Les Coney, right, with his daughter and President Obama
Les Coney, right, with his daughter and Obama at the president’s inauguration

When President Obama’s re-election team released the list of his top campaign fundraisers last week—about 20 were from the Chicago area—I noticed that Mesirow Financial Vice President Les Coney was back on this year’s roster of big bundlers.

Growing up in inner city Philadelphia, Coney had planned to stay put after high school and follow his father into the business of driving a truck. An award in 1976 from the Boys and Girls Club of America led him to George Williams College in Downers Grove—the director of Coney’s local club had gone there, picked up the phone and secured him a spot—and later to a career in business in the area. His move here also led him to a friendship with Obama and a legendary status among the city’s cognoscenti as an excellent networker.

Sun-Times celebrity columnist Bill Zwecker calls Coney “Mr. Social” and adds, “I can be at parties in L.A. and Aspen and New York for major things with a Chicago connection, and he is always there. I’ve seen him at small, intimate gatherings and thought, ‘This is the place to be.’ He doesn’t waste his time at things that are not important.” Ariel Investments Chairman John Rogers calls Coney “an extraordinary networker who just has this amazing knack to build great friendships.”

Rogers, who co-chaired Obama’s Illinois Finance Committee in 2008, marvels at Coney’s ability to “raise a ton of money” for Obama. But in Rogers’ eyes, Coney scores highest for becoming the first African American chairman of the Goodman Theatre board. “That was an amazing accomplishment for an African American to be able to lead one of our premier cultural institutions.” (A sampling of Coney’s roster of affiliations: trustee of the Art Institute, Kohl Children’s Museum, Columbia College, Loyola University’s Council of Regents, board of governors of the School of the Art Institute.)

The networking is not just some hobby; rather, as Rogers points out, it has “made Coney successful in his business life.” After 15 years at Travelers Insurance, he moved in 1996 to Aon, helped by Rogers (who sat on Aon’s board and told then-Chairman Pat Ryan, “You really should meet this Les Coney.”) Coney moved over to Mesirow in 2006.

We met earlier this week at a Starbucks in the West Loop. The day of our interview seemed to be family networking day for the divorced father of two. His daughter, Chanel, 24, graduated from the University of Chicago Lab School, and then Princeton, and works for Grosvenor Capital Management here. His son, Javon, 22, graduated from the Latin School and then, last month, from the University of Colorado, where he played Division I basketball. The Starbucks meeting that preceded ours was with Jerry Reinsdorf’s son, Jonathan—“a good friend of mine,” Les Coney explains—who was providing Javon with advice on “career paths.”

A big man dressed casually in a blue polo shirt, Coney tells me that Javon’s “[basketball] career is over” and that “Javon wants a career in business.” First, Coney says, his son will likely move to Washington and do some advance work for Obama, whom Javon knows “very well.” (He has been among the inner circle who have played basketball with Obama both during and after the campaign).

These days, Coney, who has been at the White House several times, says he sees the president at least once a quarter, when he goes to Washington to attend meetings of the President’s Advisory Committee on the Arts for the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts—a board to which Obama appointed him.

Here, an edited transcript of our conversation, where he talks about meeting Obama, fundraising for the president, and more:

CF: So tell me the trick of bundling for Barack.
LC: When you’re on boards, you get a chance to meet a lot of wealthy people.  I have tons of friends. I have 3,000 names on my Rolodex. So if you’re my friend and you’re a person of wealth and I call you and I say, “Hey, the President’s gonna come to town next month. I’m going to the dinner. Are you interested?” They say, “Man, thanks for letting me know. Yes, count me in.” I was in the top five bundlers [in Chicago for the second quarter, 2011].

CF: You told me that in 2008 you raised “well over a million dollars” for Obama. That’s more than Louis Susman raised. [Susman was rewarded with the ambassadorship to England]. Why aren’t you ambassador to the Court of St. James?
LC: I still need to work. I had two kids that were in college; they depend on me financially, and I need to still earn a living.” 

CF: How did you come to know Barack Obama?
A good friend of mine, Jim Reynolds, told me, “Hey, I want you to meet a good friend of mine. I’d love for you to help raise some money.” Barack was state senator, but he was also practicing law. If you were his client and you said, “Hey, do you know Les Coney? I’ve been wanting to meet that guy.” Barack would pick up the pone and say, “Les, one of my clients would love to meet you.” It was very good for his business.

CF: Were you involved in his decision to run for the U.S. Senate?
LC: When I heard he was thinking about running, I called him and said, “Man, if you do this, I’ll raise $10,000 for you,” and I thought that was saying something. Jim Reynolds called several African American businessmen and invited us to the Chicago Club—people like myself, Marty Nesbitt, Valerie Jarrett. Rod Blagojevich was there. [Reynolds said,] “I want you guys to consider supporting Barack.” [Reynolds] asked us to make a contribution but also to introduce him to people.

CF: Did Obama consult you when he decided to run for president?
LC: He came over to Mesirow to meet with our CEO Jim Tyree. I just let him and Jim talk, and when I walked Barack out of the building I said to him, “I know you don’t want to hear this, but no way, man. Why don’t you enjoy the Senate? You’re very popular; you just became U.S. Senator. Let’s go ahead and hit the ball out of the park as a senator.”  He said, “I hear you, but I think I might have to go ahead and do this.” 

CF: So what do you actually do working for these insurance companies?
LC: At Aon, we brought in deals. We were rainmakers, met people and created opportunities. Jim Tyree was a longtime friend of mine. He said, “Why don’t you come and create the same thing here at Mesirow?” Mesirow had more products. Aon was all insurance. Mesirow is insurance, investments, real estate, consulting. I have a lot of relationships I developed over the years, but everyone didn’t want to talk about insurance. So now I’m able to talk to people about real estate. At the end of the day it’s sales.

CF: So your success hinges on your ability to be connected?
Absolutely, if you’re not connected you couldn’t do my job.

CF: Describe a typical day.
LC: I usually have five meetings a day. I don’t just meet with people to say, “Hey, do business with Mesirow.” I might meet with people on behalf of the Goodman, trying to raise money; I might meet with people on behalf of the president trying to get them to support him. Indirectly it affects Mesirow.

CF: Describe a typical night.
I’m out every night, having dinner with a client, a potential client, a prospect, somebody I’m mentoring. Tonight I’m having dinner right down the street at 160 Blue, with a friend who works for Chase Bank. This gentleman was influential when my daughter was looking for colleges. His wife is the General Counsel of Mt. Sinai Hospital; I’m actually looking forward to talking to her about possibly Mesirow taking a look at their insurance.

CF: I talked to a marketing guy, Vince Kamin, about you, and he said, “The coda for anybody moving to Chicago who is African American is contact Les Coney… and he’ll help you establish yourself.”
I mentor a lot of young African Americans, but also a lot of young whites. One of the things I pride myself on, and one of the things I try to tell my son, is that you cannot just have a Rolodex made up of African Americans; you cannot just have a Rolodex made up of white folks; you cannot have a Rolodex made up of just businesspeople. You gotta mix it up—women, men, young, old, Latino, successful, not successful.

CF: Getting back to your son and President Obama, does Javon play golf?
We’re working on that game; that’s something that he’s going to take up soon.

CF: Will you soon be raising money for Obama’s presidential library?
LC: Sure, and I certainly want to see it here in Chicago. I’m not necessarily saying the University of Chicago. One of the sites I heard about is in West Pullman. I would lean more to a community like that that could really use a boost.


Photograph: Courtesy of Les Coney