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HOW I MADE IT: CODY WILLARD

A finance talk-show host with rock-star looks

Cody Willard, co-host of Fox Business Network's 'Happy Hour,' would hardly be mistaken for a pinstriped Wall Street drone. But he's got some serious financial credentials.

April 12, 2009|Dawn C. Chmielewski

The gig: Co-host of Fox Business Network's "Happy Hour" show, which airs at 2 p.m. Pacific time weekdays from the Bull and Bear bar in New York's Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. This is not your granddaddy's finance show. And Cody Willard, with his rock-star mane and rapid-fire banter, would hardly be mistaken for some pinstriped Wall Street drone. The show's calculatedly casual style and Main Street populism illustrate how the upstart Fox Business Network seeks to compete with the leading business channel, CNBC.

Cody, the early years: You might think the 36-year-old Willard is the most famous son of Ruidoso, N.M., a small town 120 miles south of Albuquerque. You'd be right -- if it weren't for Willard's childhood friend Neil Patrick Harris, best known as television's Doogie Howser and more recently costar of the CBS sitcom "How I Met Your Mother." Talk about tough competition for the limelight. "Having a best friend have such success at such an early age -- we were so competitive" Willard said. A friendly rivalry continues to this day. "The day I signed the contract with Fox, I was at home, doing nothing, waiting for Fox Business to start up. I wound up [watching] Regis and Kelly. And who's there but Neil Patrick Harris. He's still one-upping me."

Education: Willard earned a bachelor's degree in economics at the University of New Mexico. He serves as an adjunct professor at Seton Hall University in New Jersey, where he teaches a class called Revolutionomics, focused on technology and business.

First job in the Big City: A barista at a Starbucks. "I was a darn good one," he brags, recalling how he would emulate Tom Cruise's juggling bartender from the 1988 movie "Cocktail," sending flavored syrups airborne. "I would toss those, catch 'em around my back. I was very entertaining."

Leaping from lattes to finance: Despite his unconventional looks, Willard has some serious financial cred, doing stints at investment bank Oppenheimer & Co., at a technology venture capital fund and at a telecommunications company before starting a hedge fund, CL Willard Capital, which he ran for nearly five years. That job was so stressful, he wrote in London's Financial Times, that he didn't need an alarm clock. "The knot in my gut that came with the pressure of running other people's money swelled long before the sun rose each morning."

Somewhere between the technology boom of the late 1990s and the bust of 2000, Willard also started dabbling in financial journalism, writing columns for TheStreet.com and the Financial Times. He says he can still remember calling his mom to tell her about his writing gig with TheStreet, describing it as his big break.

How the rock band KISS changed his life: It was the Friday before Labor Day in 2003, and Willard couldn't bring himself to write some predictable column about the dead calm of the markets. Instead, he riffed on a new KISS CD, "Symphony: Alive IV," which, he wrote, was "a terrible disappointment."

The review elicited an e-mail from someone who described himself as an avid reader. "I love everything you write, but you're totally wrong about KISS -- I'm their agent," Willard recalled. The agent arranged for Willard and two friends to attend a KISS concert in New York.

It was the beginning of a courtship that resulted in Creative Artists Agency representing Willard -- and, ultimately, helping him land his seat on a bar stool opposite "Happy Hour" co-hosts Rebecca Diamond and former CNBC star Eric Bolling. "My mom teases me that I'm an overnight success -- after 13 years," Willard said. "That underscores something I do think is important here. The perseverance of it. I've [slept on a bare] mattress in Harlem, lived with cockroaches and rats in Brooklyn. I've had to persevere. That's how I made it."

Most embarrassing moment (on camera): "Happy Hour" attracts its share of actors, entrepreneurs and newsmakers, including such recent guests as Tesla Motors Chief Executive Elon Musk and Texas oilman T. Boone Pickens. But it was Willard's interview with an actress and former girlfriend, Jess Weixler, that stands out in his mind as the most embarrassing. She was booked as a guest on the show to talk about her role in the 2007 R-rated horror-comedy film "Teeth." But when the interview turned graphic, "I got completely flustered in the segment," he said. "I was blushing bright red at the end of it."

On being a hometown celebrity: Fox Business Network is carried by the cable television operator in Willard's hometown, where his rants about federal bailouts, stimulus packages and mortgage assistance programs have found an attentive following. But the most frequently heard comment from New Mexico? "Mostly, everybody from my hometown e-mails me telling me to cut my hair."

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dawn.chmielewski@latimes.com

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