CNBC ‘Last Call’ anchor is Va. Tech alum from Winchester
You can “take the boy out of Winchester, but I don’t think you can take Winchester out of me,” says Brian Sullivan, the anchor of CNBC’s new evening business and financial news roundup show, “Last Call.”
The one-hour show, which broadcasts from CNBC’s global headquarters in New Jersey on weeknights at 7 p.m. EST, premiered March 8. “Last Call” offers “the stories behind the numbers,” with one-on-one interviews with notable guests and discussions with a panel of experts to explain the day’s events.
A two-time nominee for the Gerald Loeb Award for Distinguished Business and Financial Journalism, Sullivan has reported from every continent except South America and Antarctica in his 25-year journalism career. He isn’t a stranger to adjusting to new places; Sullivan’s family moved from San Diego to the Winchester area, where his parents still reside, when he was 14.
Sullivan graduated in 1989 from James Wood High School in Frederick County. He earned his bachelor’s degree in political science and history from Virginia Tech in 1993 and went on to earn a law degree from Brooklyn Law School. Sullivan also holds a journalism certificate from New York University’s School of Continuing Education. He has served on Tech’s alumni board as well as the Pamplin College of Business’ Finance Advisory Board.
“Brian’s deep ties to Virginia Tech and the immense financial knowledge he’s developed as one of the country’s top business journalists provide great value to our [Department of Finance, Insurance and Business Law] advisory board,” Pamplin College’s interim dean, Robin Russell, said in a statement. “We are grateful for his continued service to the university.”
Sullivan joined CNBC in April 2011 and previously anchored “Worldwide Exchange,” a 5 a.m. show covering overnight U.S. and live international market news. Before that, he co-anchored “Power Lunch,” a 2 p.m. newscast. He’s also worked as an anchor at Fox Business News and started his journalism career trimming video at Bloomberg Television, where he initially held a four-day temp job in the IT department.
“Brian is energy incarnate, in all its forms, so it’s only fitting that he’s been so interested in the sector through the years,” CNBC Senior Executive Producer Maxwell Meyers said in a statement. “We start texting first thing in the a.m. and his enthusiasm for money news is off the charts. It’s a lot of fun and exhausting! But it’s also easy to see why viewers connect with him.”
Sullivan’s “Last Call” guests so far have included Mike Rowe, host of the Discovery Channel show “Dirty Jobs”; Forward Party co-chair and former Democratic presidential primary candidate Andrew Yang; and Kyle Bass, founder and chief investment officer of Texas-based Hayman Capital Management LP and co-founder and CEO of Conservation Equity Management LP.
In his limited free time, Sullivan, 51, races cars. He holds two Sports Car Club of America divisional championships and parks his blue-and-white Spec Racer Ford, complete with the CNBC logo, in Staunton. Sullivan’s helmet is bright pink for breast cancer awareness, honoring his wife, Julie, who survived breast cancer two years ago, and her mother and grandmother, who both died of the disease. He claims Virginia International Raceway outside of Danville as his favorite track, although he’s raced “anywhere pretty much east of the Mississippi.”
Virginia Business spoke with Sullivan two weeks after the launch of “Last Call,” discussing his Virginia ties, the real estate market and his goals for the new show.
Virginia Business: How often do you get back to Winchester?
Brian Sullivan: Not enough. It’s a changed town. It’s one of the fastest growing metro areas in America, so every time I do get home — I used to get home once or twice a year, mostly to race cars and to see my parents — [I’m] always amazed at the growth of Winchester. … It blows my mind how big it is now.
VB: What made you want to serve on the Virginia Tech Alumni Board and the Pamplin Finance Advisory Board?
Sullivan: Well, just to be reconnected to the school. … My parents, we didn’t have a lot of money when I was in high school and Virginia Tech at that point was — and I’m old, I’m going to date myself — like $5,000 a year. You think about the education you got for that type of money, now obviously inflation-adjusted and more expensive now, but I feel a partnership with Virginia Tech because of that. It’s a really unique, special place tucked away down there in the southwestern mountains of Virginia by itself.
How it worked out is, I hadn’t been back to Blacksburg in 10 years. Every April 16, which is the [anniversary] of the [2007 Virginia Tech] shooting, I would put on a Virginia Tech hat toward the end of whatever segment I was doing, or every show I was hosting on CNBC or any other network that I was at at the time. I started it when I got here, so it was a couple of years later. Somebody from Virginia Tech [who] was watching CNBC was like, “Who’s this guy with the Virginia Tech hat on?” I think they Googled me or something. They reached out and asked me to come give a talk and I did. Then they asked me to participate more. The finance board is business-related. Obviously, everybody on the board is pretty much involved and is a CNBC viewer. Just to be connected with a school like that makes me feel really proud.
VB: Are there any business stories that you think people aren’t paying as much attention to as they should?
Sullivan: I think obviously what’s going on with the banks right now has rocked much of the country. I’ve had calls and texts from friends of mine from high school and college, like, “How does this come back to me?” I think that CNBC, particularly my show “Last Call,” has … done a pretty good job of bringing back this big, complicated, scary-sounding story to how it affects the business community of Virginia, but also my mom and dad. Is it going to be harder for people to get a car loan or a mortgage loan? Is credit going to tighten? There’s a consumer aspect.
The second story I would say is really these big commercial office companies that have hundreds of billions of dollars in debt. There’s a lot of major cities that still have 50% [office] occupancy. A lot of people are working remotely, working from home where they come in the office two days a week, and you wonder how long is that sustainable, particularly in New York City, Chicago, San Francisco, these major office markets? If you’re half full, what’s going to happen to these giant buildings that cost tens of billions of dollars to build? … That could be the next leg of the story because I don’t think we’re going to have 100% occupancy again for a long time ever in our modern lifetimes because … work has changed.
VB: That makes me think of Amazon’s HQ2 headquarters in Arlington. They’re pausing the second phase of construction, which seems to tie in to the challenges with remote work and office vacancies.
Sullivan: By the way, I actually broke that story [about Amazon choosing Virginia for HQ2]. … There was all this speculation about where it was going to go. Well, let’s be fair, it’s [near] a Virginia Tech campus, so I may or may not have had inside sources. … I said my sources are telling me Arlington near the Pentagon, and Crystal City is where the new HQ2 is going to go. …
Why build it or build it to where you were going to build it if you’re not going to be fully occupied? I just think employees have enough power now that if somebody says, “You got to be in the office five days a week,” a lot of people are like, “You know what? There’s a company over here that’s a great company, too, that wants me in the office two to three days a week if you won’t accommodate.” I think Amazon’s making some hard choices about what they need, but it all goes back to that story that I just referenced.
VB: Do you think putting in green space and ground-floor retail and trying to create more of a mixed-use development could change that, could be a way forward for Amazon?
Sullivan: Well, that’s what they’re going to have to do. Not just Amazon. I speak for all these companies. … If you come to Manhattan, what you’re going to see are these office buildings that are … either being converted or will be converted into apartments. Because we have a housing shortage. … I think there’s going to have to be some adaptation, but now you’re talking about tens of billions of dollars more.
In “Last Call,” we talk about these macro stories and bringing it all from a money lens. … If you start to see major commercial real estate players start to suffer or worse, I don’t want to use the “B” word — bankruptcy — but if we start to see defaults, what we don’t want and what’s really bad, just in any city, doesn’t matter where you are, is empty buildings that are not being maintained, [that] become eyesores. There’s a macro-
economic story here. …. Nobody wants a giant empty building with an overgrown lawn because nobody’s tending it. It damages areas. There’s a macro story here that I think we need to stay on.
VB: You were nominated for the Gerald Loeb Award in 2007 for your work highlighting the housing bubble. Is there any similarity you see between the situation leading up to the Great Recession and today?
Sullivan: We don’t know yet, and I hate to give you a wishy-washy answer there. … Banking is all interconnected. It’s like a giant spiderweb. … Unfortunately, I think there will be a knock-on effect from this. I think as smaller banks across Virginia and other places, if they see depositors leave, they’re going to have to tighten their credit. They’re not going to make as many auto loans. They may not make as many mortgage loans. When they do make the loans, they may have to charge more for them. They have to manage their risk a little bit better.
If you’re in Winchester, Virginia, or Richmond, I think you want to have small and regional banks that are vibrant, and they’re important to the community. I’m not knocking the big banks, but I don’t think we want a Virginia or an America where all the smaller banks that we know are gone and it’s just giant banks [on every] corner.
Banking at many levels is still a relationship business. Unfortunately, I think it’s going to be the underprivileged, communities of color, blue collar, the lower income, they’re going to suffer the most. They’re going to either get loans cut off or they’re going to have to pay more for them. I think there will be a knock-on impact on the consumer with tighter and more expensive credit. I hope I’m wrong.
VB: What sets “Last Call” apart from other shows you’ve hosted?
Sullivan: [It’s a] totally new concept for CNBC. I think it’s really cool. We’re only 10 days in, so things are still evolving, and you launch your show and there’s a banking crisis that hits. Things evolve day to day. I think it’s a totally new vehicle. … CNBC does a great job during the day … then we’re able to take all the stuff that you heard from 5 a.m. to 7 p.m. and synthesize it.
Also, I think one of my strengths — I don’t want to sound cocky here — is taking complex stuff and making it approachable and understandable. … You don’t need to be a Duke MBA to understand what I’m saying. … My mom didn’t graduate from high school. She got her GED later. I had a very plainspoken household. I think just with my background and just my whole life, it’s just been plain talk.
For me, you take the boy out of Winchester, but I don’t think you can take Winchester out of me. … Every story I do, and I mean this sincerely, I’m speaking to my parents. By the way, they watch and they’re my biggest critics. … My mom says, “Eh, you know, your tie was crooked.”
VB: What are your favorite types of guests to interview?
Sullivan: There’s so many interesting people in this country, right? Whether it’s the billionaire over here or the guy or the woman who’s going to be the next business leader. I like talking to people that are building businesses. For example … there’s a franchise called Dave’s Hot Chicken. … There’s a couple in Virginia. It’s the fastest-growing food franchise in the country — started off as one food cart in Los Angeles. … Those are the kind of people I love talking to. These are people that are younger, they’re taking risks, they’re borrowing money — it’s hard; it’s scary.
VB: What led you to switch careers and go into journalism after working as a chemical commodities trader for Mitsubishi International Corp.?
Sullivan: I didn’t intend on it at all. I actually … was going to go to grad school at UNC Chapel Hill for journalism and I needed a job for a couple of months in New York. Got a four-day temporary job at Bloomberg, and 12 1/2 years later, I left. Literally, that was it. They kept asking me to come back, week after week, at Bloomberg, and then they said, “Hey, do you want a full-time job?” … They were launching TV at the time, so I started working midnight to 9 a.m. I had the lowest-level job. I got in at 11:30 p.m. and left at 9:30 in the morning. That sort of parlayed opportunity after opportunity. Really, it was a lot of luck involved. But then when you get the opportunity, you got to make the most of it.
VB: How did you get into your hobby of sports car racing? Are you still driving?
Sullivan: Oh, yes. My dad raced cars a little bit when I was growing up. I started [racing] motorcycle, BMX bikes, go-karts when I was 9 years old and did it in high school. Couldn’t do it in college. You can’t do both. It’s just too much time. Then two years after graduating from college, I went into a racing school, won my first race in the racing school and raced full time for many years, but I would call myself semiretired. I race when I’m able. Family first, work, community obligations, then racing. I’m not done. Not done yet. It’s the one thing you can do when you’re 51 and still be fairly competitive.