THE IOS STORY, OR
"Do you sincerely want to be rich?" was the question Bernie Cornfeld always posed to potential salesmen for Investors Overseas Services (IOS) in the 1960s. Since Cornfeld, founder and president of the then rapidly growing company, rarely received a negative response, he had no trouble building an army of IOS salesmen that in its heyday reached a total of 76,000.
Cornfeld actually started with a good idea, to sell mutual funds to Americans living overseas and so allow them to participate in the U.S. securities market. But his version of"people's capitalism" got away from him in the bullish atmosphere of the 60s, and by the end of the decade he was heading an empire with 250,000 investors and some $2.3 billion in assets.
Thus, when the market began to plummet in 1970, IOS headquarters in Ferney-Voltaire, France (just across the border from Geneva, which had kicked IOS out two years earlier) was flooded with requests for redemptions. Company management panicked and threw Cornfeld out, then looked for a savior whose charisma would equal that of their former leader. They thought they had such a person in Robert Lee Vesco.
Their decision marked the beginning of the end for IOS, and with the company's slow and painful demise came the beginning of what would become the longest-running, farthest-reaching liquidation in history. Indeed, historians may one day call it the most significant international liquidation ever to have taken place.