He’s a skilled investor and chairman of the company that owns the salvage rights to the Titanic. (That last bit usually gets a “Wait — what?”)
But there’s a whole lot more to Sellers.
He dropped out of Michigan State University to travel as a musician with rock bands, living gig to gig. Later, as a big money guy surrounded by millions, he told the Harvard University investment club that the best investors are good writers. Every once in a while he heads to the woods by himself to camp. He’s a member of MENSA — the high IQ society. He won a Songwriter of the Year award. He recently went skydiving. He’ll spend three weeks in October in Nepal teaching English to Buddhist monks. He’s a human calculator.
“Ask him what 5,420 divided by 135 is, and he’ll tell you right away,” his mother says. “It’s really kind of scary.
“He’s a very surprising person,” she adds. “But he doesn’t talk about himself much.”
Ice clinks in glasses and mellow jazz plays as the lunch rush winds down at HopCat. The bar’s famous “crack fries” seem to be on every plate. Sellers heads upstairs to a leather-chair-filled lounge and tells the story of how all the bouncing around he did as a kid helped make him the kind of guy who goes from English major to rock musician to stock analyst to hedge-fund operator to Titanic protector to beer bar owner.
He grew up in Grand Rapids but moved around a lot. He started out in Montessori schools, but by fourth grade his parents had split up and he moved to Saranac and public school. Then he spent four years living in Ada, a year at Grand Rapids Christian High and finally ended his school career at East Kentwood High School.
“I didn’t have any continuity in my school life or in my family life,” he says. “Looking back, it was pretty disruptive to my childhood.”
His younger brother, John, wrote a book about their eccentric dad, who’s also named Mark: “The Old Man and the Swamp: a True Story About My Weird Dad, a Bunch of Snakes and One Ridiculous Road Trip.”
The senior Mark Sellers is a former associate pastor who ditched that career to chase after snakes. When Sellers and his brothers, John and Matt, were kids, their dad would take off for long periods of snake surveying for various state fish and wildlife departments.
His mom is a retired English teacher who taught at Forest Hills Central High School and Grand Rapids Community College. She has a Ph.D.
He gained good things from each of his parents, Sellers says.
“My mom taught me about good work ethic and how to be a good person,” he says. “And I get my liberal side from my dad. I’m very, very, very open-minded. I don’t judge people. As long as you’re not hurting anybody, I don’t care what you do.”
All that moving around helped shape who he is today, he says.
“I’ve reinvented myself as an adult now three times,” he says. He smiles. “Who knows? Maybe I’ll do it again.”
Despite being a bar owner, Sellers calls himself an introvert. “I’m the one who comes up with the concept and handles the business,” he says. “I wouldn’t be good behind the bar.”
It’s important to know that kind of stuff about yourself, he says.
“Nine-tenths of life is finding out what you’re good at,” Sellers says. “Then, do it.”
Sellers is good at a lot of things. His colleague Garry Boyd calls him “freaky intelligent.” But he had a rocky start. He dropped out of MSU, where he was studying English.
“I didn’t know what I wanted to do, so I stopped going to classes and failed every one of them,” he says.
His English-teacher mom was appalled.
Then, at age 20, he decided he wanted to be a jazz pianist — only he didn’t know how to play piano, so he took some lessons, then practiced obsessively.
“I practiced 12 hours a day,” he says. “I’d go to a coffee shop and sit there for hours on end, memorizing the notes. Then I’d go home and play them on the piano. I progressed pretty quickly.”
“Mark loves a challenge,” his mother says. “He loves to start with something he knows nothing about, then succeed at it.”
Sellers auditioned for the Berklee College of Music in Boston — the best jazz school in the country, he says.
“I played Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight Sonata’ and a jazz song called ‘Autumn Leaves,’” he says. “They let me in.”
But after a year, he dropped out.
“I realized you only need a degree if you want to teach,” he says. “Bands don’t care if you have a degree. They only care if you can play.”
He joined a rock band in California and spent the next few years playing keyboard and guitar in bands with names like Radio I Ching and Two-Headed Sam. It was just like you’d imagine, he says.
“I’d wake up at 11, go to Starbucks, smoke three cigarettes on the patio,” he recalls. “Back then you could get coffee refills for 10 cents. I’d save my cup for four days.”
He and his band mates traveled in a beat-up van, living on the $150 they earned for each gig. Slowly, Sellers realized he liked the business end more than playing music. So he went back to MSU, took accounting classes and became obsessed with Warren Buffet. His grade point average this time around: 4.0.
“I figured out what I wanted to do,” he says. “I wanted to be an investor. And I didn’t pick that career for the money; I picked it because I was good at it. Pick your job based on what you’re good at.”
After graduating from college, he landed a job with GE Capital in Chicago, at the same time earning a master’s degree in business administration at Northwestern University. Then he moved to the Morningstar investment firm as chief equities strategist.
His English background came in handy: Morningstar put him in charge of its customer newsletter, which had a circulation of about 8,000 readers. The newsletter bored the heck out of him so he scrapped it and started over, spicing it up with investor tips and stock trends. By the time he left Morningstar, its circulation had soared to 40,000.
His mother recalls: “I met somebody in Copenhagen on a tourist boat there, and said something about my son writing a newsletter for Morningstar. The guy said, ‘Your son is Mark Sellers? Tell him he can’t leave there until I retire.’ I guess Mark helped him make a lot of money.”
But what Sellers really wanted was to start his own hedge fund. He left Morningstar to start Sellers Capital, and by 2008, he was managing a $300 million portfolio.
The guy who used to save his Starbucks cup for days to get 10-cent refills now had plenty of money.
“For a while, I thought I couldn’t do anything wrong,” he says. “I had the golden touch. Then, when the market crashed in 2008, that went away real fast.”
He lost half his money in one quarter.
“It’s easy to lose sight of who you really are when you have money,” he says. “That’s a lesson I learned that I won’t ever forget.”
Sellers sold all of his funds’ stocks except one — Premier Exhibitions. Sellers is chairman of the company that holds salvage rights to the Titanic and operates touring exhibitions including “Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition,” which just spent several successful months at the Grand Rapids Public Museum.
The Titanic connection makes for pretty cool dinner party conversation.
“At the time, the sinking of the Titanic was as big a story in the press as 9-11 was for us,” he says. The story has everything, Sellers says: greed, class conflict between the rich and poor, the arrogance of owners who thought their ship could defy nature.
“Then there’s the buried treasure.”
But Sellers wasn’t thinking about any of that when he bought the stock in Premier Exhibitions.
“I bought the stock because I thought it was undervalued,” he says. “But over time, I’ve really come to care about the artifacts. I own 35 percent of the company. It’s my duty to protect it from people who would pilfer from it, or people who would hide the whole thing away.”
Sellers loves to travel and has hit every U.S. state except for North and South Dakota. He’s visited dozens of countries. He figures he’s been to more than a thousand bars and breweries all over the world. Those visits inspired his bar designs.
“A bar is a work of art — everybody decides for themselves whether it’s good or not. I don’t draw or paint, so I express myself through my bars.”
He recently opened a second HopCat in East Lansing.
“Having a bar is like a party you throw seven days a week. All you can give people is a good time,” Sellers says.
Sellers likes to say how he and his wife, Michele, opened HopCat so they’d have a bar they liked to go to. The couple is going through a divorce, but Sellers continues to see his bars through the customer’s experience.
“You could be sitting at the bar next to the owner and not realize it,” says Sellers’ business colleague Garry Boyd. (One clue: He’d likely be drinking a Shorts Brewing Co. Huma Lupa Licious.)
“He looks at everything from the customer’s view,” says Boyd, whose title at BarFly Ventures — the holding company of Sellers’ Grand Rapids bars — is “ringleader,” which is way more fun to have on a business card than “operations manager.” That viewpoint is part of Sellers’ success, Boyd says. That, and what Boyd calls a “maniacal” drive to succeed.
“He’s constantly elevating, always wanting to make things better,” Boyd says. “Then, when the rest of us get to that point, he says, ‘Hey, while I was waiting for you guys, I built another level.’”
Sellers loves movies and barbecue and the bands Pavement and Guided by Voices. He’s a foodie who doesn’t cook.
Does he collect anything? “Memories,” he says.
Sellers talks passionately about fair trade and how coffee farmers and other farmers in Third World countries are taken advantage of, barely making enough money to survive. His mother says he’s always had a strong sense of justice. She tells of running into one of his former classmates, now working at a video store. All the kids used to bully him.
“He said, ‘Your sons were the only boys who were nice to me,’” she recalls.
Sellers still talks of giving things away.
“Before I die, I’m going to give away all my money to charities,” Sellers says. “I’m not religious, so I won’t be giving it to any organizations with religious affiliations. It wouldn’t be fair to pick just one religion.”
You have to wonder: What happened to the musician? Any sign of him?
Sellers smiles. He reaches into his jeans pocket and pulls out his phone. He starts scrolling.
“I keep this list of band names,” he explains. When he thinks of a good one, he makes a note of it.
“How about Breakdancing Unicorns?” he reads from the list. “Atomic Cog. Hot Cheeseburger. Safecracker. Snaggletooth.”
He grins. “I have a lot of names.”
You never know when a guy might need one. GR