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Bruce Lisman left Wall Street to try to fix Vermont’s economy

August 14, 2012, 7:23 PM UTC
Bruce Lisman (right) and Campaign for Vermont team members in Burlington
Photo: Ben Stechschulte

Bruce Lisman’s first job on Wall Street, in 1970, was as a file clerk. “Red in red, yellow in yellow, blue in blue,” says Lisman, now 65. “It didn’t take a college education, but I did it anyway.”

It proved a good foundation. At Loeb Rhoades & Co., the University of Vermont graduate and Burlington native made sales assistant, then rose to analyst at Lehman Brothers.

In 1984, Lisman (pronounced LISS-man) became research director at Bear Stearns and then co-head of global equities in 1987, staying until 2009, a year after J.P. Morgan (JPM) bought Bear. But Lisman eventually decided that nearly 40 years in finance was plenty. He resolved to try something new and moved back to his home state with his many millions.

He wasn’t sure what the new thing would be. So he asked everyone he knew to introduce him to people in Vermont. His interest was meeting as many people as he could. In the course of 18 months he met 400 of them for dinner or a quick cup of coffee. Lisman interviewed them about what they do, why they love it, and why they do it in Vermont. “No one turned me down,” he says. “But some of them I had to convince: ‘Look, I’m not selling insurance. I just want to get some insight.'”

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Lisman eventually realized he was getting a broad look at Vermont’s economy. That knowledge informed his new self-funded venture, Campaign for Vermont (CFV), a 501(c)(4) advocacy group that stands for “commonsense ideas” to improve the state’s economy. The group was launched the day after Thanksgiving with 22 founding partners and two founding officers, including a former state finance commissioner under Howard Dean. Lisman has been vague about specific policy goals but is critical of Vermont’s property tax and its current energy plan. From January to March he pumped at least $210,000 of his own money into CFV, $194,000 of it going to advertising.

Barbara O’Connor, a lawyer and former federal public defender, is “hopeful Lisman’s private-sector experience will make Vermont a place where new businesses are welcome.”

Some Vermonters question the group’s true purpose, and local press has portrayed Lisman as a fiscal conservative looking to take on the state’s incumbent Democrats. But Lisman insists CFV is nonpolitical (though its structure is the same one used by Karl Rove and others) and that he does not plan to run for office. He is also writing a book on some of the 400 people he met, focusing on entrepreneurs. It sounds like a lot of work — but for a lifelong Wall Streeter, it probably constitutes a break.

Keys to launching your career

Don’t waste people’s time. “They’ve carved out 30 or 60 or even 90 minutes for you, so try to engage them in good conversation,” says Lisman. “You see enough people and you’ll notice certain characteristics, entrepreneurial at all levels.”

Keep having fun. “Man, is this fun,” Lisman says, “engaging with people who want to engage in debate or ask why one thing works and one doesn’t. In the world to come, which seems pretty unpredictable, citizens need to help each other.”

Free time is for family. Lisman’s new life lets him spend more time with his daughters; one is getting a doctorate in violin performance, the other a master’s in museum education. “I think they can identify more with CFV than what I was doing before.”

This story is from the August 13, 2012 issue of Fortune.