James E Manley, founder of boutique investment bank Atlantic-Pacific Capital, grew up (like most American boys born in the 1950s) dreaming of being a cowboy. But unlike most children, who give up the dream when they grow up, Manley never forgot his wish to be a rancher.
After graduating from Arizona State University, he began his career working for Dunn & Bradstreet. His next job was in the High Yield Bond Department at Merrill Lynch & Co followed by a stint as a vice president at Prudential Securities Capital Markets before becoming a co-founder and managing director of Everest Capital Limited, a global investment advisory firm for a family of hedge funds.
In 1995, Manley founded Atlantic-Pacific Capital, based in Greenwich, Connecticut with offices in New York, San Francisco, Chicago, London, and Hong Kong, a bank that has raised more than $50 billion for over 50 transactions. And while he grew the company, Manley still had his fantasy about owning a ranch complete with horses, rifles and wide-open spaces as far as the eye could see.
For 42 years, Manley looked at over 500 American ranches seeking the perfect one. Among his demands were water running through it with no highways nearby, alpine beauty at low altitude, no rattlesnakes (Manley hates rattlesnakes) and there had to be an Old West town and ski resort nearby. Finally, in 2007, when he was 53 years old, he found 6,000 acres in Montana, bought it the next day for $25 million as a family retreat, and turned it from a rustic working cattle ranch into the luxurious Ranch at Rock Creek Resort, doubling the main lodge to 24,000 square feet and adding on more accommodations. Manley, who lives in Greenwich, Connecticut, visits the Ranch with his wife and four children (ages 30, 28, 24 and 17) as often as possible.
We caught up with him in his Madison Avenue, New York City office on the day that coincidentally was his birthday.
Q: What did you want to be when you grew up?
A: When I was young, I had no idea. I just knew I wanted to have some job that was meaningful, that would make me happy, and give me a good living.
Q: What advice did your father give you?
A:He said to go out on my own and not work for a company, which I did, starting in 1989.
Q: What did you do when you graduated from Arizona State University?
A: I painted houses for five months and then I was recruited to work at Dunn and Bradstreet. An acquaintance said, ‘I think you’re good at sales. Why don’t you come in and interview?’ I got the job and stayed in financial sales all my life, which is what I’m doing now: investment banking, and have had my own company for 24 years.
Q: What is the culture of Atlantic Pacific?
A:It’s a partnership with shared profits which is a structure that promotes a lot of cooperation. There’s no one on commission. I would say that cooperation is the team culture.
Q: What’s the worst business mistake you ever made?
A: It was not taking a certain project for which I thought the capital was not raiseable; it turned out to be very raiseable and I left a lot of money on the table. However, that comes with the territory.
Q: What are you passionate about?
A: My family and the Ranch.
Q: Let’s talk about the Rock Creek Ranch. After Mass one morning, you said to your father, ‘I’m going to go get a horse and a gun and go out west and get a ranch.’ How did that come about and especially from church?
A: I don’t know why I said it at church. It was in a church parking lot in Fairhaven, New Jersey, and I said it with determination, but my father laughed hysterically, as if to say, ‘You’ll never do it.’
Q: How old were you?
A: I was ten. He laughed very hard, like, ‘Isn’t that cute.’ I know he dreamed of that, too, because in the 1930s, when he was 17, he hitchhiked out west. But I remember thinking, ‘He’ll see.’ That dream became an obsession and it just never died. I thought about it, talked about it until I was 53. It was a family joke. They said, ‘Sure. He likes to look, but he’s never going to buy.’
Q: What made you want to buy a ranch in the first place at ten years old?
A: Because in New Jersey, houses are close together and there are no horses. There were probably 13 Westerns on TV in the early 1960s. Bonanza, Wyatt Earp, The Virginian, Death Valley — you name it — at least 13 Westerns. I was fascinated with horses, with cowboys, the wide-open spaces, the freedom, the machismo of the cowboys, and I just wanted that life as a boy. I think a lot of little boys want to be cowboys. So I think it was influenced by the Westerns on TV.
Q: You looked for a ranch for 20 years and your daughter said, ‘By the time you buy a ranch, you’ll be too old to ride.’ ?
A: And that pissed me off. That upset me, so I increased my determination to find one. I looked really hard, but the last six years of those 20 years, I focused on Montana.
Q: What were you looking for?
A: I was looking for a trophy ranch. I was looking for a river or water that went right through the middle without a paved highway because most of the roads in the west were built next to the rivers; so most of the good water in the west has a paved highway next to it, which ruins the whole effect.
I wanted big white snow-capped peaks and pristine wilderness all around me. I wanted the old mining town that looked like it did in Bonanza. I wanted a ski hill nearby. I wanted all these things that I could not find in a property. I kept looking and I’d see good ranches, but they would only have three-quarters of what I wanted. This ranch had all of the things that I needed that I just described.
Q: What was it called at the time?
A: It was called the Rocking K, and I bought it before anybody else saw it. I was the first one to see it.
Q: And how did that happen?
A: I had focused on Montana for six years and I became friends with my broker. He gave me the first call, and he said, ‘What you want is going to hit the market and you better get out here fast. It’s going to go fast.’ I came out the next day and bought it because it had everything I wanted. I was lucky that he called me first. This was in March of 2007, and I closed in August of 2007, just in the beginning of the financial crisis.
Q: So when you bought the land, was your intention to turn it into a guest ranch?
A: No. My intention was to fulfil the lifelong dream of a ranch for myself, and to share it with family, friends, and clients, which I did for the first year and a half. Then some of my clients and friends went crazy over it and said, ‘It’s the coolest place I’ve ever been to;’ and then I realised I had a real winner and thought, ‘Well, why not turn it into a guest ranch?’ Each time I’d leave the staff would do nothing, and I thought, ‘Well, I might as well have guests come because the staff is here.’ So I kind of got the idea a year and a half after I owned it.
Q: And you changed the name at that time?
A: Yes, to The Ranch at Rock Creek.
Q: How would you describe the ranch today?
A: It’s definitely a luxury guest ranch as opposed to a dude ranch. We have everything that a dude ranch has and more, but I knew there was a void in the market; by that I mean that dude ranches have been around since the 20s and were very popular in the 70s and 80s, but I think the travelling public, particularly wealthy people, want a higher level of luxury that dude ranches don’t provide and they also want authenticity. So what I did was to fill what I thought was a void in the market, meaning create a very high-end ranch, but one that also had authenticity and extreme luxury with a lot of activities.
Adults really don’t want to sit out at a beach and look out and hold a drink anymore. They want an experiential vacation. That’s why I put in about 20 activities, everything from a ropes course to rafting kayaking, fishing, shooting, and archery. Many people call it luxury camp for adults because there are so many activities and it reminds them of camp when they were young. Almost everybody does the activities. I don’t think there’s been one guest out there that has just sat around.
Q: Did you change anything structurally? Did you build more guestrooms? What did you do?
A: I built additional cabins, additional houses, expanded the lodge, expanded the infrastructure, the generators. It was a construction site for almost four and a half years.
Q: Which celebrities have come there?
A: I can’t say because of confidentiality agreements, but I can tell you the ones that have been out in the public domain. Kate Bosworth, the actress who starred in Blue Crush, got married there last summer. Simon Fuller, the creator and producer of American Idol celebrated his 50th birthday with a party and a large group of people. Carrie Underwood has been there, LeAnn Rimes has publicly said that she has gone there. Other stars and music celebrities have been there, but those are people not in the public domain.
Q: Creating a ranch is quite far removed from the world of finance. And while you created the Ranch out of passion, now is it mainly for profit?
A: No. It’s still the dream and the passion, but you really need to earn a profit in order to keep money for capital expenditures and have reserves for a rainy day. You definitely want to make a profit because otherwise it would be hard to stay in business and it would be hard to pass on to my children, which I’m doing.
Q: What makes the Ranch experience special?
A: Adults don’t go out and play like they did when they were children, but when you put a paintball gun in a 50-year-old man’s hands, he turns into a ten-year-old, and when you put him on a horse or he kayaks and he rides a bike on property, he feels like he’s playing like he did when he was a child. That’s what makes the Ranch special. It just gets back to I think why experiential travel is really in vogue and big. Adults really don’t want to sit around on vacations. I think when you’re at the Ranch and you’re doing all these fun activities in a beautiful environment but ensconced in luxury, it makes you feel very happy.
I think the other thing that makes the ranch special is because we built it to look like it’s been there for 100 years. It has a ‘step back in time’ feeling, and I think people like that. A lot of them wear cowboy hats when they’re there and feel like they’ve stepped back in time when there were no Blackberries and technology as we know it didn’t exist; I think that gives people a special feeling.
Q: How often do you go there?
A: Probably about ten times a year. It might be two weeks in the summer and two weeks at Christmas. The rest of my trips I go for an average of three or four days.
Q: And if people want to fly in privately from overseas, how do they get there?
A: There’s a 7,500-foot runway in Anaconda, a very small airport, but a nice new runway where you can land privately and is 35 minutes from the Ranch. For a very, very large jet — sometimes people have come in on a Boeing business jet — you would land either in Butte, an hour away or Missoula, an hour and 20 minutes away. We pick people up in SUVs. From Europe, it’s one stop (first to Denver or Salt Lake or Seattle or San Francisco, then on to Missoula). It’s one stop to Missoula from the US as well.
Q: How often do you fly, both for business and pleasure?
A: I fly at least 20% of the year. I’ve used many of the private jet companies; I’ve used Net Jets for years. I started chartering for my clients and myself in 1995 and then joined Net Jets, and now I’m with a new programme called Wheels Up, which was started by the founder of Marquee.
Q: Is there any difference in that programme from others?
A: It’s a new programme that’s growing. They have access to light jets, and they’re the only ones that have King Airs, which are good for short hops.
Q: What advantage does private aviation give you?
A: Flexibility and the ability to get into small airports. If I’m very busy, particularly if I go to see my mother in North Carolina — which would take me a half a day to get there because I have to go through Charlotte — flying privately gives me the freedom to go see her. It gives me the freedom to go to small airports and get back to my family in a timely manner.
Q: What does leadership mean to you?
A: Leadership means motivating your team, because if they’re not motivated, you’re dead in the water, whether it’s an investment banker or a rancher.