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Talking Shop with Brian Sullivan

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The host of CNBC’s “Street Signs” talks with the Opportunist’s Managing Editor Leslie Stone about his path to a career in broadcast journalism, his thoughts about the housing bubble and what he thinks about the mass protests around the country.

Brian Sullivan got his start as a temp on a four-day assignment in the computer department at Bloomberg Television. “I had my sights set on UNC’s School of Journalism and planned to leave New York, but Bloomberg kept asking me back week after week and finally offered me a full-time job,” he says. “I didn’t want to make my living as a techie, so they moved me to their fledgling radio and TV operation and I worked the overnight shift on their satellite desk, taking in feeds from around the world, cutting video and writing up bits and pieces for the producers in the morning. I ended up on the air doing some reporting and eventually became a full-time anchor.”

Opportunist: How long were you at Bloomberg?

Brian: Twelve years. The cool thing was that because I got to see how everything was done, I got a good hands-on education in business journalism. Even today, I am very engaged in the production. I’m not a guy who comes in and asks, “What are we doing today?” If I’m not ad-libbing, I’m always writing my own material. I also went to law school at night while there, but I am not a lawyer and I never took the bar exam.

Opportunist: Do you have any aspirations to become an attorney?

Brian: No. It’s too boring. [Laughs]

Opportunist: You previously traded chemical commodities for Mitsubishi International. What was that like?

Brian: It didn’t last very long, but it was fun. Trading chemical fertilizers, especially when your initials are BS, makes you the brunt of jokes among your friends [Laughs] but it was darned interesting to be one of the few Americans in my group. I’ve always enjoyed writing and telling the story, though, and so I kind of knew [commodities trading] wasn’t what I wanted to do.

Opportunist: What or who inspired you to get where you are today?

Brian: My parents. I was raised in a no-excuses household. Both my parents had tough upbringings, in different ways, and pulled themselves up. My mother grew up very poor in St. Louis. She left as a teenager and worked for AT&T for many years. Dad grew up on a farm and joined the Navy. His last port of call was San Diego, where he met my mother. My folks said we were middle class, but I would challenge that. Still, it was never questioned whether I would go to college. I owe them a ton.

Opportunist: Who is the most impressive person you’ve met?

Brian: This job lets you meet some pretty ridiculous people—in a good way. I’d have to say T. Boone Pickens. He grew up hardscrabble in Oklahoma and he has experienced huge highs and crushing lows. The guy has unflappable confidence and has reinvented himself numerous times over 50 years.

Opportunist: Do you have a favorite interview?

Brian: Maybe Larry Ellison, CEO of Oracle, when I was at Bloomberg. Someone may be rich or powerful, but during our interview we look each other in the eyes and we are equals, and we are going to have a conversation. If you watch my interviews you will see that I don’t use notes. I find it too easy to use the crutch of planned questions. I try to use the legal sort of mindset, though, and I do a lot of work ahead of time. You know where you’re going to go with it, and you do your work ahead of time and just go after it.

Opportunist: Who was your most difficult interview?

Brian: It’s hard to know. There have been some that probably don’t go the way you want them to, but I’ve never had a guest say they wouldn’t come back. I am firm but fair. I’m not a big fan of interviewing politicians—from both parties, let’s just put it that way. It’s tough to get a straight answer out of anybody in Washington and that’s a bipartisan opinion. Until this bickering ends, I’m not sure we’re going to get anywhere.

Opportunist: You are recognized as one of the first financial journalists to draw attention to the risks of the housing bubble.

Brian: It was fairly clear when you dug into the numbers that there was a bubble in a large part of the housing market. A number of people understood that, but our team dug deep and said, “Oh my goodness, look at all this leverage” and brought it to people’s attention pretty early. When we looked at Phoenix, for example, and saw people buying homes at an average of 10 times their income, we were amazed that more people didn’t catch on.

Opportunist: What was the audience’s response to your reporting?

Brian: I got hate mail from people calling me an alarmist and asking why I was raining on their parade. The fundamental problem is nobody wants to say anything when things are good. Just about anybody with a pulse could get a loan back then. What’s Interesting to me is if you go back to 2003 or 2004 and look at the dog and pony show when Congress grilled the former Fannie Mae CEO and yet the bubble continued for a number of years. When everybody’s making money nobody wants to say anything. Where were they when the bubble was inflating?

Opportunist: What are your views on the Occupy Wall Street movement?

Brian: Hopefully, it will effect some real change. Given the level of unemployment in this country, I think people have reasons to be upset. There’s a book everyone should read called This Time Is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly that looks at 800 years of financial history. It talks about how banking crises become financial crises and financial crises become political crises. I understand the anger at Wall Street, but we have to look at Washington, D.C., too, because both parties’ policies were encouraging easy credit and pushing it on families for over a decade. What we need as a nation is to get smarter with regulations. Nobody wants to be the one to say the party is over. Unfortunately, the party ended badly and it has come back to bite us.

There’s a person or a family behind every statistic. Talking about tough times is not just a news story to me; I’ve lived it. My family was one of those statistics when I was growing up in California. People may think that because you’re on TV you’ve got a silver spoon, but I was the first person in my family to go to college directly out of high school. My father went to college at night while working during the day.

Opportunist: Are you optimistic that things will improve?

Brian: I’m a little more optimistic than I was a year ago. We’re not in a boom, and Europe remains a huge variable, but jobs are opening up in almost every sector. Retail sales data is much better today. Home sales are showing some light. I have Realtor friends and trucker friends who are doing better after a multiyear slog. I doubt we will see more than 3% growth in the next two or three years, which will keep unemployment above 8%.

Opportunist: What do you believe can be done to change things?

Brian: If I knew that I wouldn’t be in this business. Part of the problem is we are trying to fix things. You can take Advil to mitigate a hangover but you cannot fix it. Bubbles always burst more quickly than they inflate. The pain of loss is much worse than the joy of gain. We are going to have to wait this out and be smarter about regulatory issues.

Opportunist: Whom would you most like to interview?

Brian: Hmm…that’s a good question. An historical figure, maybe? I read a lot of history and sort of believe that if you want to know where we’re going you need to look at history because we tend to repeat the same mistakes every few generations. I would have loved to interview John D. Rockefeller. On an inflationary basis, he was richer than Bill Gates and he would’ve been an interesting person to speak with.

I never got a chance to interview Steve Jobs. What a visionary he was. I’m an Apple freak. My dad brought home an Apple computer when I was in the 5th or 6th grade. It’s unfortunate that Jobs passed away. I would most of all like to say thanks because he enabled me to listen to thousands of songs and SiriusXM Radio on my iPod.

Opportunist: Tell us about a typical day at CNBC.

Brian: There’s not much of a typical day, which is kind of cool. I’ve been here at CNBC since May, and I’m having a good time. It’s amazing how long it takes to produce an hour-long show. On-air work is maybe 10% to 20% of each day. Most of what I do is behind the scenes with my excellent team who does the hard work and builds the show. You have to put on a newsworthy and interesting show every day with original content that others aren’t doing. At 2 p.m. we are on the air, and it better be good! We have a real open set that fosters creativity. After we do the show, it’s Groundhog Day where we look at what we are doing tomorrow.

Opportunist: What do you enjoy most about your work?

Brian: Being able to create something that is built and seen and, hopefully, enjoyed or at least viewed every day. I feel in some ways like a chef where you get to create something that the diners enjoy. I have friends who are much smarter than I am and they are working on projects that may not be done for 10 years. The way I’m built, I enjoy the repetition and the fast pace. Hopefully, you do something that people enjoy and find educational. If you can have them turn on the TV and say, “Boy, I learned something from CNBC today,” they’re going to watch. You value their time by giving them the best news, teaching them something they didn’t know and by speaking to smart people and getting something good out of them.

Opportunist: What advice do you have for aspiring journalists?

Brian: This is a very critical and tenuous time for smart business journalism. Become a specialist and focus on an industry or a sector. It’s the end of the age of the generalist—at least for on-air journalists—many are ex-athletes, ex-Wall Streeters, etc. Entire channels are devoted to specific topics and you need to know the subject matter. That’s more important than anything else in my view. My major wasn’t communications. I got a Political Science & History degree from Virginia Tech. Can I get a “Go Hokies!” in here somewhere? [Laughs] I love Virginia Tech.

Opportunist: We understand you’re an avid racer.

Brian: Yes. I have raced 25 out of my 40 years. My father raced some when I was growing up, and I started racing high-speed go-carts when I was 9. I won two championships, but I’m 6’4 so it’s not always easy to get into the car. [Laughs]

Opportunist: Where do you see yourself in 10 years Brian?

Brian: I believe we are in for a complicated U.S. and global economy for the next 10 years and I will feel lucky every day if I can help people navigate or figure out that complex maze. I would love to continue being a business journalist—TV is great, but I’m a journalist who just happens to be on TV. I don’t take anything for granted, though, and I don’t take a lot of time off except for occasional car races. You cannot step away from it. Even when I go on vacation with my family, I ask: “Have you got Wi-Fi?” and “Will my phone work?” [Laughs] I think retirement is highly over-rated—both of my parents still work in their 70s—but maybe I’ll retire someday back in Winchester and sell apple juice. [Laughs]

Leslie Stone is an award-winning writer/editor with more than two decades of experience covering business, finance and lifestyle issues for newspapers, magazines and online publications. Originally from Virginia, she currently resides in the Orlando area.

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