Discover more from Asphalt Jungle
Don't be the Best, be the Only
"Always be able to look back and say, at least I didn’t lead no humdrum life."
The first time I was raising institutional equity as an entrepreneur, I had my suit dry cleaned, got a haircut, and bought an airline ticket to Dallas. This was back when people carried briefcases and mine was full of photos, maps, projections, and some breath mints.
I had an option to purchase a sweet property and a rich partner that was going to put up the money for my side of the deal. In the meeting, I would make my case as to why these sophisticated investors should put up the lion’s share of the dough, investing alongside me and my new partner to buy the property, fix it up, and sell it for fabulous riches.
I’d only met my partner a month before, so we’d had just a few conversations to discuss the opportunity - but he was in from the moment I described it and ready to back the deal. It was a good deal, but still it’s always nice to see someone have instant conviction, especially when you need them to write checks.
He was a quick study, came recommended by a top tier west coast hedge fund, and looked the part. He had silver hair, wore sharkskin wool suits with striped repp ties from Paris, and luxurious Belgian loafers with the patina that comes from being resoled a few times. And he could talk. He had a charming and disarming manner with just the right amount of cutting humor. But this day he would remain silent and serious, nodding in approval as I made my presentation. At least until the end.
We arrived in Dallas, meeting in a big glass conference room in a big glass building with views of other big glass buildings under a big Texas sky. After introductions and pleasantries with our fit and tan potential investors, a brand name private equity group, I took a sip from my big glass of Texas water and dove into my pitch, and I was good. The presentation unfolded effortlessly, like linked downhill turns on powder skis. I explained why the opportunity was wonderful, why I was the right person to execute it, and why the market trends would reward us.
The fit and tan audience asked good questions throughout, but of course I had ready answers. As I reached the end of the presentation, when there felt to be a point of capitulation, I asked for the money. In response, the most senior of the fit and tan investors leaned in to say, “thanks for coming in, this is great, and just what we’re looking for.”
I stifled the urge to jump onto the conference table and begin twerking.
He continued, “I know you’re on a tight time frame, and we’ll be able to move quickly on this.” This was the biggest professional moment of my life and I fought to contain the elation.
“Really the only thing we’ll need to do is run a background check on you guys, to - you know - make sure you’ve never been to prison”. The fit and tan crew chuckled, as did I.
I stood and began packing up my briefcase, wanting to exit before anything went wrong. Everyone else stood, with small talk bubbling from team fit and tan. I noticed my partner remained sitting, looking pensive. He hadn’t spoken during the presentation but now he turned to the group and said: “so…if I have been to prison, that would be a problem?”
All heads turned to him, then in unison we all lowered ourselves back into our seats. For me, incontinence approached the moment I realized he was serious.
The silence indicated he should proceed.
“Well, you see, I graduated from college in the early ‘70s and things were, well, a bit more…loose”, he began.
He then went through a long story about how, after graduation, he and friend created a commune and organic farm, growing fruits, vegetables, and marijuana. My would-be partner’s interest in farming life soon waned, but the friend continued on.
YOU’VE GOT TO BE KIDDING ME, I thought.
He lost touch with the friend when he moved to the city to start a family and career. But his life changed twelve years later with a knock at the door from the ATF. The feds asked him to come in for questioning and he finds out his former friend went on to become one of our country’s largest growers - and sellers - of marijuana.
THIS CAN’T BE HAPPENING, I thought.
Despite his lawyer’s objections, he went into great detail as to his involvement in the farm saying he accepted full responsibility for anything that happened during his time there. In response, and as an effort to get to the kingpin, the feds sent him to federal prison for a year.
I hung my head, knowing my deal had evaporated.
The senior fit and tan broke the silence: “WOW - what a story! Thanks for sharing - but that’s fine - we’re just looking to make sure our prospective partners haven’t committed fraud.”
Then they all scooted up in their seats and asked all sorts of questions about the story and his experience. It turned into roaring laughter as the story took more turns and it came out his prison roommate was Ivan Boesky, the famous insider trading criminal that was the inspiration for the Gordon Gekko character in the movie Wall Street.
The fit and tans agreed to move forward with funding my project. And over time my prisoner partner became one of my closest friends. But not unlike how the prison story dripped out, every so often some other nugget would drop about his Forrest Gump-like life.
He produced concerts for Buck Owens and Led Zeppelin, he wrote a major movie script, he owned a timber company in Siberia, he married a Vogue model, he created a landscape plan for a park in Paris, he spent a summer living at Hearst Castle, he restored wooden boats, he grew english roses, and he loved real estate.
He collected friends like others might collect artwork and had an affinity for extending a hand to those down on their luck. He could out-bullshit the best bullshitters; he was equally at home discussing long/short hedge strategies or the Giants lineup. He loved both helicopters and fancy cigars. He was ever-optimistic - closing every telephone conversation with “Onward and Upward!” - and a true friend that could make you hold your sides from laughing too hard.
Parkinson’s disease later showed up and ravaged him for the last decade of his life, leaving a trembling hollowed-out husk of the man he once was. Not too long before the end we were in a grocery store, in the adult diapers aisle, debating the merits of each make and model. He was hunched over his cane shaking and trembling having me read aloud the description on each package, when I noticed him jerk straight up, sucking in his gut.
Behind him, pushing a cart, was a strikingly attractive woman. As soon as she passed, never acknowledging us, he collapsed back into his former state. Smiling at me, he asked, “I think I had a shot, what do you think?”
He was one of a kind. Real estateurs are well served not to be the best, but to be the only. Mix in a healthy dose of optimism and success is assured.
Rest easy, my old friend