Dennis Tito should be living his dream as you read this, looking down on you from the International Space Station as the first space tourist.
Pension fund executives and other institutional investors helped Mr. Tito realize his dream, especially those who were early clients of his consulting firm, Wilshire Associates, Santa Monica, Calif., and early adopters of its products. They included pension executives at Allis Chalmers Inc., New York Telephone Co., and Illinois Bell Telephone Co., and executives at Endowment Management & Research Co., the first client for Wilshire's portfolio analytics product.
They helped launch Wilshire Associates as surely as the Russian Soyuz rocket launched Mr. Tito into space.
Certainly, Mr. Tito's adventure is also the result of his own fascination with space and his willingness to take chances. That willingness was evident in his purchase of the firm that became Wilshire Associates.
In 1975, Mr. Tito was a partner in O'Brien Associates with a number of pension industry pioneers including John O'Brien, Richard Ennis and Gil Beebower. But after the abolition of fixed commissions on the New York Stock Exchange in May of that year, many in the pension industry, including some of his partners, believed soft-dollar-based consulting firms like O'Brien would disappear.
Mr. Tito disagreed and gambled that he was right. With his former wife, Suzanne, he bought O'Brien Associates and renamed it Wilshire Associates. He gambled that pension fund executives would find a way to pay for the products and services they needed.
He was correct, and by developing leading-edge investment technology for pension funds and other institutional investors, Mr. Tito grew Wilshire and his own fortune. The firm now manages $3.2 billion, and provides consulting to billions more.
Fascinated by space since his teen-age years, Mr. Tito, a former aerospace engineer, has been plotting a trip into space since at least 1991.
For most space enthusiasts, a trip to the Space Station is out of reach. But few are as determined or as wealthy as Mr. Tito.
His wealth - and Russia's need for additional cash for its space program - gave him the means to fulfill his dream. Against the wishes of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, he was able to buy a seat for $20 million on the Russian Soyuz rocket taking a new lifeboat to the space station.
While indirectly, pension fund clients of Wilshire Associates helped pay the cost of Mr. Tito's adventure, that $20 million also was indirectly generated by his long interest in space. Because of it he majored in aerospace engineering in college and developed the analytical and mathematical skills required to join NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Canada, Calif., in the early 1960s.
Mr. Tito later applied those same analytical and mathematical skills to developing quantitative tools for pension funds and money managers, such as asset-liability modeling and portfolio optimizers that made Wilshire one of the top quantitative consulting firms.
At JPL he wrote the computer programs for the trajectories of the Mariner IV and V space probes, which flew by Mars (1965) and Venus (1967), respectively.
But in 1968, fearing the nation's commitment to space exploration would decline after the moon landings, Mr. Tito left the space program and applied to the doctoral program in finance at the University of California, Los Angeles, and soon after began consulting with Oliphant Co., a brokerage firm.
In 1972, several Oliphant employees - including Messrs. Tito, O'Brien, Ennis and Beebower - left the firm to form O'Brien Associates.
Kept in touch
Stephen Nesbitt, a Wilshire senior managing director, said Mr. Tito has "always had a fascination with space and aeronautical engineering." Despite leaving the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in the late 1960s, he has "always kept in contact with people (there)."
Mr. Tito's interest in traveling into space pre-dates Sen. John Glenn's 1998 trip aboard the space shuttle Discovery. In fact, Mr. Tito, who is 60, began discussions with Russian government officials on a business trip almost 10 years ago, according to Mr. Nesbitt, who has been with Wilshire since 1981. On Aug. 18, 1991, Mr. Tito arrived in the then-Soviet Union with a group led by Batterymarch Financial Management that was there to investigate investment possibilities. Two days after his arrival, Mr. Tito awoke to the sound of tanks in the streets, part of an attempted coup. Although the coup failed, it seemed to have ended Mr. Tito's hope of getting into space on a Soviet rocket.
But almost two years ago he made a reservation with Russian space authorities to fly to the Russian space station Mir. That fell through when the Russian authorities decided they could keep Mir in space no longer. However, they transferred Mr. Tito's plan to the International Space Station trip.
The trip is scheduled to last eight days. Wilshire Senior Managing Directors Bob Robb and Tom Stevens were there to watch the launch live in Kazakhstan. According to Mr. Nesbitt, both have been with the firm for more than 20 years.
Training for Mr. Tito's journey began close to a year ago, said Mr. Nesbitt. Mr. Tito was in Russia for most of the second half of 2000 and all of this year to date.
The constant absence of the firm's leader has not caused problems for Wilshire, said Mr. Nesbitt. "Surprisingly, he's more available now. We know where he is," he said. Mr. Tito's schedule in Russia does not include client visits and other business-related engagements, as it would in the United States.
Wilshire executives are able to keep in contact with Mr. Tito via cell phone. Also, "he has a great Internet connection," said Mr. Nesbitt. And with a 14-hour time difference, Mr. Tito is able to complete his daily duties before his employees get to work in the morning.
Mr. Tito is scheduled to return to California in mid-May.
"I'm sure he's prepared for this," said Dale Stevens, president of Malibu, Calif.-based consulting firm Grasswood Partners. Mr. Stevens was a Wilshire employee from 1977 until 1990. The two first met shortly after Mr. Tito re-named O'Brien Associates, when Mr. Stevens was a statistician at City of Hope Medical Center, Duarte, Calif. "Dennis is one of the most focused people I've ever met," said Mr. Stevens.
Another source, who asked not to be identified, was not as impressed. "He's showing off," said the source, who has worked with Mr. Tito. "It's not that he's disinterested," said the source, who believes Mr. Tito's ego was the motivating factor behind his decision. In the time they worked together, the source found Mr. Tito to be an unlikable person who would "(run) roughshod over anyone who would get in his way." The two have not spoken for several years.
Still, the source acknowledged, "he always honored every contract he ever made with me."
A former client responded: "You don't put nine months of your life and $20 million into something just for ego."
NASA officials, who had vocally opposed Mr. Tito's journey, have softened their stance in recent weeks.
"From Dennis' point of view, he may not be available (by the time NASA approves)," Mr. Nesbitt said.