Imagine if you had a trusted "mentor" capitalist, an MC, who, beyond anything else, just knew how to make money. And the wisdom this person would provide wasn't difficult to understand or apply. Benjamin Graham was this kind of MC to Warren Buffett. Back in the 1960s, Gordon Moore -- the man who had the vision that computers would always grow faster, cheaper, and smaller, and would double in power every 18 months -- was a mentor to Andrew Grove, founder of Intel
Great capitalists I know
Six years ago, I went to work in Paris for an international publishing magnate. While there, I learned a couple of things. First, every week or so the French employees in our office would suddenly, and seemingly without occasion, break into wine and foie gras and cheese parties. Maybe they did this in every office on Boulevard St. Germain. Or maybe it was just ours, and part of an office conspiracy of sorts, by the natives, to dupe the silly Americans who ate lunch at their desks and drank coffee on the go.
I'm not sure which it was, but I do know that I liked it. Nothing takes the edge off an intense close-of-business deadline like two or three tall glasses of vinrouge. And even if it was an invented custom, I applaud those French employed by Americans for reminding us that it's possible to find a parade and get out in front of it.
The other important lesson I learned was that you should invest time and capital only in the things that you can get your head completely around. That's precisely how my friend and "mentor" capitalist built his company. He began with a small newsletter shop and grew by buying up little publishing companies with a vision similar to his around the United States, and later in London, Paris, Germany, and South Africa. In just 25 years, his privately owned company (of which he personally owns the great majority) has zero debt, industry-leading profit margins, and annual revenues approaching $200 million.
Great capitalists I've met
I met former Netscape
Like other great MCs, Jim advises that before a company (or any enterprise) is worthy of having time or capital invested in it, the business must focus on doing what it does best. In fact, he's been known to say, "Always remember, the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing."
A second important Jim Barksdale lesson didn't come to me until a few years later. Not surprisingly, I had already been exposed to this powerful idea; I just wasn't certain how to express it. But then it hit me while I was back in Oxford at a close friend's wedding. At one point during the rehearsal dinner, one of Barksdale's buddies stood up and pointed to a giant, authentic picture of the groom -- my friend -- dressed as a majorette leading a Mardi Gras parade. He said, "One of my good friend Jim Barksdale's favorite expressions is, 'If you want to be a leader, find a parade and get in front of it.'. But I'm not sure this is what he had in mind."
Once again, with two or three tall glasses of red wine in my wake, things started to come together.
Great capitalists I've seen in a restaurant
Not long ago, my wife and I saw Donald Rumsfeld at a lively French bistro in Washington's Dupont Circle neighborhood. Is the secretary of defense a "mentor" capitalist? Well, let me first point out that he has a net worth in the vicinity of $135 million. And before his current position, he did a stint as a captain of industry.
Now, Rumsfeld did not lean over between courses and say to me, "Hey fella, you look like one of the good guys. Let me tell you one or two things about making a lot of money." But I'd be willing to bet if he did, his advice would be a lot like some of the other lessons I've received from MCs. And I like to further imagine his advice would be couched in terms like these:
- Beirne, always do something you understand inside and out and can do well.
- Get off your duff and do it.
Clarity and purpose build bold fortunes. They always have. And they always will.
Your Foolish "mentor" capitalist
The kind of vision and certitude that builds great companies and makes great investment decisions possible reminds me of another "mentor" capitalist. Motley Fool co-founder -- and chief Rule Breaker -- David Gardner leads a dynamic and forward-looking group of investors called Motley Fool Rule Breakers. Rule Breakers are dedicated to ferreting out companies and technologies that will become tomorrow's newsmakers. And David has a remarkable knack for finding great investments.
David bought Starbucks
These kinds of businesses rattle our capitalistic foundations. They're built with vision and purpose. And investors who find them early on share the vision, as David did with America Online
There's no doubt about it. David and his brother Tom found a parade and got out in front of it when they launched The Motley Fool. And luckily for people like you and me, David also has the purpose -- every single day, he gets off his duff and finds great investments.
Looking for tomorrow's great companies today? Join David and the Foolish team of Rule Breakers by taking a free 30-day trial to the Rule Breakers newsletter. It starts byclicking here.
Beirne White does not own shares in any company mentioned in this story. The Motley Fool is investors writing for investors.