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Greek of the Week Features John Calamos

New Greek TV's featured Greek of the Week is John Calamos.

Calamos has been consistently quoted as an authority on risk-managed investment strategies in Forbes, The Wall Street Journal, Barrons, CNBC, Fortune, Pensions and Investments, Bloomberg Forum, and Nation's Business, among others.

The Greek-American investment leader is the recipients of the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur Of The Year Award in the financial services category, Lake Michigan Area program for 2006. He has authored two books: Investing in Convertible Securities: Your Complete Guide to the Risks and Rewards and Convertible Securities: the Latest Instruments, Portfolio Strategies, and Valuation Analysis.

The self-made Hellenic tycoon offered a descriptive interview below that includes the secrets to his success, the launch of Calamos Investments LLC, the importance of philosophy, his Greek background, and more.

Maria Athens: How would you describe yourself?

John Calamos: Independent, risk-taker.

Maria Athens: Can you tell us about your upbringing and education?

John Calamos: I grew up on Chicago's West Side. In the 1940s and '50s Greeks in the U.S. were either running restaurants or grocery shops. As such, my father had his own grocery shop and we lived upstairs on the second floor of the shop. There was a large Greek community at my high school, and I also attended the Assumption Greek Orthodox Parish Sunday School. Later, I went to college at Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT), earned an undergraduate degree in economics 1963; and an M.B.A. in finance 1970.

I was the first member of my extended family to go to college. In the days when I was attending school, you were required to take Reserve Officer Training. I had a couple of years of that, then transferred to IIT, but I got a bit bored about the things I was going to be doing. I reflected about becoming a pilot, so I volunteered for the Air Force. It was a good decision and it taught me a lot. I served 5 years in the Air Force as a combat pilot, including a tour in Vietnam and ultimately earned the rank of major.

Maria Athens: Can you offer us a brief overview of your career?

John Calamos: My interest in finance was initially triggered as a teen after discovering Depression-era stock certificates in the basement of my parents' home. Later, during my time in the Air Force I became intrigued by the risk management aspects of convertible bonds. In 1977, I started an investment firm specializing in the fledgling convertible securities market. By applying option price theory to the valuation of convertibles, I was able to demonstrate the benefit of convertibles as part of an investment strategy and began to attract institutional investors and fame.

My firm is now known as Calamos Investments LLC, a $26-billion global asset management firm where I am the Chairman, Chief Executive Officer, and Global Co-Chief Investment Officer. I've gained recognition not just for taking risks, but also for knowing how to manage them, a skill I credit to my time in the Air Force. Parallel to investing, there are so many factors influencing the outcomes; you try to quantify as many as possible. But there are still those outlier risks. You could know everything about the airplane, but if you end up flying in a thunderstorm—it all goes away. You cannot avoid risk, therefore, you must have all the information available to manage risk.

Maria Athens: Do you participate in any Greek-American initiatives?

John Calamos: I am Chairman of the National Hellenic Museum in Chicago, America's only national institution that interprets the American experience through the history of Greek immigrants, and the contributions of Greek-Americans to the American mosaic, while celebrating their rich Greek history and culture and the profound impact of their Hellenic heritage upon the world. The NHM also offers a rich slate of school programs acquainting children with Greek history and culture. Anything we can do to help motivate kids to become educated is worthwhile.

In four years of college, my whole mindset changed completely. One of the larger factors that brought me closer to my Hellenic heritage was the study of philosophy. I could have majored in philosophy. To this date I feel very strongly that our children need to learn more about philosophy. They need to learn how to think, not what to think.

Maria Athens: Where are your origins in Greece? What generation Greek-American are you? Are you a fluent Greek speaker?

John Calamos: I am a second generation Greek-American, born in Chicago in 1940. My father migrated to the United States in 1915 from a small village in Arcadia. My mother was American born, but her family originated from the wider region of Tripoli, in the Peloponnese.

I did not learn Greek as a child. My parents were fluent in Greek and they would speak Greek to each other but unfortunately not to us, because they wanted us to assimilate. When I look back, I wish I had learnt Greek, but my mother was so determined for us to assimilate.

Maria Athens: How does your ethnicity impact your daily life?

John Calamos: Greek-American culture taught me it was very important how we viewed ourselves. Pride in my Greek heritage was a source of strength for me. In one of the schools that I went to, in those days we had factions, this is what we call bullying nowadays. Well they didn't bully me, they called me "the Greek." Where did that come from, the confidence? It comes from who you are. It wasn't so much something that was taught, it was inherited in our culture.

Maria Athens: What character traits influenced your success?

John Calamos: I have always been a risk-taker. I guess I don't listen well to other people; if I think something is right to do, it's what I'm going to do. I just went my own way and made my own mistakes. I think about that a lot. If I had taken other people's advice, would I have taken the chances that now have made me a success? In addition, contemplating a situation and then making an informed and logical decision regarding its outcome seem second nature for me. Ensure that you educate yourself about the risk, then try to think about what might go wrong and what you would do.

Introduction to the famous philosophers through my undergraduate coursework taught me how to really think. Philosophy asks, 'What assumptions did you use here and why did you use them?' To me, that was eye-opening. As a young boy growing up in the Greek Orthodox Church, my global view was very narrow from a religious point of view. That all changed when I went to college and gained knowledge about the history of philosophy.

Maria Athens: What is your best advice?

John Calamos: I tell my kids and grandchildren that philosophy teaches you how to think, and that is the most important thing that you can get out of school. That means if you are thinking right you make the right choice and that's very important. As chairman of the Hellenic Museum, one of our goals is that future generations have a strong sense of their culture. It's extremely important to do that. As I tell people, you don't know where you are going unless you know where you've been. To me that was very important while I was growing up.