Amid booming music, nightclub lightshows and Hollywood-style glitz, the real Wolf of Wall Street strides out on stage to teach the art of sales to Swiss business folk. Jordan Belfort claims to have trained more sales people than anyone else on the planet, but how did the convicted fraudster go down in Zurich?
The general answer was: a mixture of titillation at Belfort’s bad boy image, bemused awe at his high-octane delivery, followed by some head scratching at how to convert his message into practice in Zurich’s Paradeplatz – a rather more genteel market than Wall Street.
Some 1,500 people paid between CHF3,000 and CHF80 to witness Belfort’s motivational performance at the Samsung event hall in Zurich on Saturday. Many told me that they were ordered to go by their managers. Some volunteered from their sales teams, mostly to experience something a bit different.
“This place is full of bankers, but no-one will tell you [a journalist] who they work for,” said a financier. “They won’t want their company connected with a famous Wall Street scandal.”
Belfort’s address lacks nothing in bravado and showbiz from the moment he charges onto stage, mimicking scenes from the film (actual movie scenes are broadcast during the speech). “Some people have a fear of public speaking. I have a fear of not public speaking,” he tells the audience.
His subject is the ‘straight line persuasion system’ sales technique that he developed himself. It promises to inject ordinary sales people with a dose of ‘thermal dynamics’ that will not only help them close sales, but improve the overall quality of their lives.
His high-octane training pitch is liberally interspersed with stories about his childhood, early business ventures and eventual foray into Wall Street. He is one part trainer, one part compère and one part stand-up comedian. The audience, comprising one third university students, is entertained but not everybody is convinced.
“This is more fun than our usual training sessions,” says a 26-year-old insurance professional, who did not want swissinfo.ch to print his name or company. “Training can sometimes be a bit dull and rigid, but this is definitely more inspirational.”
But not everyone was so impressed with Belfort’s style. “He is very direct and American. It is all about selling as much product as you can as fast as possible,” a 44-year-old banker said. “My job is all about building up a long-term relationship with clients and looking after their needs over a number of years. So I’m not sure how useful this has been for me.”
There is no doubt that Belfort trades on his past misdemeanors to sell tickets. The Samsung event hall is bedecked with images from the Wolf of Wall Street movie. Every wall bears posters of Belfort standing next to Hollywood heartthrob Leonardi Di Caprio, who acted out Belfort’s most debauched moments in the 2013 film. The audience can even have their photo taken with glamorous models dressed up in skimpy outfits reminiscent of the movie.
This troubles Florian Wettstein, Director of the Institute for Business Ethics at the University of St Gallen. Unlike other former financial criminals, such as Barings Bank destroyer Nick Leeson, Belfort does not make contrition the main angle of his public speaking, Wettstein told swissinfo.ch.
“What kind of signal are corporations giving their employees if they send them to this event?” he asked. Belfort served 22 months in prison after his penny stocks company Stratton Oakmont went bust in 1996.
During a break in his all-day, pumped up performance, Belfort tackles the issue of an ex-con teaching the next generation of sales people how to operate. Who better to teach ethics than someone who has made the mistakes, rather than someone who lives in an ivory tower, he asked rhetorically.
“I’m in a unique position because I have done things that were awesome and some things that were very bad. That gives me a unique perspective to go teach people,” he told swissinfo.ch. “It’s very important that people, especially young people, get the right message from me about ethics and integrity. Success in the absence of ethics and integrity is not success at all.”
As for the investors defrauded out of their savings by immoral Stratton Oakmont sales techniques, Belfort says he is determined to pay back “every dollar”. The problem is figuring out the bill. Belfort told journalists that the $100 million figure mentioned at the time of his trial related to the total amount of money invested into the scheme. Not all of that was lost, he insists.
“I’m in negotiations trying to get to the bottom of exactly how much is owed, if anything. It’s probably not as much as you think,” he said.
Event promoter Benno Burkhardt arranged Belfort’s appearance with a view to staging a series of similar motivational business training events. “People told me this would never work in Zurich, but the attendance today tells a different story,” he said. “I needed to start with someone well known to sell the idea. Hopefully now, word will spread that these events are worth attending.”