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One On 1 Profile: Financial Executive Frank Savage Has Broken Down Barriers, Living The Ups & Downs Of Success

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Some of the New Yorkers profiled by "One On 1" over the past 10 years have immediate name recognition, but financial executive Frank Savage is one of those subjects who enjoys relative anonymity but whose influence is recognized worldwide. NY1's Budd Mishkin filed the following One On 1 profile.

Frank Savage has worked for companies, overseen financial projects and advised governments all over the world.

"Show me another economic system over the last 200 years that has provided so much mobility for so many people," he says.

But this man of the world is a New Yorker, and for good reason.

"We all share an excitement about the city and the fact that it brings people from all over the world together, people who aspire to be successful, people who want to be players," Savage says. "I want to be a player. I like to be actively involved in what's happening in the world. I can get all of that sitting right here in New York City."

Frank Savage is not a household name, but he has long been a behind-the-scenes financial power broker. He is the chairman and CEO of the financial services company Savage Holdings. He has been a high-ranking corporate executive, served on the board of directors of international companies and advised the government in post apartheid South Africa.

But he took his first step on this global path in New York City, as a kid, when he and his twin sister accompanied their mother, known as "Madame La Savage," to the International Beauty Show at the old New York Coliseum.

"We'd be running around, talking to people from all over the world, particularly from Europe. So she really lit a little fire in me by exposing me to that," he says.

That journey, from his mother's beauty parlor in Washington, D.C. to board rooms all around the world is the backdrop for Savage's memoir, "The Savage Way: Successfully Navigating The Ways Of Business And Life."

The title is not simply a play on words. Savage is a passionate professional sailer. He says he learned to navigate different environments while attending a segregated public high school in Washington, D.C. and then coming home to an integrated neighborhood.

"The first African-American to join Citibank in the international division, one of the first to go overseas. I think the fact that I had grown up in that type of bicameral type of environment, I think it helped me a lot," he says.
 
Savage graduated from Howard University and then the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

Many young black university students and graduates at the time worked in the civil rights movement. Savage felt he could make his greatest impact through a different type of activism.

"I've always felt that the way I could make a contribution would be in the business and economic and financial arena," Savage says. "So you can't do everything. I felt like I had a natural comparative advantage to help in that area, to help African-Americans and black people to build up their economic strength."

So Savage worked with Freedom National Bank in Harlem, the bank started by Jackie Robinson. He helped with the early financing for Essence Magazine. And he has worked on many financial projects with companies in the Middle East and Africa.

Savage was part of a generation of young African-Americans starting out in the corporate world, certainly aware of America's racial inequalities but not driven by them.

"The question is, is that going to be the main thing you focus on? Or are you going to focus on how you, yourself, can succeed and be successful?"

Savage is not the type of power broker whose name ordinarily appears in the papers.

There was one exception. Savage served on the Board of Directors at Enron when it was brought down by a financial scandal in the early 2000s. No charges were ever brought against Savage, but there were repercussions -- none more painful than the reaction at his alma mater, Howard University.

"These young people look up to me. I don't want to let them down," Savage says. "I try to be a model for them. So when I had to get off the board of Howard, because I would do nothing to hurt Howard, that hurt me to my heart."

Savage says it was his mother who taught him about honesty and integrity in business.

"I happened to watch her every day in her beauty parlor. She set an example for me by her actions, because I saw how she ran her business, but also by her deeds because every day she would tell me, 'Frank, you can be everything you want to be,'" he says.

The lessons he learned in his mother's beauty parlor served him well as he successfully ventured out into the international financial world. But in 1968, that beauty parlor was destroyed in the rioting that engulfed Washington after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

"That hurt her deeply because it was set ablaze by young African-Americans," Savage says. "She couldn't understand, 'Why is this happening to me? I've tried to do the right thing.'"

Around that time, Savage was living in Saudi Arabia, working for Citibank. It was interesting for Savage but difficult for his family.

"It took its toll on my first marriage because I went through some pretty challenging places. I went to places in Saudi Arabia and Africa and those were tough places," he says.

Savage has three children from that marriage and three from his marriage to his wife of more than thirty years, Lolita. Her artwork is exhibited in galleries around the world.

Then there is his other love, discovered years ago at a class in Long Island City.

"We motored out to the middle of the Long Island Sound and the instructor turned off the engine, put up the sails, and turned into the wind, the boat heeled, we took off, and I fell in love," he says.

Savage says he loves sailing because it is a cerebral sport he maintains the subject of race almost never comes up, except one time, when his team won the Lord Nelson Trophy at a regatta in Antigua.

"The island celebrated because they said, 'We've always helped to maintain these boats, we've always helped the sailors to navigate these waters but we've never helped a black person who actually won,'" Savage says.

He has developed a close friendship with entertainer Bill Cosby, who wrote the forward for Savage's book. It is not uncommon for Savage to meet with world business and political leaders.

But 50 years after Savage entered the financial world, he says it is still difficult for minority business people to raise equity capital, the money that could help start a business.

"They're not part of the overall economic structure that typically provides that equity capital. they're not big participants in the venture capital business, or the hedge fund business."

Savage recognizes the progress that's been made. But he is not dwelling on the past.

"I'm a forward thinker, I'm not a backward thinker. I don't try to go around with a chip on my shoulder," he says. "I can't think about the negative. Let someone else waste their time thinking about the negative. I'm going to think about positive things."

Savage will be honored by the Greater Harlem Chamber of Commerce on August 8 as part of Harlem Week.

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