From Toronto to CNN, He's All Business
The Toronto Star
by Leslie Scrivener
NEW YORK – People are always popping out of nowhere wanting to talk to Ali Velshi.
On West 58th St., near CNN's Manhattan studios, a man in a ball cap and jeans, his yellow shirt-tails hanging out, calls out to Velshi, the network's chief business correspondent.
“Hi, Ali,” he says, looking as pleased as if he's run into an old friend.
“I like your show. You've got some good tips on it.”
A short time later, the Toronto-raised broadcaster is the newsroom at the Time Warner Center when someone pays a courtesy call.
It's T. Boone Pickens, the 80-year-old billionaire Texas oilman and born-again advocate for renewable energy.
Pickens, who has made and lost fortunes several times over, has become a missionary preaching to America about reducing its dependence on “foreign oil” and promoting the benefit of wind farms.
Why visit Velshi? The broadcaster has access to opinion makers and an audience that numbers in the millions. “Just trying to stay in touch,” Pickens says at the end of a friendly, 30-minute conversation.
It's been that way since the economy turned sour last year: U.S. business leaders dropping by, just to stay in touch. And over the course of the turbulent winter and anxious spring, through the U.S. government bailout program, the collapse of venerable financial institutions, the credit freeze, the decline in consumer spending and the loss of millions of jobs, Velshi, 39, has become one of CNN's most recognized and valued stars.
He is also the author of a new book, Gimme My Money Back, a guide for investors ready to rebuild after the collapse of the financial markets. It's a slim, how-to volume, quickly written – 40 days from inception to publication.
With his three-piece suit, surprising plaid shirts and smooth, hairless head, Velshi is easy to recognize when he's out on the street. And people are always asking him things like, “Should I sell my GM stock?” or “Has the market hit bottom?”
“I don't really give'tips,' ” he says, explaining that his work is more “macro.” He is an interpreter of the economy, pointing out trends and giving context.
Velshi dispenses his analysis as co-host of the weekend business show Your $$$$$, host of the weekly radio/online call-in program The Ali Velshi Show, and regular commentator on The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer, Anderson Cooper 360°, and other local, national and international news shows.
Next month, he's back home, speaking at ideaCity, Toronto's annual gathering of leading thinkers.
Velshi doesn't have the square-jawed appeal of the late Peter Jennings of ABC World News Tonight, nor the boyish good looks of CNN American Morning anchor John Roberts – both, like him, Canadians who rose to the top in U.S broadcasting. “I have no angles on my face,” Velshi laments. “I look like a boiled egg.”
But with his rich baritone voice, his personable style and his distinctive, friendly appearance, he has on-air charisma. “It's called 'Q,' explains Amanda Lang, co-anchor of the business/politics show SqueezePlay on Canada's Business News Network. “It's likeability, a measure of how popular someone is with an audience. Oprah has off-the-charts Q. It's not about how beautiful you are, it's about viewers liking you, and he's always had it.”
Velshi's style is intimate, and it's the people side of the story he likes. “Call back, I like talking to you,” he recently told John, calling from California. His Canadian sensibility shows in his defence of public health care and a minimum wage: “People who oppose the minimum wage should go out and work for it, for a change,” he said on his radio show.
Viewers, like the man on West 58th, feel connected, as if they know Velshi. “People need to trust you,” Lang says. “That's exactly what Q is about. Viewers need to think you are looking out for them. They trust (Ali is) going to help them understand.”
Last year, before the depths of the financial crisis, Jon Stewart mocked Velshi on The Daily Show. “Who is that hairless prophet of doom and how can we appease his anger, please,” Stewart said. “If we give you our hair, will you give us back our money?”
It was a funny metaphor, but especially so for Velshi because at his core, he is an optimist. “Am I worried about the money I invested?” he writes in Gimme My Money Back. “Not really. I've made a long-term commitment to my investment plan. Despite the current turbulence, I know the market will recover and my investments will grow.”
The energy of the planet's six billion people, he goes on to say, “will propel us forward.”
He partly credits his businessman father, Murad, a former Ontario MPP who was elected in the old riding of Don Mills (now part of Don Valley West), for his sunny view of life. “I think the world's a good place and people are good…” says Velshi. “I grew up with the sense it's gonna work, but you have to take a great deal of responsibility. That meant you had to work.”
The atmosphere in the family home was rather serious. “(Conversations were) always fact-based… At no time did entertainment take over what was watched in our house. (News) was our pop culture.”
He adds: “There wasn't a lot of conversation about money. That wasn't the driver – justice was a bigger issue.”
The Velshis belong to the Ismaili branch of Islam, led by the Aga Khan. Their forebears are from Gujarat state in India, though Murad and Mila, Ali's mother, grew up in South Africa. Ali's great-grandfather was a friend of Gandhi, who arrived in South Africa in 1893; his grandfather was a student in a Gandhi-organized school; and an uncle took part in passive-resistance anti-apartheid actions.
As apartheid became more oppressive, Velshi's parents were forced to sell their bakery, which had been in the family for four decades, and in 1960 they moved to Nairobi, where Ali was born. When he was a year old, they visited Pakistan, England and New York City, looking for a new home, finally settling their young family – which included Ali's elder sister, Ishrath, now an Ottawa mother – in Canada. “The comfort factor was here,” says Murad, now 74.
The elder Velshis still occupy the North Toronto house where they raised their children. Murad and Mila ran a chain of travel agencies. Ali was a bright, sociable boy who became student-council president at Northern Secondary – he liked politicking and people.
Later at Queen's University, where he studied religion, he was involved in student government. In between studies, he worked part-time in clothing stores – including Harry Rosen and Stollery's – and though he has a reputation as a dandy, he says he liked selling more than the clothes themselves.
Velshi's photograph ended up on the front page of The Kingston Whig-Standard on Oct. 8, 1992, when he was thrown out of a political rally for Reform leader Preston Manning. Organizers had refused to take questions from the floor, and Velshi, a well-dressed student in khakis, a tie and a blazer, stood up and questioned Manning directly. “I was proud he could take a stand,” says Murad, “but seeing him ejected…”
While his family thought he'd become a lawyer or doctor, Velshi chose print journalism – he'd worked at the university's radio station and newspaper, The Journal. He couldn't get a newspaper job, but he did win some prestigious internships – at CNN's Crossfire and in the Paris bureau of 60 Minutes.
In 1993 he became a booking producer on Canada AM. The next year, he was working at CFTO as a reporter. “I was terrible, uncomfortable in my own skin,” Velshi recalls. “I hated me on TV.”
But he made some friends, among them Tom Clark, now CTV's sometime anchor and senior political correspondent, who remembers Velshi's “volcanic” energy but also the fact that “all the confidence he exuded when he walked in the room seemed to disappear on air. He didn't know how to project or phrase a sentence.”
He wasn't suited to chasing the news or covering city council, Clark thought. “When I met his parents, with their civic responsibility – and they were quite the entrepreneurs – I started putting it all together. His future wasn't in fire trucks but financial futures.”
After a congressional internship in the U.S., and a year working with his parents in South Africa, where they returned for a time, he was back at CTV as a national news writer. By 1997, he was business anchor for CablePulse 24 and Citytv, by '99, a host at ROB-TV. The week of 9/11 he was riding his motorcycle to New York to begin his job at CNN.
“He was the one who shone,” says Pat Kiernan, another Canadian expatriate – he's from Edmonton – who first worked with Velshi on ROB-TV. Now morning anchor on NY1, a 24-hour news channel, Kiernan is as recognizable as Velshi on New York streets.
The two worked together on a CNNfn show called The Money Gang, until the network killed it in 2004. “He was the one they wanted to keep,” recalls Kiernan, “but they still didn't know what to do with him.”
Velshi won major assignments out of his beat, including Benazir Bhutto's assassination in Pakistan and hurricanes Katrina and Gustav.
Then, with the 2008 presidential election and the economic crisis, Velshi was back in business. “Suddenly, every show wanted a piece of Ali,” says Kiernan. Sometimes 10 or more different CNN programs – radio, international, affiliates – will ask Velshi to comment when a business story breaks. Velshi agrees, partly out of a sense of obligation, and partly because he enjoys talking about issues “live,” says Kiernan.
The risk of so much exposure is not having the time to be the authoritative journalist Velshi is known to be. “His popularity as an on-air reporter sometimes works against what makes him good at his job,” says Kiernan, who notes that his friend loves “reading The Wall Street Journal from front to back without taking five phone calls.”
Velshi routinely works 14- to 16-hour days and has a rollout cot in his office. Married briefly in his 20s, he's now engaged to Lori Wachs, a Philadelphia portfolio manager he met on his show.
Though he is part of New York's media elite, his tastes remain modest. Recently, the chief marketing officer for a giant tech company invited him to the posh Jean Georges restaurant (“sea trout sashimi draped in trout eggs” is on the lunch menu). He went, but says expensive restaurants are lost on him. “I'm a Swiss Chalet, KFC kind of guy… I could have eaten for $8.”
This is what his friend Lang calls the “low-brow Ali face…It implies he's kind of a rube, but he's really not… He can tell you the contents of this week's Economist and Harper's, but he'd rather be at KFC when he does it.”
Velshi lives on the Upper West Side, a 25-minute walk to work. He rarely drives his Nissan Xterra SUV, and owns a motorcycle, a Suzuki Intruder, which he rode last week to an interview with the hosts of the TV show American Chopper in upstate New York. Despite his Philippe Starck glasses, custom suits and assertive plaid shirts – “I don't have hair; this is the only fun I can have” – he likes the outdoor life: He's gone off-roading in Namibia and has climbed Mount Kilimanjaro twice.
With Velshi's family history of politics, Liberal party honchos have tagged him as a potential candidate, but he says he's not ready. He's thinks about getting an MBA and has spoken to The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. “Just to get better at what I do. I don't have any formal training in business.”
But then, how much better could it get? “When the ride's this good, you want to keep riding.”