It was a relaxed afternoon when I met with Dennis Suskind, who in the equine world is best known as the President of the Hampton Classic Horse Show. Our conversation took us around the world and after spending a couple of hours with Dennis, I learned about his world both beyond and including the Hampton Classic, from his humble upbringing, to his tie-in to precious metals, his passions and so much more.
To those in Bridgehampton where Dennis spends most of his summer he is a frequenter of the Candy Kitchen for breakfast and an afternoon ice cream cone. He is also a regular at many of the local golf clubs, restaurants and shops and although retired is barely living a retired man’s life. Locally not only is he the president of the Hampton Classic but also of the Atlantic Golf Course, and Vice Chairman of the Board of the Bridgehampton National Bank. Dennis was also elected town official – Southampton Town Councilman from 2001 to 2005.
To those in New York City where he spends most of the colder months, he is probably best known for his business acumen which ended with Goldman Sachs but began early in life working for his mom, Ida, and his dad, Morris. His dad taught him that when you are assigned to a task you get the job done. It was no surprise that when he started working outside the family circle, when others would take eight hours to do a job, he finished in two. It was probably that work ethic that gained him the success which allowed him to retire in 1991 at just 48 years old.
Those who know Dennis would be surprised to learn that he came from a rather poor background, rich in love by devoid of money. He was born in 1942 and raised in Staten Island in what he calls a lower middle class family.
“Both my parents worked. Mom had a gift/card shop with her brother in law (Herman) and dad was a tailor, which means I’m probably one of the few men who can actually use a sewing machine.”
Although Dennis spent most of the time pressing the clothes he learned all aspects of both his parents businesses, because if you were in the Suskind family it meant you worked and you worked hard.
“My dad was a taskmaster and so we worked. My dad taught me that whatever the job you have to do it 100%. My mother always worked and instilled in me that you have to work hard all the time,” he explained.
“We were poor but I didn’t know it. The realization came one day when I wanted to buy a baseball glove that cost $15 and my dad said we couldn’t afford it. That was a wake-up call for me,” Dennis explained while we both enjoyed a warm bowl of oatmeal while overlooking a field of morning golfers out where Dennis was probably wishing he were at that moment.
That realization continued when it was time to go to college and he was one of the only ones out of all his friends who couldn’t afford to go. Even today that haunts him. He’ll mention that perhaps his spelling would have improved or some of his terminology but you have to shake your head once you’ve read his list of what he’s accomplished in his lifetime.
“College I believe broadens ones horizon and it is a place where one can make lifelong friends---on the other hand working for four years while my friends were in college gave me a jump on real life work experience. So, knowing what I know now I conclude it was all for a reason,” he commented.
Work outside the family began right out of High School with a goal of making $25,000 a year. He started in 1960 working for Miles Shoes with aspirations of becoming an accountant. That lasted a year.
It was in 1961 that he started working for Raynor and Stonington (a commodities trading firm) in their accounting office. While the company changed names over the years he never left. In 1968 it merged to J. Aron and Co. and by then Dennis had already moved into the area that helped him become a multi-millionaire, because by then he’d entered into the precious metals business.
In 1981 that company was sold to Goldman Sachs and so if you look up any information about Dennis Suskind, you’ll always find his name next to the “gold.”
Dennis credits a lot of his success to the man he considers his mentor. He was 21 years old when he met Herbert Coyne who stopped Dennis one late night leaving the office well after everyone. Herbert was curious as to why the young man who put in more hours than anyone else never charged the company for overtime. Dennis responded that many of those extra hours were spent finishing paperwork and things he felt he should have done quicker and better and so he didn’t feel it right to charge the company. Those words became the jumpstart to an incredible future.
“I think there are moments that change your life forever and you don’t realize it. Changing my job to be geographically more desirable and meeting Herbert, those things exposed me to the next experiences in my life. I believe that people who have a mindset to work hard and to do everything in the work environment with enthusiasm fare much better than others. My word of advice has always been to do it the best that you can because you are being judged at all times,” he noted.
The next day when Dennis walked to his desk he discovered Herbert’s desk right beside his and there it stayed from then on.
“He taught me so much about restaurants and collectables and business,” explained Dennis. This was the man that pretty much walked him up the ladder to success.
A Family Man with a Passion for Horses
There’s no question that Dennis’ life revolves around going and doing but just as important to him is his family and his fondness for horses.
Dennis recalls horseback riding a little bit in public school. Back then Clove Lake Stable was run by someone whose son is well known in the horse world for tooting his horn. John Franzreb, Jr. these days can be seen as the horn blower at such famous shows as the Washington International and the Alltech National Horse Shows.
Back then Dennis recalls riding a horse named Red Coin. “I was 8 years old when I started riding because it was part of the school program. They took us there on Friday afternoons and we held on for dear life.”
Horses re-entered his life after he met and married his wife Cynthia, after knowing her for only three months. It began when they took their then 7-year-old son for riding lessons only to discover that he was allergic to them. And so the passion continued with them. For some 20 plus years they both rode and even competed.
It was one of those competition years at the Hampton Classic when he entered the office to complain about something he can’t recall anymore. That complaint led him to first be invited on the board and later to become president of a horse show he clearly has a strong passion for.
“My vision with the show is to always make it better,” he commented taking this moment to announce to me that not only was FTI coming back as the primary sponsor but right on their tail is now Longines.
“When I became part of the show it was already in a good position. It’s had the right people there at the right time. Tony Hitchcock and Jean Lindgren in their days as executive directors took it from 10 to 95th street and now Shanette Barth has gotten it to 100th street.”
In addition to his goal of always wanting to make the show better, Dennis also values the importance of safety. “Safety for horse, rider and spectator are all important. We were one of the first to outlaw poling before it was required and to have both equine and people ambulances onsite. And we are blessed with a great venue in a wonderful location,” he explained.
While the elite status for competitors is important to the show, so is the fact that anyone from any background can afford to attend this annual weeklong event. Yet another very important aspect to him was the addition of classes for people with disabilities which takes place on the Monday, August 26, after the opening day on Sunday, August 25th.
Nowadays, while Dennis no longer rides, some of the other members of the family still do. That family consists of 40-year-old Brian who lives in California and has blessed him with his first two grandchildren. John is 31 and the son he works with in his New York office where this “retired” man continues to trade commodities. It is his two daughters, Pamela, 27, and Audrey, 24, who have continued with a passion for riding, mostly for pleasure. All three of those children live in New York City.
Before leaving the topic of horses, I posed the question what attracted Dennis to horses but also why he stopped riding.
“I loved the excitement of jumping over fences that got higher and higher,” he admitted, but when he landed on the ground more times than getting over the fence he decided it was time to stop. But he still appreciates and remembers that great bond you form with your horse. “You have to build a mutual confidence between each other,” he said.
Now it’s his daughters who continue to share that bond.
Building His Empire
While there came a time when he felt he no longer needed to work, Dennis recalls those years of hard work and lots of traveling with fondness. These days many credit him with the worldwide expansion of the precious metals derivatives business.
“I was a gold expert, trading gold,” he explained. “I traveled around the world speaking about gold.”
Back in those early years the thought of giving a speech was a bit overwhelming but it was Herbert that helped him overcome that fear. However, not before one of those times he now laughs about.
“My first speech took place in Lake Geneva, WI at the Playboy Club. I was so nervous and gave the worst speech,” he declared.
Dennis had prepared a speech which he soon realized was not workable for him. “I discovered that I could not read and speak,” he explained.
After several sessions with a speaking expert Dennis learned the art of having notes and using those as his guide. “In time I got very used to giving speeches but my preference is to be the moderator,” he noted.
Looking back one always remembers those funny times and that one happened when Dennis was in Hong Kong. The speaker before him had a presentation about ancient coins, which needed all the lights to be shut off. But when they went on the room was sound asleep. However, Dennis kept the lights on for his speech and to this day he’ll never know for sure whether all the eyes were on him because of his great speech about the gold market or because no one could hide taking a short nap with all the lights on.
Those speeches and that gold brought him around the world. He took a moment to list off SOME of the many countries he visited including Switzerland, London, South Africa, Germany, Russia, Bolivia, Peru and Mexico.
When the word Mexico came to his lips it reminded Dennis of the time when they contacted him in a crisis and his company saved the day by converting 60 million ounces of silver from their vaults into cash.
Then when Taiwan was mentioned he recalled the thirty 747 planes full of gold when they needed some help “improving their balance of payments,” Dennis explained.
All very precious memories!
It was time to dig a little deeper to get into the heart and soul of this man who appears so comfortable no matter where he goes yet in reality is a very private person.
Dennis has always only gotten about five hours sleep a night, partly because that’s all he needs but also because in his line of business getting up at 5:00 a.m. was a necessity. Now some of those early morning hours are spent going through emails since his list of what he does is not just what has already been mentioned.
That list among others also includes being President of the Board of the Stein Ericksen Lodge in Deer Valley, Utah (one of the top ranked ski lodges in the world); and board members of both the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (CME) and The Marymount School of New York.
And trust me this is only the tip of the iceberg. Some of the positions Dennis holds he does get paid for, but for most of them he donates his time. Then there are those that simply hold a special meaning (like Marymount “because they treated my kids so well.”).
Like everyone Dennis has had to deal with loss. His dad died from cancer at age 61. His mom passed in 2001 from old age; certainly a better way to die but nonetheless a difficult time in his life. Losing your parent leaves a hole that really nothing can fill.
“It was a traumatic experience and I also lost my sister to cancer when she was 62. When you become the oldest living person in your family, it changes you and your perspective on where you are going,” he admitted.
We talked a bit about his parents because like everything there were some family secrets.
“My father had a gambling problem and in those days they used bookies. I remember having to tell someone that my father wasn’t there when he was standing next to me. Eventually my father went broke but never declared bankruptcy. He got a job at Barneys and paid back everyone he owed. I remember him saying ‘these were all my friends and I couldn’t walk away from them.’ ”
Dennis learned a lot from his parents. “From both of them I learned a tremendous sense of loyalty and doing the right thing. My mother was an extremely warm person whom everyone loved. People still ask me about her. From her I retained a sense of understanding of the people I am around and being sympathetic to their situation.”
That conversation brought back an anecdotal moment. When Dennis was young he threw a rock through a neighbor’s window and got caught in the act. “The guy brought me to my mom and had his hands around my neck. My mother told him to take his hands off of me because the idea that someone would do that was unacceptable.” But have no fear, his mom punished him appropriately.
But talk about filling holes – well when it comes to eating Dennis is a pro.
“My wife can open up a pint of ice cream, take one spoonful, put the top back on and put it away. I can’t take just one teaspoon and while I’m not much of a breakfast eater, my weakness is at night,” commented the man, who then promptly asked if I could Photoshop out his stomach in the pics.
During the day, especially when Dennis is in the city, he often has meetings at his office at 30 Rock. When asked why, since he is retired, he fills his days with trading, meetings, heading up boards, working with non-profits and building real estate (oh, did I forget to mention he built some buildings in Watermill), he softly replied, “I love doing it. I like being involved. My father taught me that if you complain you have to have a suggestion on how to fix it.” So, Dennis does that by giving of his time and expertise.
But Dennis isn’t just all work and no play.
His children are extremely important to him and time with them is time well spent. “Because your children get old doesn’t mean they don’t require attention,” he admitted.
He plays golf during the summer three times a week when he can, because “Golf is very challenging (and frustrating) and I like four hours with friends without a cell phone.”
In the winter you can catch him skiing. “I love being outdoors in a special environment and I like to be around people.”
When asked about his goals they were simple. “Try to stay healthy and help my children through their lives.”
The highest point in his life was the birth of his first child and the adoption of his other children. “To have children both natural and adopted are two of the greatest blessings in our life. My wife and I have seen the best of both worlds,” he explained, with a smile that brought back the memories of those first days.
His low point was missing out on going to college. “I always felt less than whole,” he admitted. “I was the only one of my friends who didn’t go to college. You feel less successful.” Wow, imagine those words coming from the lips of a man that has accomplished so much.
That made him think of some of his kids rough times commenting, “You are only as happy as your saddest child.”
When asked who most influenced his life he divided that answer between business and personal. “In my business it was Herbert. He taught me how to think logically and how always to make considered decisions and to understand the consequences. He was extremely honest and never played on the lines between right and wrong. He was always straightforward and exposed me to things I wouldn’t have been exposed to. On the personal side it would be my father for his honesty, my mother for her humility and my wife for her loyalty to her family.”
It’s also Cynthia that Dennis turns to for advice along with a cadre of friends. “I am fortunate to have a host of people I can turn to if I have a specific question or challenge. I can choose someone to discuss it with trusting their confidentiality.”
But in reality Dennis admits to being private. “I don’t share many things. I feel more comfortable keeping things inside of me.”
Yet when asked what people might be surprised to find out about him it was that he cries at movies (and even interjected that his wife says he cries for the commercials). And also that underneath what comes off as an aggressive demeanor is really a shy man.
We were approaching the end of our conversation but I wanted to know what Dennis would tell someone who wanted to walk in his shoes.
His immediate response was that they better not need much sleep but then added, “I have had a great life and I’d say to them go about each day as if it matters and always go forward. Some people get into ruts. I have never gotten into a rut because I have an open mind to things around me.”
And finally when asked who is this man whose gold filled precious metal years have brought him a renewed yet busy retirement. “I am a guy who came from humble beginnings, who loves where he has been, who loves the fact that he has a wonderful wife, and great children infringed in every aspect of his life. And most of all, I haven’t forgotten where I came from and I have no idea where I’m going!”