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A trip report on my visit to TMF Headquarters
Board: Stock Advisor / Ask the Stock Advisor Team (free trial required)
Date: April 30, 2008
Wasn't sure where to post this but thought I'd share with the community.
So, I had a unique opportunity this week to visit Fool HQ outside of Washington, D.C. I had a trip to the area for other reasons and TMFGebnir was kind enough to agree to show me around TMF while I was in town. I am not certain they could accommodate everyone like that, so I consider myself fortunate and figured I'd at least share my observations for everyone else.
My thoughts prior to visiting were this.... who REALLY are these guys and gals... what kind of outfit is it??? Being a very Foolish skeptic, my thought was that if I was going to base some of my investment decisions based on their advice, I'd like to know a bit about them. Was it all hype? Was the web description well written or real?? I am potentially investing a lot of money based on this advice, good will and web articles only go so far. I am one of those that a hand shake, a look in the eyes and a face to face first impression go a long ways.
When I started investing 15 years ago, I remember the look in the broker's eyes... he saw dollar signs in me... he didn't see a person. I wondered how TMF would look at me.
So, since the opportunity became available I thought it would make an interesting field trip. Here is what I observed....
First... everyone at TMF looked at me as a person they could learn from... and someone they wanted to provide a quality service to. That was surprising since I am here to learn. No "up-selling"... no dollar signs... they wanted to learn and want to serve... more on that later......
TMF HQ is in Alexandria, VA just outside of Washington, D.C. You literally can see the Washington Monument looking out their windows. It is in a nice part of town, well appointed office building. From what I saw, they take up the full fourth floor and probably more... about 180 people in the company. The layout is remarkably open. Low partitions such that sitting at a desk you can see over the partitions all around you. I expected it to be louder, but everyone was busily typing away on their computers... it was fairly quiet. Conference Rooms.... named after major successful investors... are scattered around the floor... the group talking occurred in there enabling the quiet on the main floor. Also a remarkable equality in appointment... the desks for the Gardner brothers were no different than everyone else's. It looked pretty much like everyone on the team wore the same "uniforms" and had the same locker space... no super star treatment on this team. People decorated their spaces more so than I'd be accustomed to in a NASA environment, but nothing out of the ordinary other than an abnormal amount of fool hats laying on people's book cases. They really do have a game room... ping pong... video games... etc.
My mentioned "uniforms" before... business casual... no ties... but no cut off shorts or unprofessional attire either. I noticed a few in flip flops... a bit more casual... but again nothing extraordinary in attire.
From the office and physical impressions my takeaways were centered around the equality that I observed. Everyone I met was dress roughly the same level of formality and everyone had roughly the same floor space and accommodations. You couldn't tell someone's position or role in the company based on where they sit, the size of their office or what they wear. That is a contrast to my environment.... corner window office.... solo office with a door and secretary guard dog outside, wearing the "management tie" most days are still symbols of position and power. I very much liked the equality and the environment. In short, it was everything you'd picture based on what you'd read but in person it was "warmer"... "more genuine" than you can convey in writing.
The people I met were startling in a way. I am going to try to explain this in loving terms. I hope you follow my analogy. At NASA, I am a project manager. I have all sorts of varying specialists that support my projects.... each of them passionate about their specialty. Worst amongst these specialists are the thermal analysts. Thermal analysis for hypersonic re-entry vehicles is amongst the foulest black magic, nasty engineering there is. You almost need a PhD to even have a discussion of any depth in the area. It truly takes a special person to love that black magic... even the "normal" geeks look at those types and marvel at them. I have often commented that, "Thank God, there are people in the world that love this stuff." and thermal guys eat, sleep, dream this stuff 24/7. From my point of view, it is amazing any of them have lives outside of thermal analysis... and I contend many of them don't... that stuff IS their life. But.... the world needs folks like that for really tough problems... sincerely, Thank God for them because my NASA teams couldn't succeed without their passion.
So why do I tell you about NASA thermal analysts??? Because the TMF folks are just as passionate about stocks... I am convinced they eat, sleep, breath stocks 24/7. I went to the bathroom while at TMF and wouldn't have been surprised to hear someone talking stocks in the bathroom.
I gave them... or more appropriately... I attempted to give them a talk about what NASA was doing in our new programs replacing the Space Shuttle. I never have given a NASA talk like that and I am certain I never will again... but it was cool in it's own way. It was like they couldn't resist.... Normally, I get tons of questions... how are we doing this? how does that work?? why this?? Not so with TMF.... What new technologies do you see that might be good investments in the future? [A question I politely tried to avoid because I am not legally allowed to comment on that because it might be perceived as a government endorsement.] A good percentage of the questions they asked centered back to investing.... How does NASA look a risks??? because we assess risks for stocks...... Everything turned back to stocks... somewhere in the conversation I completely lost control of the presentation and the Gardner brothers started asking me about my opinions of Stock Advisor and my favorite stocks and and and.... I was totally unprepared for that....
These people LIVE for stocks..... Honestly... I smiled. I need those thermal analysts. I cannot succeed without them... and thank God for their passion and commitment. So, if I were picking a team to put on my "stock team" I'd want people with the same passion.... boy, TMF has that in spades.... I'd want that on my team any day and every day and twice on Sundays.
The other thing that really struck me was the openness. At least half a dozen people nearly grilled me for feed back on Stock Advisor.... saying it was "Great... enjoyed the service" clearly wasn't a sufficient answer. They REALLY wanted details. What can we do better? What do you think about this... or that... or this?? They very clearly are VERY committed to providing a quality service. They are very clearly committed to improving. I wish I had taken notes, but everyone was AMAZINGLY open. Every question I asked... I got straight up .... no kidding answers. Again, a qualification... as a NASA manager, I am almost always fed "filtered" explanations. I go to companies all the time and I get sterile, cleansed answers to my questions.... not at the Fool. The Gardners to the interns... straight answers..... to anything I asked.... to any critique or suggestion... to any comment. AMAZINGLY open.
So.... I ended up leaving my visit with action items.... how the heck did that happen?? I ended up promising I'd send some stuff in about how to look at risk and lessons from flight control as they apply to the stock market... I am still not sure how that happened... but I'll do it.... Boy, they really are passionate.... learning sponges... anything that can help them get smarter... anything to better serve the customers... Wow. That was startling. You don't see passion like that every day.
Conclusions.... the stuff you read about TMF isn't a complete story. They don't tell you that every article is read and proofed three times before publishing... fact checkers independently verifying all facts before publication... they can't convey that openness or passion or equality... and if they tried to convey it no one would believe them and it would probably come across unbelievable.... maybe you can believe it from me since I am just a customer and this is an unsolicited post.
Stock Advisor and TMF can stand improvement... which reminds me of my third action one of the Gardners gave me to write up my observations and suggestions.... but if I were to design the passion and commitment I'd want on my stock team.... this is exactly what I'd pick. I wouldn't be a subscriber and TMF [Stock Advisor] recommendations would be a part of my investment strategy if I wasn't a Foolish believer, but having met them in person I far more impressed. They really don't do themselves justice.
Just my observations. I know it sounds pretty flowery and optimal.... but that is what I saw.
Thanks much to TMFGebnir and all the Fools I met.
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