By his late 30s, Harry Wilson, son of a bartender and seamstress from upstate New York's rust belt, made his fortune as a hedge fund manager and didn't have to work anymore.
But after leaving Silver Point Capital in 2008, the Republican wrote a letter to Democratic President Barack Obama offering to help restructure the failing U.S. auto industry. The administration brought him on board and Wilson says that besides his family, he's proudest of his work last year on the General Motors turnaround. Instead of folding, it became a smaller company, with fewer workers, factories and products, and was paying lower wages to new hires. It emerged from bankruptcy in 40 days and posted two consecutive quarterly profits this year.
Now the Johnstown native with the Harvard MBA wants to do the same for New York, with its own financial crisis. He's running for a four-year term as comptroller, the state's chief financial officer, who with a staff of 2,500 reviews state contracts, audits state and local governments and manages the roughly $130 billion pension fund for public workers.
"I had many, many times gone through broken companies to fix their financials as well as their operations," Wilson said. "When people realize the organization's failing, and they realize that it's in jeopardy, you're more likely to be able to get compromises. And that's the case in General Motors. And I think that's the case in New York state."
Interviewed recently in the plush anteroom of the New York Senate in Albany, Wilson said his four young daughters were the motivation for giving up 20-hour workdays as a partner in Silver Point. He describes a state in financial crisis from high taxes, huge government deficits forecast, underfunded pensions and retiree health care obligations.
"I look at their futures based on how the state's going, and I don't see how their futures can be as good as their present," Wilson said. New York has strong core assets, including intellectual property at research centers, its work force, natural resources, freely available land, water access and New York City, the world's financial capital, though one where many of the wealthy capitalists live in lower-tax Connecticut.
"These things about the state, they're being suffocated by our leadership and regulatory burden," he said. "If you can strip those things out, and improve them, I think you can liberate those assets and start growing again."
Wilson will turn 39 later this month. This is his first run for public office, opposed by incumbent Democrat Thomas DiNapoli, a longtime Assemblyman from Long Island who was chosen by the Legislature three years ago to replace Comptroller Alan Hevesi, who resigned amid scandal. If elected, Wilson said, he will put his investments into a blind trust.
He reported adjusted gross income of $6.2 million in 2008, paying more than $2 million in federal and state taxes, and has not publicly disclosed his net worth. He will take the comptroller's $151,500 annual salary, according to campaign spokesman William O'Reilly.
A Quinnipiac poll of likely voters released Friday showed DiNapoli leading Wilson 49 to 31 percent, with 20 percent undecided and 38 percent who might change their minds. Some 90 percent said they didn't know enough about Wilson to have an opinion.
Wilson grew up in Johnstown, 38 miles northwest of Albany. He went to public schools, attended Harvard and was the first in his family to graduate from college. He worked four years in investment banking, got a master's degree, and then worked for a decade at the private investment firms Blackstone Group and Silver Point.
He saw his mother, who emigrated from Greece, lose her job sewing T-shirts for $6 an hour when the maker couldn't compete with offshore production at 50 cents an hour, Wilson said. "You have to have a viable business or it's not going to survive."
That's the point of restructuring broken enterprises: keeping the viable parts, fixing the fixable parts, and selling the rest, Wilson said. With General Motors, they aimed for labor costs on par with Toyota's U.S. factories and got union agreement. The outcome includes about 1,000 new jobs at revamped engine factories near Buffalo in Tonawanda, he said.
Wilson disputes criticism from DiNapoli that he made Wall Street millions at the expense of ordinary people who lost their mortgages and investments in the stock market meltdown and national recession. Silver Point had only a small brief investment in mortgage-backed securities, and he had nothing to do with that part of the business, he said.
About FiberMark, a fiber and paper manufacturer with an upstate factory in Lowville that Silver Point restructured, Wilson acknowledged cuts in staff, wages and benefits, but said employees now have viable jobs. The investors made "a lot of money" because they bought it cheaply when it was in bankruptcy and sold the restructured company at market price, he said.
"We created a business that was competitive," he said.
Wilson said the comptroller's office already conducts audits that identify waste, fraud and inefficiency, but needs to sharpen the focus on inefficiency, including within the major and politically sensitive state expenses of Medicaid, education and pensions. He said the pension fund needs a new sixth tier to push the costs lower for new hires. He said the fund needs a financial expert in the top job, that it missed $8 billion in potential earnings earlier this year, and should expect a more realistic 5 to 6 percent estimated return on investment with fewer risky assets, instead of the almost 8 percent current estimated investment return.