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Disruptor | Jim Rogers, Investor

Disruptor | Jim Rogers, Investor

Posting in Cities

In the 19th century, Horace Greeley advised men to head west. Jim Rogers' response? "Go East, young woman."

Snowstorms may halt the city that never sleeps, but they don't stop Jim Rogers. On a February afternoon, in the midst of declared snow emergencies, Rogers was on the road.

Few who know him would be surprised. Rogers, the celebrated investor who launched the Quantum Fund with George Soros in the 1970s, is the human embodiment of Newton's first law. Since his retirement at the age of 37, Rogers has spent his time in motion.

In addition to lecturing at Columbia Business School and writing five bestselling books (his sixth, Street Smarts: Adventures on the Road and in the Markets, is out this month), Rogers has circumnavigated the world twice -- first by BMW motorcycle, then by customized Mercedes-Benz -- inspiring TIME magazine to call him "the Indiana Jones of finance."

From the backwoods to Balliol

Rogers' success in finance was far from predestined as a young man growing up in Demopolis, Ala. "Here we were in the backwoods of Alabama where nobody had too much interest in education or ambition in education," Rogers said in an interview Jan. 12.

Rogers, however, had an ally in the public library, encouraging parents and passionate teachers. "If anybody had an influence on me, it was those [teachers] who somehow or another -- and my parents of course -- got me interested in education," he said.

"Interested" might be an understatement, but a penchant for understatement is part of Rogers' style. Though he earned degrees from Yale University and Balliol College at Oxford, and served in the Army Quartermaster Corps, Rogers' career is marked more by skepticism than conformity.

"Most people don't think for themselves," Rogers said. "Most people just go along with whatever they see in the newspapers or the TV or whatever their friends or teachers say. That's a terrible, terrible mistake because most of those people don't wind up being terribly successful in life."

Breaking with convention

Unconventional thinking doesn't always make you popular, but it nearly always pays off, Rogers said. In the 1970s, for example, Rogers made a bet on defense companies during a time when stock prices were depressed and the Lockheed Corporation (now Lockheed Martin) was in bankruptcy.

"I was at a dinner with a lot of young Wall Street hot shots, and they were all going around talking about their great stock ideas. I started talking about Lockheed. It was the first time I'd ever been invited to this dinner. One of the guys at the other end of the table whispered loud enough so that I could hear, ‘Who buys stocks like that?' I, of course, was a little embarrassed and ashamed, but the stock went up," he said. (Lockheed appreciated 4,000 percent from 1973 to 1983.)

At Quantum Fund, unconventional thinking was invaluable. "I did most of the research," Rogers writes in Street Smarts. "What interested me was turning over the rocks and pursuing leads, discovering what was going on in the world and predicting where things were headed." It was also profitable. In 10 years, the fund grew 4,200 percent.

That unconventional thinking carries through today. Only instead of Lockheed, Rogers is now bullish on Myanmar and North Korea, even in light of the Hermit Kingdom's Feb. 12 nuclear test.

"If you really want to get rich now, what you should do is go to North Korea," he said. But investing in North Korea isn't easy. "You can buy stamps or you can buy gold or silver coins," Rogers explained. "There's no stock market."

Rogers is equally bullish on agriculture, an industry that has been depressed for decades. "Farming is going to be extremely profitable in the next two or three decades or we're not going to have any food at any price. The price of agricultural products are going to go through the roof," he said.

Making your own luck

Predictions like these don't come from the ether either. Though called an "investment genius" by commentator Ben Stein, Rogers is quick to suggest that any success he's had is a product of hard work.

"To the extent that I had any success, it was from homework," he said. "I was willing and able to work harder than other people, but I was also willing and able to think differently from other people."

Others, like his former boss Roy Neuberger, were born with a knack for trading, Rogers said. "It was astonishing. He would just sit and read the newspaper and suddenly make a trade from a feeling he had." (Incidentally, Neuberger applied similar intuition to art, becoming an early patron of artists like Willem de Kooning, Georgia O'Keefe, and Jackson Pollock.)

"I was never that good," Rogers said. "I had to work much harder than other people."

Working harder, of course, is relative. Rogers, for example, spent six years looking at real estate before buying his first home on New York's Riverside Drive. As was true is many of his investments, Rogers' homework paid off. Purchased for $107,300 in 1977, Rogers sold the home for $15.75 million in 2007, according to the New York Times.

Go East, young woman

While Rogers continues to invest and write books; today, other priorities compete for his attention. "I don't want a lot of money so that I can buy houses, cars, airplanes," he said. "I don't need the accessories or the trophies that money can buy. It's not of any use to me."

That doesn't mean, however, that Rogers is disengaged; far from it. Convinced the 21st century would be powered by the Asian economy, Rogers moved to Singapore with his family in 2007. "In 1807, if you were smart you went to London. In 1907, if you were smart you came to New York. I hope that if you were smart in 2007, you went to Asia," he said.

Research reinforces Rogers' conclusion. According to the "2012 Wealth Report," a study produced by Knight Frank Research and Citi Private Bank, Singapore will lead the world in per capita income by 2050.

Rogers' two daughters, both of whom speak fluent Mandarin, are uniquely equipped for this future. "Literally, Singapore uses them on TV speaking Mandarin to shame the Chinese into speaking better Chinese," Rogers said. (The pair appeared in Singapore's "Speak Mandarin 2009" campaign.)

Even to a celebrated investor, it is passing on intangible assets that is most important. "If I can teach them to be independent and think for themselves, that's all I've got to do," Rogers explained. "They can take it from there."

Photo courtesy Jim Rogers

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Claire Lambrecht

Contributing Writer

Claire Lambrecht has written for the New York Times, Slate, Salon, The Nation, and CBS MoneyWatch. Previously, she taught English as a Teach for America Corps Member and Fulbright English Teaching Assistant. She holds degrees from Cornell University, the University of Hawaii, and the Arthur M. Carter Journalism Institute at New York University. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure