What does Donald Trump, golf, and a 600 pound Moon Pie have in common?

May 22, 2013

This Wednesday marks the season finale of “Alabama, Inc.,” the television program about business that airs on Alabama Public Television. The APR newsroom has been collaborating on the show, with News Director Pat Duggins conducting entrepreneur profile segments. This Wednesday, Pat sits down with Dr. David Bronner, the head of Retirement Systems of Alabama, or RSA. “I’ve had governors, a few of them, like me,” says Bronner. “I’ve had most governors hate the sight of me.” That might not be something you want on your resume. But, David Bronner doesn’t seem to mind. He heads up the Retirement Systems of Alabama, or RSA for short. It’s a job he’s held since 1973. “You get to meet people like Donald Trump,” says Bronner. “Whether you like him or hate him, he’s got to be one of the best self-promoters I’ve ever met. And, you have the opportunity to be involved in creating things.” Bronner traded in his job as Assistant Dean of the University of Alabama Law School for the faster pace of the investment world. RSA currently has $30 billion in stocks and real estate, among other things. Even if you’ve never met Bronner, his impact on Alabama is inescapable. Ever been to Mobile for News Year’s Eve? If so, you probably saw the city’s famous moon pie. It’s a six hundred pound replica of the southern snack cake. Times Square in New York City has its sparkling ball made of Waterford Crystal—Mobile has its big Moon Pie. The famous confection is lowered from the top of Mobile’s RSA Tower. It’s a deal Bronner arranged himself… “Well, it started with a city councilman in Mobile. And, he did for the first two years by dropping it off a crane,” recalls Bronner. “And, he had thousands of people show up, which I thought was hilarious. And everybody made fun of him.” Bronner convinced city leaders to trade in the crane and use the RSA Tower as the Moon Pie’s base of operations. And, the Moon Pie isn’t just for News Year’s Eve, either. For Bronner, it’s an attention getter that’s being used for just about any occasion. “So, for example, the Southern Legislative Conference is taking place here, with twelve or thirteen southern States,” says Bronner. “So, they’re going to have a parade and they’re going to drop the Moon Pie then again.” Bronner doesn’t limit his ambitions to Moon Pies. The retirement fund also bought Mobile’s famous Battlehouse Hotel. And, that’s just for starters. RSA funds were also used to establish the Robert Trent Jones golf trail, a series of eleven golf courses from Mobile to Muscle Shoals. One reason was to attract tourists who used to drive through Alabama on their way to play golf in Georgia and Florida. Bronner says another reason are companies like Mercedes Benz, Hyundai, and Airbus. “Many of the companies, if you’ll notice, coming to Alabama in the last twenty years are foreign companies, they’re not U.S. companies, they’re Asian companies,” says Bronner. “And Asians are great believers in golf. And, it’s great to have that on your menu when you’re trying to attract these to your State.” This kind of strategy has earned Bronner his share of critics. His opponents feel a retirement fund should stick to stocks with the goal of building the nest eggs of State workers. Bronner sees it differently. He says investing in golf courses and office buildings helps give Alabama a stronger economy. “Prior to that sort of industry, the average Alabama worker would make $18,000 to $22, 000,” says Bronner. “Now, with a minimum amount of overtime, that same worker now makes $55,000 to $60,000, which changes his entire life and the lives of his children.” But, that plan hasn’t won everybody over—particularly in the halls of power in Montgomery. Bronner makes no bones about why he bought office buildings in Alabama’s State capitol, and the reason would likely leave a politician’s ears burning. “The reason we did the commercial real estate in Montgomery was to stop the payoff system,” says Bronner. “If two of the people in this room ran for governor, back when, each would get $5,000 from the local real estate guys. And, whoever won, they’d come in and literally pay off his campaign.” So, Bronner bought the buildings with RSA money and put State employees to work there. His critics were out in force when the recession began in 2007. Bronner says RSA lost billions like everybody else in the stock market. His critics demanded a change in leadership at RSA. Bronner says his detractors aren’t thinking like people on Wall Street. “If I build a downtown hotel, I know what I’m doing, but I know I’m going to lose money for four years,” says Bronner. “Because a downtown hotel is a convention hotel, and you or I or anyone with any sense is not going to book your convention in a hotel that doesn’t exist, much less come down to inspect it.” And, Bronner’s opinions aren’t limited to where the State should invest retirement money. His has specific ideas on how to reform Alabama’s tax code. You can see Pat Duggins’ interview with David Bronner this Wednesday during “Alabama, Inc.” on 10 pm on your local Alabama Public Television station.