I have been very fortunate to have the late Teddy Forstmann as my mentor and unofficial godfather. Today marks 4 years since his passing. While this is always a difficult time of year for my loved ones today I feel particularly motivated and inspired by the lessons he’s still teaching me.
As a private equity investor he successfully turned around several businesses through leveraged buyouts including Gulfstream, Dr Pepper and sports/media company, IMG. His most successful ventures paid out over $15 billion to investors. While often aggressive both in business and personal life he was also very generous and the majority of his wealth went towards the support of several children’s funds. His legacy as a philanthropist and father far exceeded his corporate successes.
Remembering my time with him brings out a few lessons learned along the way:
At the annual Forstmann Little & Co anniversary dinner in 2003 he said,
“The entrepreneur, as a creator of the new and a destroyer of the old, is constantly in conflict with convention. He inhabits a world where belief precedes results, and where the best possibilities are usually invisible to others. His world is dominated by denial, rejection, difficulty, and doubt. And although as an innovator, he is unceasingly imitated when successful, he always remains an outsider to the ‘establishment.'”
This quotation is posted on my desk to remind myself and anyone who visits what the true definition and cost of entrepreneurship is. This is one of the most important lessons Teddy taught me. Each conversation we had greatly formed both who I am professionally and our similarities most likely drew in large part from my admiration in him and lessons learned through watching him work. This particular quote motivated my current business, Kairos, which seeks to build up young entrepreneurs to better versions of themselves and help them navigate the difficult waters of this chosen journey. In the face of insurmountable challenges and doubt the entrepreneur still rises and perseveres. Entrepreneurs see the solution before others and have the faith to see it through. No one understands them, no one gets their perspectives. Despite immense success, CEO titles and more, Teddy always grasped what it truly meant to be an entrepreneur and remained one in his thinking and behavior.
Teddy taught me about the tremendous confidence one must have in oneself, one’s business and particularly in the results others won’t or can’t seem to see. Entrepreneurship requires a certain level of confidence and dare I say cockiness. The confidence to believe yourself and your idea to be capable enough of succeeding and good enough that people will actually pay your for it!
One must also possess the right amount of confidence (not ego) in the value they bring to the table. Teddy never let BS slide and one always had to back up their opinions with facts and real knowledge. He constantly questioned the purpose behind every decision so nothing was done without insights and without a specific end goal and outcome in mind.
This confidence also comes in the face of all odds, for myself doubters and lack of security and for Teddy in the battle against a rare and debilitating form of brain cancer. While some of his businesses didn’t succeed in life nothing ever stopped him from getting back up again and putting those lessons into the next phase of life. Cliché perhaps, but he truly never gave up. Even to the very end. This resilience rubbed off on all those around him.
Teddy was intense competitor… to say the least. Hehe. While some may think he couldn’t turn off this aspect of life, especially on the golf course or tennis court, there was always a lesson at hand.
Once I decide to do something, I want to win in the worst way. I will do anything within the law to win.
While watching him work I believe the great lesson he taught me most wasn’t competing against rivals, imagined or real, but competing against my own standards and expectations. He taught me to only be jealous of the future me.
As stated in his quote above, Teddy believed a key to success was operating outside the rules of convention. I believe it’s important to continuously change why and how you work; not to simply buck the system; but to find new ways to work and achieve goals to achieve a greater purpose. For Teddy that wasn’t about making the most money in the companies he acquired but to truly making an impact on its leadership, employees and customers.
He wouldn’t have wanted me to write this but enough cannot be written about Teddy’s generosity. The literally countless amount of money and time dedicated to noble causes has been his most admirable quality. A pioneer in access to education, Teddy co-founded and led the US’s largest charity, the Children’s Scholarship Fund. Because of his direct donations and drive to grow the philanthropic spirit CSF has given out over $650 million to get 152,000 children into school since 1988. Those that know him as the real “Huggy Bear” know the amount of events and tournaments he put on to raise funds for sick children. He also did a tremendous amount of work in South Africa together with Nelson Mandela to provide education and care for orphans and adopting boys who have gone on to change my life even further. This personally led to my meeting my brother and closest friend Siya, a man who’s carried Teddy’s legacy on with pride, dignity and class.
Teddy was the most compassionate and generous people I have ever or ever will meet. While many of his peers placed eternal value on their standing on the Forbes list Teddy went out of his way to make sure others could succeed and the majority of his estate has gone to ensuring that happens for generations to come.
That’s what entrepreneurship is really about. Not who has the most things, the most successes, the greatest returns. Teddy taught me that it is rather in the power of your legacy. He will always be remembered first by the lives he positively impacted, not by his finances but through his character and works.
I’m beyond grateful for the time I spent with a great man and a great leader. Without his example and guidance I would not be where I am today or the man I am. In writing this and remembering him today, I’ve realized what a privilege it is to share some of his traits. I hope to also share in his successes as well but most importantly carry on his legacy.
Rest in peace TJF, we miss you down here.