PORTRAITS BY CHUN-LI 'KEN' HUANG
Thomas Bisch has always loved history. Growing up, the best gifts he received for holidays or birthdays were from his aunt, an antique dealer who buys and sells old estates. One year, she gave him a British lancer hat from the 1850s that she found in a closet of one of these homes. When he was 12, she gave Thomas a cigar box filled with old coins that had been accidently left in the house by its previous owners. In doing so, she unknowingly sparked an unrelenting passion.
Thomas, a senior and double major in Business Administration and Economics, is the owner of his own company, World Coin and Currency, LLC. Thomas is one of only four people in the United States who buys and sells foreign coin on its collectible, metal, or foreign exchange value. “It’s kind of weird, you can throw change in front of me and I can tell you where its from and what it's worth,” he said. “I started buying and collecting US coins, but I was 12 and I had no money,” Thomas recalled. “I realized I could buy foreign coins for like ten for a dollar…so that’s what I started doing,” he said.
HAGGLING WITH PEOPLE ACROSS THE WORLD—Thomas immediately began absorbing as much information as he possibly could about coins, a task that takes most people a lifetime of learning. “I bought catalogs from the 1500s to today, about 5,000 pages total. I read through and studied those for years, until it got to the point where if I saw a coin, I knew where it was from, I knew how much it was worth, I knew how much it weighed, (or how much it was supposed to weigh), and I knew what it was made out of,” Thomas said.
When he got to be about 16 or 17 years old and all his other friends were working at McDonald's or Dunkin Donuts, Thomas realized that his coin collection and extensive knowledge wasn’t just a hobby anymore. He realized that he could make real money. “One day I was going through my coin collection, cataloging stuff, looking at it. And I realized that I had a ton of Canadian dollars, British pounds, German marks, euros. Things that I knew the exchange value was way higher than the 10 cents I paid for them. So I created a couple of listings on ebay, and I sold them—very quickly,” he said.
Thomas Bisch discovered his passion when he was 12 years old and his aunt gave him a cigar box filled with old coins. From there, he began researching as much as he could about foreign currency, and soon learned that he could exchange these coins and make real money. Today, Thomas' business World Coin & Currency LLC has earned him several job offers in his senior year of college, from both his competitors and companies who specialize in foreign exchange. Although Thomas is one of only four people in the United States who does this kind of work, he only started telling his friends at Marist this year about his business.
After this initial realization, Thomas’ clientele quickly expanded—and with that, so did his revenue, easily surpassing those of the minimum wage jobs his friends held. At 17, Thomas’ job didn’t make sense to his friends, who saw it more as a weird obsession with coins.
“Nobody really understood what I was doing,” Thomas said. “It was pretty much just kind of the butt of a joke. My friends were like, “‘Oh, Tom can’t do stuff, he’s too busy with his coins’,” Thomas said.
This experience during high school is one of the reasons why Thomas decided to keep a very low profile when he came to Marist. “Saying I buy and sell cash wasn’t something I wanted to just tell people when I first showed up here at Marist,” he said. He also couldn’t be as active without a car and his P.O. box that he created at home for sending and receiving large shipments (although one time he accidently had 50 pounds of coins shipped to his Marist mailbox). “It was a strange adjustment,” he said.
This silence about his work continued for three years at Marist, until last January, when he began making a large enough amount of money from his coins that he realized he needed to “go official.” So, he launched his business: World Coin and Currency, LLC. “At this point, it’s really no longer a joke which is kind of nice. I just really started telling people now,” he said.
Thomas currently works for N.F. String & Sons, and has processed foreign coins for San Francisco Transit and Denver International Airport. Last summer, he signed a $125,000 contract with MTA. In what usually takes a year, Thomas processed about 13,000 pounds of coin for MTA within three months. “I pretty much worked from 11am to 3 am every day. I did take some days off...but I worked very long days just to get it done.”
“It was a lot of fun but it was an adventure,” he said. His parents let him turn his house into a coin-sorting haven—his kitchen was completely overtaken. “Nothing but praise for them, I don’t know how they deal with it,” he said, of his parents.
He also takes time to thank his local post office, where he hauled 7,500 pounds of coin to (only about half of all coin is valuable)—in this summer alone. “I had my own private section. I would walk into the post office and they would just point me to the door, someone would let me in the back, everything was pre-labeled, I would put it on these huge metal dollies, and they would just roll it on the truck,” he said.
As he prepares to graduate with two job offers already on the table, Thomas looks back on the evolution of his coin business and recognizes how much him and his business have grown since he was 12. Still, he said it can still be difficult for other people to understand.
Tom Bisch's Childhood Image
"It just doesn’t fit the criteria of what some people see as a job."
“A lot of times [my friends] ask me last minute, ‘do you want to get lunch?’ and I’m like ‘oh I’m sorry I’m working.’ It hit a point where people thought I was just lying about what I was doing. They would see me in the library or outside taking phone calls and be like you’re on campus, you’re not working. But I was working. It just doesn’t fit the criteria of what some people see as a job,” he said.
In fact, taking phone calls is one of the biggest parts of Thomas’ jobs, and one of the things he loves to do the most. He has spoken with people from every continent (except Antarctica) and although he said he is “absolutely terrible” at speaking foreign languages himself, he loves the opportunity to get to learn about other cultures.
“Negotiation across different cultures is amazing,” he said. “What is completely acceptable here, you can’t do other places. And what you can do in other places, you can’t do here. I export a lot of Indian coins, one of things I love [is that] they haggle over everything. It’s just their culture. So for me, it’s amazing, because I love haggling.”
‘TYPICAL’ COLLEGE STUDENT—When he isn’t haggling with people across the world, Thomas is a typical college student, which helps explain how he was able to blend in all these years. He plays the french horn, the melodrome, and the recorder in the Marist band, and is a part of the Marist band service fraternity, Kappa Kappa Psi. He likes to play video games and frequents the campus gaming club. He refers to capping last semester as when he was “dying internally,” and, oddly enough, he cannot for the life of him figure out how to change his Yahoo address.
When Thomas sends an email, his address line reads “Keith Bisch” rather than Thomas. “Keith’s my father’s name. He made that email for me back in like sixth grade. And, uh, I don’t know how to change it. At this point, I’ve committed to it. It’s kind of just become a running joke,” he laughed.
Professor Tony Fareed had Thomas as a student in his entrepreneurship course last spring, where he helped him and a few other students use Thomas’ currency idea for the New York Business Plan competition, of which they came in first place for the undergraduate category at the state level. During this time, Tony Fareed became both a mentor and friend to Thomas, who said that taking Tony’s class was “one of the best decisions I ever made.”
During their time working together, Tony noted that Thomas was not only an extremely bright and articulate person, but also someone who was very humble. “One thing that sticks out is Thomas’ openness to constructive criticism. During the preparation for the business plan competition, Thomas took honest feedback and criticism from other students and me extremely positively,” he said.
Tony also touches on an important aspect for any successful businessperson to possess: character. “Thomas combines high intellect and motivation with being an inherently good person,” he said. “I believe this special combination is the foundation that led to him realizing his accomplishments, [and] will serve him well for many years to come.”
While Tony believes Thomas’ business has great potential to grow, he said that above all, he wants Thomas to do whatever will make him happy. “Whatever he decides to do, he will be successful.”