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THE LAST WORD

Bob Kerstein, CPA

Founder and CEO, Scripophily.com

By Linda Segall
September 2009
The Last Word

Stock and bond certificates, to most people, represent a measure of financial investment in a company. The kinds of stocks and bonds I deal with represent insight into financial history. People like me who buy them are scripophilists, collectors of historical stock and bond certificates.

 

I remember the day in 1990 when I caught the scripophily bug. I had moved to the Washington, D.C., area to head up the finance and technology functions of a satellite communications company. One weekend, I went to a Civil War collectibles show and visited a booth where they were selling Confederate bonds bearing an image of Stonewall Jackson. I laughed, because I thought the paper was worthless. Then I began to ponder the history behind the certificates. I realized the paper was part of the fabric of U.S. and financial history. I got hooked; I became a collector.

 

One of my favorite certificates—and one I will never sell—is a certificate issued on Oct. 29, 1929, the date of the stock market crash. The company name—Shadyside Operators—says it all! To me, this certificate is symbolic of the sad financial history of the ’20s with its get-rich-quick schemes and the lack of appropriate government control.

 

My hobby began growing exponentially in the early days of the Internet, when people were just starting to consider the Web’s commercial applications. Because I had been involved as chief financial officer for technology companies, I quickly realized the potential for ecommerce, so I acquired the domain name, Scripophily.com, and set up a Web site to sell certificates in my free time. Eventually, I realized that my part-time hobby could be a lucrative full-time business, and I made the transition to become my own boss. That was in 1998. Today my company has 15,000 items available for trade. I also operate a complementary business, OldCompany.com, which researches the redeemability of certificates. Many of our clients are CPAs and attorneys.

 

Over the years, because of the expertise I have developed in scripophily, CNBC has interviewed me when stock in a company was being discontinued because of merger or scandal. When such scandals hit Enron, Worldcom, and Martha Stewart, it was a novelty that I discussed on the air; today, unfortunately, this has become more commonplace. People are understandably more concerned about their retirement instead of collectibles.

 

If I were to describe myself, I would say I am a technology entrepreneur grounded in history. Although that sounds far removed from accounting, it actually is not. Getting involved in technology was natural for me.

 

Like many young accountants, I started in public accounting at a Big Eight firm. Working in the firm’s Beverly Hills, Calif., office was a great training ground and a place where I developed good contacts. After three and a half years, however, I realized I wanted to be directly involved in a business. About that time, I met my wife, Susana, whose entire family was involved in the motion picture industry in Southern California. For my first private-sector job, it seemed natural for me to work for Warner Bros. It was fun being in the periphery of filmmakers, but after a few years, I realized working in financial reporting wasn’t as exciting as working on the production side of the business. When a former client asked me to join a cable TV company as controller, I jumped at the chance to get into the financial area of business management.

 

From cable TV, I was invited to join a then-emerging industry—cellular communications, whose potential intrigued me. That position led to the opportunity at the satellite communications company in Washington.

 

My career has been highlighted with opportunities to mold the financial and technology functions of related companies—for many years for other businesses, and now for myself. I owe a lot to those who gave me opportunities to do new things, especially to some of my mentors, who taught me how to focus on the big picture.

 

I love accounting; it got me started. And because of it, I have been able to pursue the things that not only come naturally to me, but are also my passion.

 

—As told to Linda Segall

 

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