When I am not enjoying the massive ups and downs of my day job toiling in the deal business on Wall Street, I spend a few weeks a year teaching MBA students about finance. One of my class segments deals with entrepreneurial behavior. Entrepreneurs tend to have certain characteristics: they innovate, think creatively, have unwavering determination in the face of a challenge, are willing to take risks and bear the consequences, and are comfortable with ambiguity. While I have never in my career been an entrepreneur, I’ve tried to act like one in every one of my roles at every stage of my career. My Hamilton education was profoundly helpful in teaching me how to perform like an entrepreneur.
Just getting to Wall Street was for me an exercise in creative thinking and innovation. My summer job while at Hamilton was as a carpenter/painter/paper hanger - I never did any kind of professional internship. In my job search process with Wall Street firms, I had to navigate “technical” interviews, wherein the topics were accounting, corporate finance, etc. I had no preparation, experience or context for these discussion, so I had to get creative. My approach was to convince the interviewer that my experience and skill at, say, estimating how much a wallpapering job would cost was applicable to a financial analysis job. As much of a longshot as this approach may have been, it only had to work once – and it did.
I attended business school at UCLA, graduating at a time when the job market was horrible. The usual on-campus interviewing route was a clear path to failure. So, I got entrepreneurial the old-fashioned way - hard, unrelenting work. I cold called dozens of firms, I worked every possible corner of my personal and professional network and I took and followed up on every interview, meeting or phone conversation I could get. Eventually I managed to get into a dialogue with a startup firm founded by a UCLA Anderson Trustee (at the time, I served as a student representative to the Board). This led to a position at what would become Blackrock Financial Management, now the largest asset management firm in the world. The effort was enormous, but it paid off.
My career has taken me in numerous directions since then - some good, some not so good. The financial crisis, for example, created colossal uncertainty for the entire financial industry. It also had an indelible effect on so many individuals, many of whom who lost jobs or had to make significant adjustments to their professional and personal lives. At the onset of the crisis I was at a great firm which, sadly, was among the first to collapse. This event forced me to scramble to land a new, hopefully stable position. My entire professional life for months was in turmoil. However, I embraced the chaos and used the widespread dislocation in the markets to spot and pursue new opportunities. The ambiguity and uncertainty of the financial markets post-crisis turned out to be fertile ground for the prosecution of new opportunities. Although I was at a large, established firm, entrepreneurial behavior helped me to create and grow a new line of business from scratch into a significant money maker for my firm.
Entrepreneurs also - almost by definition - play the long game. Being entrepreneurial doesn’t mean going for the quick payday. It means building enduring businesses and relationships that improve the odds of success over a long period of time. Just before the financial crisis, I executed what at the time was the most important transaction in my industry segment - the combination of Thomson Corporation and Reuters to create Thomson Reuters. Career-wise, I could have seen that transaction as the pinnacle, never to be out-done. Instead, I saw it as merely one more step in an important client’s strategic evolution process. I have continued to work with that client, maintaining relationships, offering counsel and developing proprietary ideas. Earlier this year, that effort - that focus on the long game - allowed me to reprise the earlier transaction with an even more significant one, the sale of The Thomson Reuters’ Financial and Risk business to the Blackstone group - the largest LBO in the last ten years.
Acting like an entrepreneur may seem like a mysterious, hard-to-follow proposition. But it’s not that complicated or inscrutable. The skills that Hamilton College does so well to impart to its students - facility with the written and spoken word, critical reasoning, openness to new perspectives and differing points of view – are precisely the skills that promote entrepreneurial behavior and encourage successful results. Honing these skills now will help you to always be an entrepreneur - taking risks, embracing ambiguity, and creating innovative solutions to problems in whatever career you might choose to pursue.
John Fargis graduated from Hamilton in 1987 with a degree in International and Comparative Political Studies and received an MBA from The Anderson School at UCLA. He has spent his entire professional career on Wall Street with several firms, including Chase Manhattan Bank, Blackrock, Bear Stearns, Jefferies and Guggenheim Securities. He is also an Adjunct Professor of Finance at NYU – Stern School of Business.