He still calls himself the Wolf of Wall Street, but Jordan Belfort claims he’s a changed man.
“What I did was wrong,” the notorious former stockbroker, now 51 and a successful motivational speaker, told an eager audience of business professionals in Toronto earlier this month.
“The mistake I made back then is I lost my ethics, and any gains you make without ethics are going to be short-lived, I promise you.”
What he did, of course, is the stuff of Hollywood legend. Belfort authored a best-selling memoir detailing his own misdeeds in the 1990s when, as head of the New Jersey-based brokerage firm Stratton Oakmont, he helped to swindle investors out of more than $200 million. Last year, the real-life financial drama hit the silver screen, grossing more than $300 million at the box office and picking up five Oscar nominations under the direction of Martin Scorsese, including Best Motion Picture of the Year.
Belfort claims he hasn’t made a penny off his story after selling the movie right for about $1 million. But he did work closely with Leonardo DiCaprio to help the actor get the essence of the film’s bad-boy character just right –from his brash Queens brogue to his frequent use of the f-word (a trait Belfort continues to unapologetically employ today).
“I’m from New York and I worked on Wall Street,” he said.
But Belfort insists he’s no longer the arrogant young guy depicted in the film.
He was arrested in 1998 and, in a bid to reduce his prison time, pleaded guilty a year later to charges of securities fraud and money laundering.
In 2003, he was sentenced to four years in jail and ordered to repay his victims $110 million. He was also banned for life from working in securities industry. He was released in April 2005, after serving just 22 months in prison, where he shared a cell with legendary comedian Tommy Chong.
Indeed, Belfort credits Chong, who was serving time for selling bongs over the internet, with encouraging him to write down his outlandish life story. He claims he also used the jail time to re-evaluate his life and, ultimately, reinvent himself as a more benevolent man who, today, preaches about the dangers of unchecked greed and excess.
“I lost everything and had to start again,” he said.
One thing that hasn’t changed is Belfort’s love of money. The man who once made millions duping financial clients and manipulating stocks claims he is now on track to earn between $50 and $100 million this year as a motivational speaker and sales trainer.
“If I am not making $10 million a year, I am uncomfortable and working really hard,” he told the Toronto audience, who paid between $129 and $795 to hear him speak for three hours.
Belfort recently wrapped up similar seminars in three more Canadian cities, including Vancouver, Montreal and Calgary. Last week, he flew to Dubai where he said he was offered $150,000 a day for his motivational and sales-training expertise.
His technique is something of a cross between Tony Robbins and The Secret, delivered with plenty of profanity and a few stories of his debauched past, including references to his illegal drug use and dalliances with women.
Belfort frequently encouraged his audience members to stand up, shout out affirmations of success and high five each other. He was careful to frequently pepper his messages with reminders of the importance of ethical behaviour and generousity.
“Most people think, ‘If I’m rich, I’ll become greedy’,” he said. “But money just makes you more of what you already are. It’s like alcohol. If you are an asshole, it makes you a bigger asshole. If you are a well-intentioned human being … money will magnify that.”
Belfort’s reputation as a reformed man has been increasingly challenged recently. Many feel he has fallen far short of his obligation to repay his victims the money he owes. Since leaving jail, he has reportedly paid about $11.6 million in restitution, most of that coming from property forfeited as part of his sentencing deal.
In an interview with 60 Minutes, Belfort stormed out of an interview with journalist Liz Hayes after she questioned his finances and whether he was attempting to hide money.
Belfort has since fired back, calling the interview a “hatchet job.” He said he is meeting his legal repayment obligations.
He has also announced a so-called Redemption Tour of 45 U.S. cities, beginning this year, with all proceeds going to his victims. He said he expects to earn between $50 and $100 million from the tour – enough to pay off all that he owes.
Many people who came out to the speaking engagement in Toronto said they were drawn by Belfort’s larger-than-life persona and his celebrity status as the “real” Wolf of Wall Street.
But they were less interested in his controversial past than they were with his ability to sell.
Sarah Wettlaufer, a hair stylist in Kitchener, Ont., said she watched the movie and was impressed by Belfort’s passion and ability to influence both colleagues and clients.
“In our industry we sell ourselves and we sell beauty. We are always trying to get our clients to believe in us and to be more confident in themselves. I just think that any time you can get a little more inspiration and ideas, that is beneficial to any business, really,” she said.
Mortgage agent Daniel Char said he loved both the movie and book, and wanted to learn more about Belfort’s sales tactics.
“Yes, there is a moral issue on how you use it, but it is more about how he motivates people. He changes the minds of individuals and can make you buy something that you normally wouldn’t buy … It’s a powerful tool,” Char said.
Real estate agent Omar Samad admitted he knew little about Belfort until he saw the movie, and was impressed by his ability to pick himself back up following catastrophic professional and personal ruin.
“People who are able to do that usually exude energy that I am hoping I am able to draw from today,” Samad said.
Not everyone in the room was convinced, however, Belfort has truly reformed.
Bill Buckner, who owns an insurance brokerage in Toronto said he wrestled with the decision to come hear Belfort talk, but, after seeing the movie, decided to hear what the real wolf had to say for himself.
“Quite frankly,” he said before the talk began, “leopards don’t normally change their spots.”
Realtor Virginia Munden was equally skeptical. Munden said brought her 20-year-old son, Cole, to the seminar to teach him “the right and wrong way to do business.”
“I want him to know that when you work unethically with people, when you fool around and take advantage of people for your own personal gain, you eventually will fail. I think this was a good eye-opener for him,” Munden said.
Marcie Panos, who said she works in advertising sales, said Belfort, like him or not, has an important lesson to teach others.
“It doesn’t matter what he does, if he was selling pencils from the side of the street, whatever he has touched he has always managed to succeed – actually, to succeed and fail and succeed and fail, again,” she said.
“He’s like an elastic band that stretches but never breaks. There is some real strength there.”