This Newport Beach wealth advisor grew up poor in a war-torn African country

The gig: Joe Duran, 49, is the founder and chief executive of United Capital, a Newport Beach wealth management firm that’s trying to become as much a tech company as an investment shop.

The company manages money but describes itself as a “financial life management” firm — one that invests clients’ cash and also uses online tools to analyze their goals and habits to develop financial plans. The firm recently started selling those programs to other wealth managers, and Duran expects that to be a big part of his future business.

He founded United Capital a few years after the financial arm of General Electric Co. acquired his previous investment firm. The deal put millions of dollars in his pocket — a huge sum for Duran, who grew up poor in Zimbabwe and started working odd jobs when he was a preteen. But it didn’t make him happy. “I was miserable. I had a complete loss of identity.”

United Capital now has about 175 advisors managing more than $16 billion in assets, with Duran still at the helm. “I could not be happier,” he said.

Unlikely moves: Duran was born in Barcelona to a Spanish mother and American father. The family moved to London, then Johannesburg, then to a suburb of what’s now Harare, Zimbabwe but at the time — the mid 1970s — was Salisbury, Rhodesia. The country, a former British colony, was in the middle of a civil war. A Woolworth’s department store in Salisbury was bombed in August 1977, just a few months before Duran’s 10th birthday. “Things were really heating up. I remember we had to take convoys to school,” he said.

Early entrepreneur: When Duran was 10 or 11, he started his first business. His parents had bought an auction house that sold off furniture and other items — mostly on behalf of expats who were leaving Rhodesia because of the conflict. Auctions were held every Friday night. There were no restaurants around, so Duran set up a hot dog stand. “I’d charge a ridiculous amount, but I made sure they smelled so good that everyone would want one.” 

Broken home: At about that time, his parents divorced. He describes his mother, who died years ago from cancer, as harsh and critical. His father, who he hasn’t seen or heard from in more than 30 years, he describes as “a man of no integrity.” He claimed to have a psychology degree from Harvard — which Duran doubts, and Harvard would neither confirm nor deny — and called himself a business consultant. “I never actually saw him work,” Duran said. He heard his father later remarried and ended up in Spain. “I’ve not sought him out.”

Mugged in London: When he turned 18, Duran left home, using his savings from gigs as a DJ and as the night manager of a clothing factory to travel from Harare to London, where he promptly got mugged, losing his cash and his passport. After spending a night in a train station restroom, he found a job at a youth hostel. He started traveling, first around Europe and then to the United States, tending bar and doing other odd jobs along the way.

St. Louis to Spain: He eventually enrolled in St. Louis University — mostly because it had a campus in Spain — and started studying marketing. He later added a second major, finance. “I wanted something tangible, and I hated accounting, so I settled on finance. It seemed like something that was actually valuable.” While studying at St. Louis University’s campus in Madrid, he met his future wife, Jen, who was also studying abroad. “We ran into each other four nights in a row. When she asked for my number, I gave her my friend’s — he’d seen her first. She tells this story to our daughters and says, ‘I’ve never met a guy who was so disinterested.’”

West Coast: Jen grew up in Beverly Hills, and her late father had connections in the local finance industry. That helped Joe land his first finance gig, a minimum-wage job filling out spreadsheets for a small investment advisory firm in Sherman Oaks. Duran found he had a knack for selling the firm’s services. “It was easier than selling ashtrays and old guitars as an 11-year-old. I’d call brokers and say, ‘You need to meet with me.’ That was it.” He eventually became president of the company, Centurion Capital Management, which was acquired by a unit of GE Financial in 2001.

Seller’s remorse: Duran owned about 15% of Centurion at the time of the sale, and the deal netted him millions of dollars. But it didn’t make him happy. “I always thought that it wasn’t about the money, but underneath you kind of think it is. I had a complete loss of identity. You go from being this muckety-muck with lots of employees, and then all of a sudden you’re a guy with lots of money who’s at Starbucks at 10 in the morning.” He spent the next few years writing a book about entrepreneurship — “Start It, Sell It and Make a Mint” — and earning a joint MBA from UC Berkeley and Columbia. In 2005, he started United Capital.

Money mind: Duran said he wanted United Capital to be different — to be a firm that would not only manage money but also help clients figure out how they should use their money in ways that are in line with their goals.  The firm uses a series of exercises and online tools to help clients develop investment and spending plans and helps them figure out whether their financial choices are motivated chiefly by fear, happiness or commitment — their “money mind.” Those tools used to be available only for United Capital clients, but now the firm is selling them to other advisors. In a few years, Duran thinks that will be the bulk of his business. “In the next five years, three-quarters of our business will be white-label.”

Still fearful: Despite his success, Duran said his “money mind” is fear. “My entire life is about overcoming how petrified I am about something bad happening. There’s not a night where I don’t wake up with sweaty palms, worried about the next thing I’m going to mess up.” And that’s not a bad thing, he says. “We all live with insecurities. As long as we understand them, we can use them. If we're not aware of them, they can ruin us.”

Personal: Duran lives with his wife, Jen, and their three daughters — ages 18, 15 and 8 — in Laguna Beach, just a few miles from United Capital’s Newport Beach office. When he’s not working, he practices yoga and paddle surfs. “The rest of the time I’m driving my daughters to volleyball.”

james.koren@latimes.com

Follow me: @jrkoren

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