When Vad Yazvinski came to the U.S. from Belarus in 2001, he had $200 and a promised dishwashing job at a North Carolina country club.
Things have changed in a relatively short time.
The 28-year-old is now chief investment officer at The Jordan Company in Columbus. Before that, he worked his way up from financial analyst to manager of corporate strategy at TSYS in less than four years.
Web site viewers check out his investment strategies on MSN Money's Strategy Lab, a stock-picking challenge where six top traders run mock portfolios and detail their moves.
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Inevitably, the road to Yazvinski's success involved barriers -- including limited English, no friends and no money. It also took losing thousands of dollars in investments and working more than 80 hours a week as a dishwasher, waiter and valet care attendant. "I think good things come to people who look for them," Yazvinski said. "Everything I achieved, no one gave it to me. I worked for it. You can build a life. If you just sit there and wait for somebody to give you something, it won't happen."
Journey to America
Yazvinski was born in 1980 in Nesvizh, Belarus, an old city in the Minsk Province. The Eastern European country was under Soviet rule for about 70 years before it declared its independence in 1991. Still, it retains close ties to Russia and its current president, Alexander Lukashenko, has implemented Soviet-era policies that control the economy, media, religion and more.
"They call it the last dictatorship in Europe," Yazvinski said.
As a young student, Yazvinski would frequently win competitions in geography and economics. But victory would mean sharing the glory with his classmates -- no matter how hard he worked to excel.
"It was rough. I'm a very driven person," Yazvinski said. "Everybody has to be sort of equal. You can't stand out."
"You'd get recognition, but that's it," he added. "It didn't lead to anything." So after he graduated from college in Belarus, the barely 21-year-old Yazvinski decided to leave his parents and younger brother and move to the U.S. through an international students program.
He didn't know anyone when he arrived in New York City. He had $200 in his pocket -- half of which he spent on a one-way Greyhound ticket to North Carolina the next day.
He travelled to the town of Highlands, a small community in the Smoky Mountains of western North Carolina. He was set up through the program to work for the summer at one of the country clubs in town, where the current population is a little more than 1,100 residents year-round.
"I did every job possible," Yazvinski said.
He started as a dishwasher and worked other jobs including valet parking attendant and waiter. Yazvinski would rack up 80 to 90 hours a week working.
After a few months, he moved onto another country club in town. That's where he met George Shook, general manager of Wildcat Cliffs Country Club.
Yazvinski was working as a dishwasher when Shook asked him to help on the operations side of the country club. Within a year, Yazvinski was promoted to clubhouse manager.
In 2003, he was finally able to pay for college tuition at Western Carolina University -- thanks to a scholarship from the country club.
Passion for learning
Yazvinski had always been interested in investing, ever since he watched the 1987 movie "Wall Street" starring Charlie Sheen and Michael Douglas.
He decided to try his hand at investing after he and his wife Hanna -- who moved to the U.S. from Belarus shortly after he did -- had saved up enough money from their country club jobs.
After about one-and-a-half years of working in the U.S., he put $10,000 in a new brokerage account. They lost 80 percent of that money.
"I was like, I need to learn how to fix this," he said.
So Yazvinski began reading investment books. During his senior year at the university, the management major also discovered an Internet site called Marketocracy.com.
The site allows users to build an investment track record with $1 million of virtual investment money. Their performance is tracked in real-time and follows the same SEC rules that mutual fund managers must follow.
The site, established in 2001, picks the top 100 performers and invests real money in their stock picks.
In about a year, Yazvinski was able to make the top 100. That's harder now, as the Web site requires users to have a track record of at least five years to make the list.
"I think in today's world, you have to have a basic understanding of how finance works," Yazvinski said. "But it's all standard. You don't get ahead by knowing that."
You get ahead, Yazvinski said, by analyzing behavior -- what companies might do with the given information.
Ken Kam, co-founder of Marketocracy.com, said the Web site opens up the opportunity of investing to everyone -- with virtual money, at least.
Kam said he feels "terrific" knowing that the Web site helped Yazvinski learn and enhance his investment skills to help him get to where he is today. Yazvinski has outperformed the S&P 500, a leading stock trading index, by nearly 11 percent over the last five years. Yazvinski has been a Marketocracy.com portfolio manager since May 2003.
"I think there are a lot of people out there who have investment skill but didn't come up the traditional career path," Kam said. "Were it not for this data, I think they would have never had an opportunity to make a living from this skill."
"Most of the people on Wall Street... don't beat the market," Kam added. "The fact that Vad has beat the market for five years... that would put him at the very top of the professional rankings."
Life in Columbus
During his senior year, Yazvinski decided to switch to a double major in finance and accounting instead of management.
In 2004, he graduated from college. He had plenty of job offers from companies in North Carolina as well as on Wall Street in New York City. But Yazvinski and his wife decided to interview at the Columbus credit card processing company known as TSYS.
He had heard of Columbus because several country club members were from the area.
That year, he accepted a job as a financial analyst. Hanna took a job at TSYS as a computer programmer.
"Instead of going straight to investing, I wanted to see how a corporation worked," he said.
In three-and-a-half years, Yazvinski was promoted a couple of times before he settled in as manager of corporate strategy. In this position, he worked under Rick Covington, TSYS director of mergers, acquisitions and strategy.
"From a financial standpoint, his ability to analyze and look at things very quickly is remarkable," Covington said. "He combines confidence and an eagerness to listen to different ways of doing things... a rare combination."
For TSYS, Yazvinski helped evaluate potential acquisition targets. He was also instrumental in analyzing TSYS's latest acquisition, UK-based Card Tech Limited, Covington said.
In January, Yazvinski decided to head over to The Jordan Company to help evaluate their investments as chief investment officer. Yazvinski said he wants to learn how things are done at a private firm.
In his spare time, Yazvinski said he still enjoys learning something every day -- a passion to which he attributes his success.
"He was hungry to learn anything -- certainly hungry to learn specific things we were working on," Covington said. "He's one of those guys who can do pretty much whatever he sets his mind to."
As for the next step, Yazvinski is about to launch a hedge fund through The Jordan Company, but could not provide many details around the project.
He said he enjoys his job and believes Columbus is a good place to raise children. He and Hanna have a 2-year-old son, Stephan.
"This country has everything any young person could ask for. They just need to go out and get it," Yazvinski said. "If you put enough hard work and effort into it, you can achieve."