he used to—and much of that money is his own. He works out of a sparsely populated building in Newport Beach, not far from his former headquarters. His entire operation—Gross and four support staff—could fit into a conference room at Pimco.

Gross insists he’s not trying to build another Pimco. He doubts anyone could. And he readily admits he never had much interest in the day-to-day grind of managing people. “I just wanted to run money and be famous,” he says. That no one could replicate Pimco—and Gross’s decades there—is what makes what he did so extraordinary, he says. “I was always that way; I will go to the extreme to be special,” Gross says.

Ever since he was young, Gross says, he has tried to do things others couldn’t or wouldn’t do, such as spending three months at Las Vegas blackjack tables—16 hours a day, seven days a week—or running six marathons in six days. “Pimco was that in the extreme; nobody’s done this before, and nobody’s going to do this again,” he says.

Post-Pimco, Gross is trying to keep up appearances. He’s doing regular television and radio spots. (He was a fixture on financial TV while at Pimco, which placed cameras on its trading floor for him.) And he’s writing a monthly investment outlook similar to the one he did at Pimco.

He also seems keenly aware of his stage in life, even likening himself to the aging NBA legend Kobe Bryant, who, like Gross, is approaching the twilight of his career, with all the mental and physical baggage that comes with the territory.

Gross’s new boss at Denver-based Janus, CEO Dick Weil, calls him that company’s Peyton Manning, referring to the Denver Broncos quarterback known for his pre-snap histrionics and Jedi knight cool. That comparison may be apt. Manning once said: “I would like to think I will be the guy who knows when it’s time to stop. I don’t want to be a guy who hung on and hung on.”

Gross gets that. “If you can be actually honest with yourself, which I don’t think anybody can ever be, there comes a point where you would know, hopefully—to be crass about it—that you’re losing it, that you’re making mistakes, you’re not as focused as you used to be,” he says. “That hasn’t come yet, but I know that happens to people in their 70s and 80s. That’s how the cookie crumbles. So far, I think I’m OK.”

Gross sits at the table and stares at his cinnamon twist. He takes a nibble. Finally, he wraps the rest in a paper napkin and tosses it into the garbage can.

Gross is thinking about Pimco again. “I should know better,” he says. “I’m a wimp. I didn’t stand up for myself.” He goes on: “It’s like an alcoholic. You never stop believing people will like you if you concede this and concede that.”

A young man behind the counter recognizes him. Turns out, the kid has an internship at Morgan Stanley and says he’s coming to hear Gross speak at an upcoming event.

“Well, come up and say hi afterwards,” Gross tells him. “Don’t listen too closely.”

This story appears in the July/August special Rivalry Issue of Bloomberg Markets magazine.

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