“Things Can Devolve if You Don’t Protect the Private Sector”

Tony Manno

Some investors ride the wave of opportunity. In the early days of epidemic outbreaks, they may buy pharmaceutical and conferencing app stocks. Taking advantage of an upward trend in the market, they buy and sell stocks, often to finance luxury purchases.

Not Anthony Manno. He takes the long view. His philosophy is: chart a strategy, with enough flexibility to tide over changes, but be firm and don’t let panic—or too much enthusiasm—change your course.

Anthony Manno’s investment philosophy has helped him build a successful career in real estate investment and steer the financial fortunes of the Bulgarian-American Enterprise Fund and later the America for Bulgaria Foundation. The Fund’s real estate investments benefited enormously from his expertise since he joined the board in 2000, and during his eleven-year stewardship of the Foundation’s investment committee, ABF’s $400 million endowment corpus has kept intact even as the Foundation has granted more than $200 million. While a lot of people are involved in the management of a portfolio like ABF’s, no one deserves more credit for the good performance of this particular portfolio than Tony, as everyone calls him.

“Our portfolio has done well because of his steady guiding hand and leadership,” says Nancy L. Schiller, the Foundation’s president and CEO.

This has allowed the Foundation to work uninterruptedly in support of Bulgaria’s democratic institutions and private sector development since 2009, helping modernize schools, train starting entrepreneurs, and aid the work of museums, civil society organizations, and independent media. The steady course charted with Tony’s assistance helped ABF flourish through a major global financial crisis and the market’s subsequent ups and downs.

“He knows what questions to ask the people managing the portfolio,” says Bojana Kourteva, the Foundation’s CFO. She says she most appreciates “the discipline he brings to investing—to establishing a strategy and sticking to that strategy, not pursuing short-term profit and playing games with the market.”

Tony is a captain unfazed by storms and not lulled into complacence by the promises of fair weather, and although his steering won’t earn him a place in Disney’s wild rides, his level-headed, steadfast leadership delivers the desired results.

The simple rule in investing, according to Tony, is: “Recognize that you really don’t know what tomorrow is; nobody knows. Don’t try to outsmart yourself. Recognize that the future is uncertain and greatly unpredictable, and don’t try to predict it beyond a small range of tolerance. Stick with the plan.”

“Is that all there is to it?” he was once asked by former BAEF and ABF president Frank Bauer.

“Yeah, nobody said it had to be hard.”

Tony Manno (second right) at the soft opening of the Bishop’s Basilica of Philippopolis in September 2019

He dismisses the idea that you need special ability to invest and instead credits his own success in real estate investment with his recognition of limitations and his ability to work slowly, steadily toward a set goal. Tony is similarly modest about all of his achievements, professional or academic. He received an MBA in finance with honors from the University of Chicago and graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Northwestern University with a BA and MA in economics. His score on the challenging CPA Exam earned him an Elijah Watt Sells Award, the equivalent of an Oscar in accounting. (Elijah Sells, the inspiration for the award, himself embodied the concept of careful, steady advancement in the craft. Mr. Sells wasn’t a natural in accounting; instead, he slowly and meticulously worked his way toward accounting fame.)

“Whatever they ask, they had to have asked in the past,” Tony explains his simple strategy for acing the CPA Exam. “They might change the storyline, but if you take all the old tests and you understand the answers to the old tests, you are going to be fine with the new tests. So, stick to the plan.”

Consistency is Tony’s thing in other aspects of life as well. Tony is married to his high school sweetheart, has lived in the Chicago area all his life, and has employed some of his staff for more than two decades. Unsurprisingly, his interest in buildings dates back to his childhood. As a kid, he enjoyed the physical nature of real estate but didn’t pursue a career in architecture “because architects don’t make as much money as businesspeople,” he laughs. The next best thing was real estate investment. “Plus, real estate business types are interesting to be around,” he says.

Diane Manno (right) posing for a photo in stylish company at the Bishop’s Basilica, September 2019

Another lifelong passion has been art, and he paints to this day, although he modestly refers to his attempts at painting as “throw[ing] a bunch of colors at a canvas… I have to have that perfect day, when it’s miserable outside, and I don’t feel guilty that I am not doing my taxes.” He is also an avid art collector, so with art, he admits, laughing, money usually goes out rather than in. The one and only work of art he has sold was purchased by his aunt, for $5. Tony was five.

His involvement with BAEF was the only unforeseen part of Tony’s life plan and it came through a recommendation: his boss recommended him to then BAEF chairman Gary MacDougal. Although his Mediterranean, part Sicilian and part North Italian, looks sometimes confuse people into addressing him in Bulgarian—and he was once, memorably, mistaken for a famous Bulgarian wrestler—Tony knew nothing about Bulgaria and had to look it up on a map when he was first called to serve on the board of the Bulgarian-American Enterprise Fund toward the close of the 1990s. His wife, Diane, encouraged him to accept. “She is more of an adventurer than I am,” Tony says, with pride.

The early stages of capitalism taking root were an exciting time, the Mannos discovered, one in which stories like Ameta’s, a failing company turned Southeast Europe’s biggest poultry producer, became possible. “That [Ameta] was a huge risk for the Fund,” Tony admits. But with the right people at the helm, it became “one of the biggest turnarounds I have seen.”

Tony has seen many other things change for the better in the country from those initial trips in the early 2000s, when hordes of stray dogs prowled the streets of Sofia and buskers walking bears on a leash were not an uncommon sight downtown. During board visits to grantees, he would often think: “Wow, we have it so well in the United States.”

Tony admits to being baffled, initially, by the other directors’ passion for the Fund and their willingness to fight for it, even though it was so far removed from their own lives and business interests. “[In the early days] I’d look around the room, [at] these brilliant people, they would embrace it like they were trying to make partner at Goldman Sachs, and I couldn’t really understand for the first several years. And then I finally got it: they want to be engaged because they enjoy it! [These] people don’t want to sit back and play golf. They want to be in the flow, they want to be doing things.”

The Ralph Carr Judicial Center in Denver, Colorado, has served as host to dozens of Bulgarian judges, lawyers, and prosecutors participating in ABF-supported programs.

That shared resolve to make a difference in Bulgaria and Tony’s own belief in free market opportunity and justice solidified his own commitment and persuaded him to stay on at the Foundation after BAEF wound down its activities and sold its assets in 2008. For all of the twenty years the Mannos have been coming to Bulgaria, Tony has worked full-time. He and Diane have raised three daughters and are now helping with their five grandkids. And their relationship with Bulgaria is set to continue.

“You can see how things can devolve if you don’t protect the private sector,” Tony says of his continuing involvement. “That’s why we continue to fight for private sector development and the rule of law.”

For his service on the BAEF board, in 2008 Tony Manno received the President’s Call to Service Award, the highest distinction for volunteer service awarded by the US President.

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