Gerald Tsai, the playboy financier who seduced America

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 04 May, 2014, 6:45am
UPDATED : Monday, 05 May, 2014, 9:49am

Nancy Tsai, the ex-wife of late billionaire Gerald Tsai, is set to face trial for fleecing a frail friend aged 92. She and her husband were famed for their philanthropy, giving US$3 million to the Norton Museum of Art in Palm Beach, Florida, where they spent winters. They divorced in 2006. 

Nancy Tsai was ferried into the highest ranks of society by an ambitious husband born into a worldly mainland family.

Gerald Tsai was a titan of the US financial world, first as a stock picker of almost preternatural ability during the "go-go" 1960s bull market. He transformed a tin can manufacturer into the financial services firm Primerica through sheer will in the 1980s.

He bought the investment bank Smith Barney in the process. He sold Primerica to Sandy Weill in 1988 for US$1.7 billion. The company became the seed for banking behemoth Citigroup.

Tsai was famed for a high-turnover investing style that carried over into his personal life - he married and divorced four times. And he skirted disasters both financial and physical.

In 1980, he survived after crashing his helicopter into the Hudson River. He was also idolised by younger tycoons, including Donald Trump.

When Tsai was named CEO of Primerica, "I went out the same day and bought stock", Trump told Fortune magazine. "I made a big bet on Gerry. Life is people and Gerry's a champ."

Gerald Tsai's Chinese father was educated in the US and hired by the Ford Motor Company. He was sent back to head an office in China. His son, also known as Cai Zhiyong, was born in 1929 in Shanghai and graduated from Boston University with bachelor's and master's degrees in economics, according to Bloomberg. He never again lived in China.

During the first act of Tsai's remarkable career, he became the original celebrity fund manager. The Fidelity Investments performance fund he created in 1957 was the first vehicle of its kind. It grew 27-fold in eight years, according to Bloomberg.

When Fidelity's founder decided to pick his own son instead of Tsai as his successor, Tsai quit and started his own Manhattan Fund.

When it launched in 1965, it drew US$247 million in capital, "the biggest offering in investment company history", according to The New York Times. He sold it in 1968 at the top of the market. It was typical good timing. Tsai continued to run the fund, but over the next year it suffered in a stagnant market.

Tsai's reputation took a hit, but he bounced back spectacularly. In 1982, he was running a modest life insurance firm when he sold it to the American Can Company.

He persuaded the boss to transform the food-packaging firm into a financial services company and Primerica was born. When he was named CEO in 1987, Tsai became the first Chinese American head of a Dow Jones industrial firm.

After selling the company, he returned to the insurance industry and rose to chief executive of Delta Life Corp in 1993. He sold that to AmerUs Life Holdings for US$185 million in 1997.