The Blum firm's annual return has averaged 37% in the past five years. Its fees are 1.5% of the money managed plus a hefty 15% of any profit on the investments.
The firm seeks to distance itself from the corporate raider mentality of the 1980s.
"For us, investment growth is a long-term process, a steady ascent grounded in cooperation and commitment," reads a brochure about the firm. "As a matter of policy, we will not participate in hostile activities. Instead, we look for companies where we can work . . . with existing management."
'Lt. Columbo Style'
Friends and business associates describe Blum as an aggressive straight shooter with boundless drive and a disarming "Lt. Columbo style" that might seem to border on the bumbling but is actually quite effective.
Robert Bass said he finds Blum "extraordinarily capable, with good instincts and good judgment." Added Checchi: "He applies to himself a high level of scrupulosity."
One longtime friend noted, however, that Blum is "used to getting his own way." Some view him as "kind of a user" who is pushy in business dealings, with his reach sometimes exceeding his grasp. The friend added that Blum's high ambition for Feinstein "tends to rub some people the wrong way."
As a progressive Democrat, Blum is a rare commodity in the investment community. He refuses to do deals with companies that he views as politically or sociologically incorrect, such as those with interests in South Africa, tobacco or gambling. After the Chinese crackdown on student protesters in Tian An Men Square, Blum told a partner, Shanghai Investment & Trust Co., that he would no longer participate in joint ventures.
Asia has had special meaning to Blum since his first trip to Nepal more than 20 years ago, when he traveled for three weeks in the Himalayas with Sherpas and fell in love with the country and the people. Now he takes advantage of any excuse to visit Asia.
Blum acknowledges that endurance and good genes have more to do with his mountain climbing success than does technical skill. "I'm a yak. I plod on. I'm good with altitude."
Although Jewish, the deeply philosophical Blum has taken a keen interest in Buddhism and Eastern philosophy. He founded the American Himalayan Foundation to develop educational, environmental and health-care programs for Asian nations.
In 1981, he won permission from the Chinese to lead the first attempt in modern times to climb the east face of Mt. Everest. The first effort failed, so the team returned in 1983. Although Blum did not make it to the top, a colleague who did brought back a cherished piece of the mountain that Blum displays prominently in his office.
Blum is a longtime friend of the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan religious leader, and has worked for years with former President Carter and others to further human rights in that region. In 1986, Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, accompanied Blum on a Himalayan trek.
A lifelong San Franciscan, Blum was brought up in well-to-do circumstances. His father, a former New Yorker who came West to sell men's bathrobes and raincoats, died when Blum was a boy. Blum attended San Rafael Military Academy for a year, then went to prestigious Lowell High School.
Even as a gangly, brown-haired, blue-eyed teen-ager, Blum struck people as different.
"I wouldn't say he was a sparkling personality, but he was a good guy and fun; he had electricity," said Eugene L. Friend, 73, a San Francisco developer and longtime friend.
One holiday season, Friend hired Blum as a stock boy in a clothing store. Blum would occasionally disappear, and Friend would have to track him down in the local bowling alley.
At Lowell, Blum was known for being strong-willed and independent. Said John B. Vlahos, a San Mateo attorney who was a classmate: "Even then, he had a lot of self-confidence and poise. He could see past day-to-day drudgery."
Blum received a B.A. and a master's in business administration at UC Berkeley, taking a year out as an undergraduate to study philosophy at the University of Vienna.
At Berkeley, a friend, John Berl, persuaded him to join a $25-a-month investing club. Results, Blum recalled, were "so-so, nothing spectacular."
Berl later encouraged Blum to join Sutro & Co., an old-line regional brokerage based in San Francisco and headed by Berl's brother Warren. After beginning as a $300-a-month junior research analyst at age 23, Blum six years later became the firm's youngest partner. In the meantime, he had managed as a fledgling stockbroker to leverage a $10,000 inheritance into a $100,000 stake, then to lose it to bad investments a year later.
"I think I made most of the mistakes one makes in the investment world by the time I was 30," Blum said.
While at Sutro, he spearheaded a highly successful deal that still delights him and his fellow investors: their $8-million purchase of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.
As Blum tells it, the story of how they closed the deal was "almost a circus in itself."