Fred DiSanto’s passion to win runs deep

Fred DiSanto was born and raised in Northeast Ohio with a competitive spirit that drives him to win, no matter what he’s doing.

“It’s all about the game,” says DiSanto, a 1980 graduate of Saint Ignatius High School where he excelled in football, basketball and baseball. “I’ve played a lot of sports in my life in high school and in college. It’s very competitive. You wake up every day and you can’t wait to get where you’re going. It’s the same way in business. Doing deals, investing in companies, creating companies — it’s exciting. It’s really a driving force in anything that I do.”

One of the defining moments of DiSanto’s athletic career was when he threw a no-hitter for the Saint Ignatius baseball team in 1979. He went on to Case Western Reserve University where he became the only CWRU athlete to earn 12 varsity letters with four each in football, basketball and baseball. He earned a bachelor’s degree in management science and his MBA from Weatherhead School of Management, then set out to conquer the business world.

“He was one of the greatest high school and collegiate athletes in Cleveland history and he’s used many of the same traits that made him so successful on the athletic field to drive his business success,” says Rick Chiricosta, chairman, president and CEO at Medical Mutual and a friend of DiSanto’s for more than 20 years.

“He’s wicked smart, extremely driven and he doesn’t back down or get discouraged in the face of difficult challenges. I’m sure that he expects — and gets — that same kind of intensity, drive and perseverance from his employees. He’s also the most fiercely loyal person I’ve ever known.”

Rise above adversity
One of the most difficult challenges DiSanto has faced transpired when he and a few partners left McDonald & Co. in 1990 to start Gelfand Partners Asset Management. He was married with a son and had just moved into a new house.

“Six months into the deal, everyone had to take a 30 percent pay cut,” DiSanto says. “We took a pay cut from where we were coming from because we were a startup. Taking another 30 percent pay cut was extremely hard. But all the partners did it.”

Companies often fail because they lack capital, as well as the resolve to make the hard decisions to get the capital they need to survive.

“Being able to sacrifice is what it’s all about,” DiSanto says. “It was a very thin, very lean time, but we took the pay cuts and kept working together as a team.”

Gelfand found its footing, grew into a successful business and in 1997, the firm merged with Maxus Investment Group. From there, it grew to about $1.4 billion in assets before it was subsequently sold to Fifth Third Bank.

“It really was one plus one equals three,” DiSanto says.

These days, DiSanto is chairman and CEO at Ancora, an employee-owned financial advisory firm started by Richard Barone that has grown to nearly $7 billion in assets under management.

“I take a lot of pride in the team that we’ve built at Ancora and really starting it from scratch and growing it to where it is today,” DiSanto says. “It wasn’t Fred DiSanto growing it. It was our team growing it and it’s still growing.”

Dan Hyland is president at Ancora and has known DiSanto for 45 years — they grew up two streets apart from each other in South Euclid.

“Early on, Fred made an introduction for me that lead to a 20-year career at McDonald & Co. and its successor firm,” Hyland says. “When I wanted to leave and scratch the entrepreneurial itch I was feeling, he again offered counsel and facilitated the launching point for me to do so. A few years after that, he offered me a position with Ancora that has allowed me to grow into the position of president. I am most grateful for having had the good fortune of growing up in the same neighborhood as Fred. He has been there for me for my entire business career and has provided great leadership, counsel and friendship that I will never be able to repay.”

A team guy
DiSanto considers himself fortunate to have had strong relationships over the years, such as the one he’s built with Carl Grassi, an attorney and chairman at McDonald Hopkins.

Grassi has learned that DiSanto hates losing more than he enjoys winning. But however a deal is going, he’s always had the presence of mind to see beyond his own stake in the transaction. His vision is part of what makes him so effective as a businessman and a dealmaker.

“Fred has the business foresight to see opportunities when others have not,” Grassi says. “Fred is a ‘measured risk taker’ and is tenacious in making it happen. He is never about just himself. Rather, he has a we/us personality.”

That selflessness became apparent to Chiricosta about nine years ago when Medical Mutual decided to terminate its frozen defined benefit pension plan.

“It was going to take about a year and a half for the entire process to play out,” Chiricosta says. “Meanwhile, we had to prepare our sizable investment portfolio for the eventual cash distribution, balancing out the need to continue to earn a reasonable return with the expected liquidity requirements. We really needed help determining the proper investment allocations and appropriate timing for selling off the investments in our portfolio.”

Chiricosta says Ancora would have been justified in charging Medical Mutual a substantial fee for overseeing this process and advising the company on the timing of asset sales.

“Instead, they voluntarily charged us a nominal fee to manage this important project, recognizing the value that a longer-term relationship with Medical Mutual would provide,” Chiricosta says. “I’ve never forgotten this and it’s a primary reason why our relationship has grown larger and stronger over the years.”

A legacy of excellence
DiSanto’s relentless approach to all aspects of his life has led to a lot of winning. He was inducted into the Athletic Hall of Fame at Saint Ignatius in 2001 and received the Distinguished Alumnus Award in 2015.

He’s also a recipient of the Magis Award, the school’s highest honor. Magis is a Latin word meaning “more.” Saint Ignatius of Loyola called Magis “the spirit of generous excellence.” Since 1985, the school has honored those who exemplify this spirit in their commitment to Saint Ignatius High School.

As a way of giving back, DiSanto helped raise more than $31 million for the Ignatius Men Forever campaign, which funded The Breen Center for the Performing Arts. It’s in this building that Fred and his wife, Brittan, chose to honor their fathers by naming the building’s lobby the DiSanto-Burke Lobby.

Whatever it is that DiSanto is doing, he does it with purpose and with a commitment to make the best it can be.

“Fred’s business intensity is only matched by his competitive spirit elsewhere,” Chiricosta says. “I’ve heard about, but never directly experienced, his competitiveness on the golf course. However, I have on several occasions witnessed first-hand his intensity during a Cavs playoff game.

“He gets so fired up sometimes I think he has personally willed the Cavs to victory. It’s fun to watch, but it also speaks to his relentlessness and refusal to lose. It’s this combination, along with his good heart and genuine concern for others, which have led to his incredible sustained success.”

Ernest P. Mansour, founding partner at Mansour Gavin LPA and another long-time acquaintance of DiSanto, marvels at DiSanto’s ability to play golf.

“He’s a scratch golfer and he’s never taken a lesson and he doesn’t practice,” Mansour says. “That shows you what kind of concentration he has. He built his business by becoming friends with people who later became his clients. And his clients are his friends.”

Arthur Anton, chairman and CEO at Swagelok Co., echoes those sentiments.

“I have known Fred for most of our joint professional careers,” Anton says. “I met him as a young entrepreneur at Maxus Investments and we became friends immediately. Fred is an extremely talented professional. He combines drive, integrity and a great personality to propel his business success.”

This approach to dealmaking and relationships is simply the way DiSanto was brought up.

“At the end of the day, it’s the people who make a deal successful,” DiSanto says. “It’s critical to have high-character, high-quality people. But more importantly, you need people who you know that when times get tough, they’re going to be there for you. I’ve been fortunate all my life that the partners that I’ve picked or have picked me, we have that same sense of loyalty and respect for each other.

“We’re going to do anything we can to make sure that we win. You’re investing in a company and you’re working every day to win. There is nothing wrong with winning. That doesn’t mean you can’t fail in the future. But you keep forging ahead.”

DiSanto has served on numerous boards throughout the Cleveland area and is former chairman of the Greater Cleveland Sports Commission and the Board of Regents at Saint Ignatius. Hyland says DiSanto’s track record of accomplishment and the way he works with people speaks for itself.

“The quality I admire more than any other is his ability to connect others through his enormous network,” Hyland says. “He is always on the lookout to put people together for their own mutual benefit. He understands the benefit of helping others facilitate business and that doing so, over the long term, will benefit his own business interests. For many people, gaining access to Fred and his network is a ticket to doing more business.”