The payoff: She got an e-mail recently from Suleiman that was a welcome surprise, especially for a cash-strapped college student. “It said, ‘You’ve already made a lot of money,’ ” she remembers. Her investment was up by almost half, so much so that “I’m trying to just forget about it, so I don’t take it all out,” she says. Gibson also plans to up her contribution by sending more cash Suleiman’s way. “In my savings account I was making maybe 12 cents a month in interest,” Gibson says. “Now I’m making such a good profit in the investment club, this is clearly something I need to learn more about.”
As Suleiman sees it, though, investing during the economic downturn wasn’t exactly rocket science. An array of blue-chip companies were on sale, and you just had to have the conviction to invest. So, during a period in which the entire financial system seemed to teeter on the brink, and the most seasoned investors fled to the safety of cash, Suleiman took his stash and went bargain hunting. Some of his other greatest hits: BlackBerry maker Research In Motion, investment bank Goldman Sachs, U.S. Steel and DVD delivery giant Netflix.
Despite his raging early successes, he’s learned a tough lesson about the priorities of student investors. Exhibit A: When fellow collegians who have invested their money with him start thinking about spring break — and how to pay for their upcoming tequila spree in Fort Lauderdale — they start to cash out, no matter how well their investments have been doing. It’s not an issue that investors like Buffett or George Soros have to worry about, but it has forced Suleiman to deal with frequent cash-outs.
“It’s a bit of a revolving door,” says Suleiman, whose club swings wildly in membership between eight and 30 members, depending on the college calendar. “My priority is taking care of the fund and making money, but their priority is sometimes about financing their next trip to Florida.”
IRONICALLY, SULEIMAN DOESN’T HAIL from a long line of investors. His dad, for instance, is a physician who came over from Iraq back in the 1970s. But when Suleiman was channel surfing one day and happened to catch the CNBC premiere of Jim Cramer’s Mad Money, he was hooked. “I thought, ‘Oh my God,’ ” he says. “Here’s this guy throwing chairs and brandishing a Bowie knife and yelling about stocks. People must think he’s totally crazy.”
But Cramer became a virtual mentor to Suleiman, as he watched every single episode and practically memorized his book Confessions of a Street Addict. One of the highlights of Suleiman’s life: meeting Cramer at a taping of the show at the CNBC studios in Englewood Cliffs, N.J. “Here’s a legend with a $100 million contract with CNBC, who doesn’t need to give me the time of day, and he’s taking the time to talk to me about stocks,” Suleiman says, still amazed. “He told me, ‘Keep going, kid, and don’t give up, because you’ve got something special.’ That moment really stuck with me.”
So what advice do the experts have for Suleiman and his quick start out of the investing gates? “Be very careful,” advises Jim Rogers, co-founder (with George Soros) of the legendary Quantum Fund and author of classics like Adventure Capitalist: The Ultimate Road Trip and Investment Biker: Around the World With Jim Rogers. “There’s nothing more dangerous than big successes in the market when one first begins.”
Indeed, no investor has a perfect record, and Suleiman is no different. He’s already picked a turkey or two, like troubled banking behemoth Citigroup, a misstep he blames on poor management. “I’d like to have that trade back,” he says wistfully. He bought some at $4 a share, and it fell back to $2 before rebounding. “I still think it’s got too many assets to be priced so low,” he says. “But I definitely learned a lesson.”
Looking ahead for 2010, Suleiman aims to refine his stock picking even more. He has passed the milestone of a 300 percent fund gain, a tripling of cash that would have even market legends like Legg Mason’s Bill Miller — famous for beating the stock- market average for 15 straight years — green with envy.
But with investor panic receding and the economy stabilizing, it might prove much harder to pick as many home runs today as he did in 2009. His top selections for the coming year: He likes banking giant JPMorgan Chase, run by Jamie Dimon; says smartphone maker Palm is an attractive buyout target, perhaps by search engine Google; and cites Berkshire Hathaway as the gold standard of how to run a great company.
Warren Buffett has Suleiman’s dream job, actually, as the head of a holding company that oversees a whole host of quality businesses. Suleiman, you see, doesn’t daydream about regular college-kid stuff. He fantasizes about running a firm whose annual general meeting is seen as a mecca for serious investors. (Well, maybe he has one other daydream: owning the NBA’s Detroit Pistons.)
Sure, Suleiman may be missing out on some key elements of his college days. While his buddies are out carousing all night or perfecting their game of beer pong, he has his nose in annual reports or is researching earnings calendars as CNBC plays in the background. But he has no regrets about starting his own investment fund before he could even legally buy a Budweiser. “I owed it to myself to see if I could make a career out of this,” Suleiman says. “I thought if I could make money in this terrible economy, then I could do just about anything in life.”