WHEN: Today, Thursday, September 19th
Following is the unofficial transcript of a CNBC EXCLUSIVE interview with Stephen A. Schwarzman, Blackstone Chairman, CEO & Co-Founder; “What it Takes: Lessons in the Pursuit of Excellence” Author, live from the CNBC Institutional Investor Delivering Alpha Conference in New York City on Thursday, September 19th.
BECKY QUICK: All right. Good afternoon, everybody. Take a minute here and get settled.I know most of you in this room know Steve Schwarzman. You know his bio, you know a lot about him. But I would like to tell you a few things that maybe you don't know about him. And by the way, if you haven't read the book, make sure you get it. Incredibly open and honest, and his candor is what makes for great reading, which is why the book is selling so well.
Steve grew up in Philadelphia from very modest means. He started out as a leader very early on in high school and at Yale University. And he was a reluctant but fervent convert to business. Before he went to Harvard Business School, he actually applied to law school. He was rejected at Harvard and at Yale and at Stanford, and it was their loss. That's why he wound up at Harvard Business School.
STEPHEN A. SCHWARZMAN: I tried one or two other ones; I was rejected there, too.
BECKY QUICK: His first job on Wall Street was at DLJ at the age of 21. And on his first day, he sat down at his desk, waiting to see what happens. Somebody eventually handed him an annual report from a company called Genesco. And Steve, who we all know is one of the brightest minds in the business, looked at it, and at the time he said he might as well have been reading Swahili. That was 1968. Let's fast-forward to today.
Steve is now at the top of the Blackstone Group, which is a global private equity firm that he and Pete Peterson built from the ground up. Literally, built from the ground up. It was Steve, Pete, and Pete's secretary. Steve didn't even get a secretary for two years coming into this, and this was after both of them had had incredibly successful careers. Today Blackstone has $545 million in assets under management. They have about 200 companies in their portfolio. They employ half a million people around the globe.
Steve, let's go back to some of the early days, though, because I think what's so amazing in this book are the lessons that you talk about. And a lot of those lessons come from failures that all of us have experienced, but you learned from those things and took lessons out of them. Let's set the scene that you start the book with. And this is, I think, 1987. You and Pete have gone to raise money. You're standing at MIT at the endowment, where you have a meeting. And tell us how that went.
STEPHEN A. SCHWARZMAN: Well, there are a lot of people here who have raised a lot of money for things. And we started out in 1985, and we formed the firm October 1st. And we had a business plan to go into the advisory business because it didn't require any capital. We only put up $400,000, 200 apiece. And you could talk, and people would give you millions of dollars.You know, now I'm talking for free --
-- so I've gone backwards. But that was the first thing we wanted to do. And the second thing was to go into the private equity business. And the third thing was to start new businesses, some of which have become, you know, like our real estate business, which is the biggest in the world now. You know, you started when you saw something really decline, where it looked like an amazing opportunity that, even as an amateur manager, I couldn't screw up. It would just happen by itself because your timing was right. If you could hire somebody who was a 10 on a scale of 10 to run it, and if the business itself generated intellectual capital that could make your existing businesses stronger. So that was the simple plan.
And we're still just doing exactly the same thing, except we're doing it at sort of like much bigger scale than when you start and it's just an idea. So as to what Becky asked me, as part of our second part of our strategy, we decided to raise a private equity fund. I was really well-qualified for that because I had never made an investment. And the same with my partner. This probably wouldn't be possible today. But in 1985, '86, you actually could really -- I was going to use a word that I just don't want to be quoted, but you could --
BECKY QUICK: Oh, wait. Do tell.
STEPHEN A. SCHWARZMAN: You could really, like, convince them, hopefully. And so we were out and about, and we had a lot of trouble. Most people -- we sent out 500 little letters and offering circulars, and nobody called. That's always a bad sign if you're an entrepreneur. Nobody ever responds, so we started calling the people we knew best to have meetings. And that was always the worst thing to do, almost everybody makes that mistake. You think you know what you're doing, but actually you don't because you start encountering questions from people you don't know how to answer, so you look like the dummy you actually are, and they turn you down.
So we managed to find two people, but it wasn't enough. And then we just started scattering around pretty desperate. But we did find somebody to make it happen; that's a different story. So one of the things you do in this type of operation is you visit people.
So, as Becky said, my partner was 21 years older than me. He was senior, so he had a secretary. I was junior, so they -- you know, we decided I should be the CEO because it's such a detestable position, where you actually have to do stuff that -- you know, I didn't have a secretary for two years. I didn't think we could afford it. And so, you know, I answered doors and phones and that kind of stuff. So I made an appointment to go up to MIT to see their endowment. So like all humans, you know, I dialed them up. They said: Yeah, we'd like to see you, whatever it was, Friday at 3:00. I called them the day before to just confirm.
So we go up to MIT to their, you know, sort of -- looks like it was built in the '20s, their sort of administration building. So we walked down the big hall. It says, you know, MIT endowment. It's one of those things from like almost the 1940s, with the wood on the bottom of the door and then the frosted glass where somebody put "MIT Endowment." I said: Okay, a little old-fashioned. What the hell, they have money.
And, you know, I knock on the door, and nobody answered. So I said: Geez, you know, I must not be knocking loud enough. So you don't want to break the glass, but you start rapping. Nobody comes. I've got my partner with me, who's a very dignified person, who I had worked with at Lehman for almost all my career, and he's sort of watching this scenario. And I keep banging on the thing, and nobody's coming.
So one of the janitors walked by. And I said: Look, I'm having trouble getting in this door. I figured maybe they were hiding in the back, I don't know. And he said: Oh, they left for the weekend. I said: What do you mean, they left? He said: Well, I saw them all just walk out, you know, like a half an hour ago. So, you know, this was pretty, like, disappointing.
And so he said: Well, maybe you should try them on Monday. Try them on Monday? I mean, they said they were going to be there. So we left, and we were outside, going outside. It was raining. And, you know, we didn't have an umbrella. We didn't have a raincoat. So my partner, Pete Peterson, said something reasonable, he's always reasonable, like: Maybe we should wait for the rain to stop.
And I'm thinking: Does he know somebody up there? Why is the rain going to stop? This rain is, like, really coming down. And after about 15 or 20 minutes, it's pretty clear this rain, you know, is not in line with Pete's views. And it's going to keep going. So I figure, okay, human sacrifice, I'll go out into the traffic and try and get a cab. But if you've never been in a place, these MIT people are pretty clever.
They'd intercept all the cabs, you know, like a block or two away. And so I'm out there getting completely drenched, I mean, driving rain, and there are no cabs. And so I said: Okay. I don't know what to do, but I said: The only way out of this thing is to take some money and see if I could get somebody to let me get in their cab and then drop them off and we get the leftover cab, in effect paying for their fare. So I took 20 bucks and I started rapping on windows, and people looked at me like I was completely insane. Why is this soaked person rapping on -- would you take 20 bucks? Nothing. So then I realize I'm really screwed.
So I ramped it up to 30 bucks, and I found somebody who would take the 30 bucks. And then Pete, of course, had to get to the cab. So I watch him edge out from under that portico, and the rain starts hitting him. And he had really nice hair, even when he passed away, a full head of hair. And I watched it go from being combed to, like, all over his face. Soaking wet. Both of us soaking wet.
We got in the cab and we're sitting at Logan Airport. I thought the guy was going to kill me. And that's the start of the entrepreneurial life. And there are a lot of people in this room who've had stuff like that happen to them. There is no straight line. I see Josh sitting here. You've had your own miseries. And so, you know, this is the start of a business which today, you know, it's got 60 billion market cap, and everybody thinks we're really pretty good stuff.
But if you've ever been through these kinds of situations, you never ever, ever forget how difficult these things are and the misery and the being alone and failing. Because no one is mandated to be successful. In your own head, when you do these things, you of course believe you're going to be successful. But what you learn is that the world doesn't particularly like change.
They like their lives more or less the way they are, and you're disrupting their life. You're asking them to make some different decision. And, you know, they don't always buy it. And, you know, we were completely dead and, you know, we had run out of the big guys to go to sea, and we had one left. It was The Prudential in Newark. This was Newark before Cory Booker. It was pretty rough. Any of you who spent your time over in Newark, congratulations. And so we went over there to do another one of these analyst pitches. And, you know, I was pitching my heart out. It was a Friday at The Pru.
Garnett Keith, who was the chief investment officer, was there. That, in a way, was a privilege. Because usually you saw these, like, Grundoons, you know, in the middle level of something, and they don't even care. He's the chief investment officer of the biggest insurance company in the world. I mean, this was like hot stuff. So he was eating a tuna on white bread. They give you a memo. You can order whatever you wanted at their company thing, but it was the craziest menu. I couldn't figure out why all these desserts cost so much and the appetizers cost almost nothing and isaid: These people -- no wonder they're a mutual company.
I mean, this is not very commercial. And then it took me a while before I figured out that the desserts, all the stuff was priced in calories, right? So he's eating the tuna. Some people cut these sandwiches on a diagonal. I was always a horizontal person. But at Prudential, they served them on a diagonal. And, you know, so I'm pitching; he's eating. I'm watching his -- I started watching his eyes, but occasionally the sandwich would get in the way.
So I started watching his Adam's apple going up as he keeps consuming this tuna, and I'm pitching. So he finishes the first half of the sandwich, and then he starts on the second half of the sandwich, gets about halfway through and he stops. He looks at me and he says: That's really interesting, what you're thinking of doing. I'll give you a hundred. And I'm thinking: A hundred what?
A hundred million dollars, a hundred million dollars from the reference institution in the world. Everybody else except two people turned us down. We had to raise $500 million to satisfy them, which we -- impossibility. And here is this man giving us a hundred million dollars. This is -- this is like visiting heaven. And the only thing I could think about is we can't let him choke --
-- on the rest of this sandwich. We've got to keep this guy alive to get to a closing.
So everybody's got their own story in this room. This is a room of doers, and everybody makes their own way. But, you know, what you learn about some of these stories is that no matter how smart you are, you never know who's going to buy what you're selling. I mean, this was the last person. We didn't even know him, and all -- tells you something. All the people who knew you basically dumped on you. And why should that happen? It shouldn't. And we went on to raise 850 million, and I scooped up, a year later, another 100 million. Because we set out to raise a billion, just because I was sitting in First Boston's lobby and I opened up their annual report, they had a billion-dollar net worth. I said: Why shouldn't we have the same thing?
We'll just have no people, we'll make a lot more money. Which, by the way, is what ended up happening. So you learn in life once you have a vision of something you think is great, and all the work really is done making that vision or what I'd call a worthy fantasy; worthy of you just completely dedicating your life to. Once you have figured that out, if it's right, then you just go, and you marshal every resource you can, and you never stop until you accomplish your objective. And anybody who's been at the start of any of these operations doesn't have to be, you know, a for-profit business.
It can be anything that, you know, people think the actual doing of it is doing something, but it's really, that's like the mop-up, doing the actual thing. If you have the wrong vision and you beat your brains out, you're going to fail anyhow, right? It's spending the time to make sure what you want to do is so good you can rally the world to it. Or the relevant world, you know, that you're trying to hit. And then you figure out how to change what you're doing if you have a little resistance. But you need enormous emotional stability, because you get rejected so often. In our money-raising operation first fund, we got one yes and 17 nos.
It's like being in the Gladiator movie and being Russell Crowe, and you have the emperor up there and you look at him and he keeps doing this, right? Bring the tiger out and take the chain off. It's totally humbling and really tough. And if you're going to go on journeys like this, you better be prepared for pain, disappointment; and eventually you wear the world down, they give up, and then you're off.
BECKY QUICK: So let me ask you about some of the skills you developed on the way. One of them is identifying talent. I think that people who have come through your shop, and I think of Larry Fink. What did you think of him when you first met him?
STEPHEN A. SCHWARZMAN: Well, Larry, I met Larry at First Boston through Bruce Wasserstein. And Bruce said -- this is the smartest, most capable person at First Boston, so I didn't have to do a lot of thinking, because Bruce was pretty smart. And, you know, I love meeting people and assessing them. I have some stuff in the book on how to do that. All of us, every person in this room has interviewed somebody or been interviewed. So you're on either side of that. And when I do interviews, you know, usually somebody's prepared a resume', a CV.
And in every resume' and CV, there's something hidden that they want to talk about, you know, like they were the World Chess Championship at the age of seven, in that no age category, they beat all adults or something.
People always have one ridiculous thing they put in their resume' to either make themselves feel good -- but they actually put it in so you ask them about it. And they want to be asked because it's something comfortable for them. So I'm like an easy guy. Fine, I'll ask you about that. And that makes them feel good, one, that you've read it, you care enough about them and, secondly, that you picked up that they're in charge, in effect, doing what they want. So that's a good start on a resume'.
And then usually something weird happens after that, how did you become a seven-year-old chess champion, you know, you learn about their family, you learn something. And I like to talk about things that happen to interest me at that moment. It's sort of -- it's like the news. It's just continually changing. So that sort of makes it a fun business to be in, and I like to have fun. I mean, it's so boring if you didn't, right? And so you put things out there for people to talk about. You can talk about something you're interested in, doesn't have to be like a narrow business thing. You're looking for somebody who can hold the table.
You're trying to figure out how big their brain is, how logical and how quickly and how seamlessly they can move from things to thing. How do they think deeply and how do they think about something that comes up that they don't know about? How do they handle that and do they try and fake it? That's a bad idea, right? You always get caught. Or do they say, in effect: I really haven't studied that. I'm not familiar with that that much. What is it you're interested in there? So that's like a good response, right?
And sometimes I'll walk in for an interview, like most of you, because nobody here has a dull life and you've just had some fascinating interaction with somebody, you know, some deal-oriented thing or whatever, and you're so excited, you say: Geez, I just had the most amazing experience. Because I get amazed easily, because a lot of things happen to me. And I'll just start talking about that.
And usually you get a range of responses. One like: What the hell am I doing in this room with this person? That's the wrong response, right? And it's sort of like I'm inviting somebody into my world, and do they want to join it; is it interesting; do they have questions? Or do they sit there in sort of shocked amazement, saying: This was not what I was expecting. That is also the wrong answer.
Because in all of our lives, here in this room, there's always something happening that you weren't anticipating. So this ability to handle incoming stuff and take it in, make it into something, deal with it in whatever way, you know, you're comfortable, that's fine. So what you learn -- and one other tip -- is always keep your eyes locked on that other person. Because the eyes are the window to the soul. And you can tell so much by just watching someone. They'll tell you who they are. In a way it's just like speed dating, right? How fast can you figure out that this person's a loser?
BECKY QUICK: Speaking of that, I spoke with Jim Chanos earlier today. He was here on stage. And I was talking to him in the green room, and I was talking about how I was going to get to interview you.
STEPHEN A. SCHWARZMAN: Who?
BECKY QUICK: Jim Chanos.
STEPHEN A. SCHWARZMAN: Oh, Jim Chanos. Still waiting for a down market, is he? Okay.
BECKY QUICK: Wait till you hear the rest of this. He said: I interviewed with Steve back in the spring -- in March of 1980. You were at Lehman and you were interviewing him as a trainee. And in the middle of the interview with him, they came in and said: Steve, we need you. All the trainees have to leave. Because I guess it was right in the middle of the Hunt silver crisis, they later found out.
STEPHEN A. SCHWARZMAN: But that's a Hunt silver crisis.
BECKY QUICK: But he didn't get the job. And he remembers it. I don't know if you do.
STEPHEN A. SCHWARZMAN: Well, maybe I missed one. But ...You know, the markets have gone up. If he had been long instead of hedged, he would have made more money. But, you know, he's still on CNBC the defining element of success. So there we are.
BECKY QUICK: Let me ask you -- and we'll go through this pretty quickly because we would like to get some questions from the room -- but what's the worst trade you ever made?
STEPHEN A. SCHWARZMAN: We all make mistakes. So one of mine, it was early, it was horrible, it was disastrous, I thought, and I was right. I green-lighted an investment in a company called Edgcomb. It was a steel distribution business. And we had no process. It was a third investment. And so I made pretend I was King Solomon. I always wanted to be something like that, right? So I'm behind the desk and somebody walks in. And, you know, without really a written presentation, they say: I know this company, I worked with them for years, they'll give us an exclusive, and blah, blah, blah. And here is the multiple, you know. So that sounded pretty good. And then one of the other partners at the firm heard this was going on.
Talk about mismanagement, right? He heard about it. So he came to my office, he said: This company is going to go bankrupt. Somewhat different story than the first person. So I said: Why is that?He said: Well, basically they look like they're making money, but it's just inventory profits. Steel goes up, steel goes down. When it's going up because they're making accidental profits, they'll do really well. And that's where we are now. And then when it goes down, it will all reverse, and you won't be able to pay your principal and interest and it will go broke.
So in my infinite wisdom as a 37-year-old, you know, sort of full of themselves but half-scared person, I went with the first guy. And six months later, we couldn't pay our principal and interest. So we put a little money in to, like, save it, which of course didn't save it because you can't save yourself from that deep a cycle. And so then we were working to get the money back that we put into the thing to rescue it, and I ended up selling this company for 32 times EBITDA and lost all of our equity in the process.
And one of my investors called and asked to see me. I was figuring this would not be a gold star moment. So I went to see him, and I sat in that wooden chair in front of his desk, and the guy started screaming at me that I was the most incompetent person he had ever met. And that's the sanitized version. And in my family, nobody had ever raised their voice.
I thought this was a normal way, you know, to be raised. When I got out in the world a little bit more, I realized not all families are like that. That was really helpful for me because I can discriminate in terms of what people are meaning because I hear their voice differently than most people do. Those little changes in their voice give away a lot to me just because of how I was raised. But this was like turning on a stereo at max blast, and it just kept coming at me. And I'm sitting in this chair.
I'm worried about, you know, our whole business's future and, you know, my face is getting red and redder. You know how you get, it gets hot. And then I realized I was about to cry.
And I was saying: I'm just not allowed to cry. I just can't do this because this guy, who was excoriating me, was absolutely right, just absolutely right. It was really a completely shameful moment, and I fought it off. I went -- had a cab in the parking lot. And I got into the parking lot, and I looked around and I said: This is never going to happen to me again. I'm never going to lose money. I'm never going to have anybody yell at me. We're going to change this business. I don't care what it takes, we're going to make it work right. And as a result of that, what I would call colossal failure, we changed the whole way we approached investments. We still do the same thing. And it works great, we don't lose money.
What we do is we attack every deal. Instead of having the great man, which I realized I wasn't, you know, at the center of the table directing traffic and making all decisions, we involved everybody, you know, who was a partner at that time at the firm. We had written presentations, we laid out risk factors, and the job of everybody in that room was not to watch one person interrogate a team of people. Because no matter how good that one person is, they're probably not as good as eight people doing it. So we don't have any, you know, sort of audiences at the firm. I don't believe in professional audiences where you sit there and you watch somebody else do something. So everybody -- the rule is, everybody has to interrogate that team.
Everybody has to talk about the risks of an investment. So the team lays out risks, but then really smart people can worry even more and they find more risks. And we just spend our meetings doing that with every person reciting. It's not a class where you cannot be prepared. Right? You've got to be prepared. You're a participant and you're protecting the firm. You're protecting all of us and you're protecting our investors. That's your job. Right? It's not to watch somebody doing that. So what happens when you establish a culture like that is that the team knows they're going to be filleted every time they walk in the room. So it's like a nonevent.
BECKY QUICK: That sounds like fun.
STEPHEN A. SCHWARZMAN: It's a nonevent because they know it's going to happen. It's not personal. Investing should be rational and orderly, collaborative, using everybody's experience and intelligence. And if you set it up that way, then the team itself is basically reduced to just providing information. And after you have that meeting, there's a lot of things that come up, they don't know the answers, you send them away and then they come back again, you know, a few days later. You've got to have this stuff in writing because people in finance are like astonishing bullshitters, and their job is to convince somebody of something. And whenever somebody comes in with one of these flip chart things, all they're trying to do is bullshit you.
Because if they really believed what was in the chart, they would just give it to you a few days ahead so you can read it. Nobody can absorb all the stuff that's coming at you, that's why they do it. So we have a rule you can't do that. Right? So everybody can be thoughtful. And by the time you go through this two to three times on any proposal, you know what the risks are, you know what the probability of them happening, you know the magnitude of what can go wrong, you think, and then you can go and make a decision and the team doesn't matter.
Right? So the team -- you'll have an outcome. If the outcome is bad, there's about 90 percent probability it will be one of those top three variables that goes wrong. There's always about 10 percent weirdness. So you can't blame the team for failing and so it makes working in an organization like that incredibly comfortable, because you don't get blamed if it goes wrong because you know what those risks are before you start. So that was a much longer answer.
That was a crappy deal. I made a tombstone, literally one of those plastic things, and I did it in black. And I kept it on my desk for like 20 years so that anybody who came in -- forget all the triumphs we've had and all the great stuff and, you know, we got a lot of that. I always think about what can go wrong. And there are no brave old people in finance. They get knocked off in their 30s and 40s. So if you're going to be a long-term player, you better be careful, you better be prudent. You never want to disappoint an investor.
BECKY QUICK: Steve, I promised questions from the audience, but your stories were so good, I didn't want to interrupt and get into the middle of it. What I would like to do very quickly, if you don't mind, is take a minute or two and run very rapid fire through some news of the day. Give me just a very quick answer on these. The Fed's decision yesterday, did they do the right thing?
STEPHEN A. SCHWARZMAN: Yeah, probably.
BECKY QUICK: Would you cut again?
STEPHEN A. SCHWARZMAN: No. I mean, rates are so low -- if you look at what's going on in Europe, you barely have any growth --
BECKY QUICK: Yeah.
STEPHEN A. SCHWARZMAN: -- negative interest rates. I'm not a philosopher king, but I wouldn't give somebody my money and then pay them --
BECKY QUICK: To keep it for you?
STEPHEN A. SCHWARZMAN: -- to take a deposit. I mean, why would you do that? You're supposed to get something when you give people things.
BECKY QUICK: With that in mind, do the stock markets look choppy to you right now or like a good place to buy?
STEPHEN A. SCHWARZMAN: Stock markets had a great run for a lot of years. The economy is slowing. It's interesting. It's really in the manufacturing sector so far, and that's happening globally. U.S. is no exception. We have consumer economy that's 70 percent. It's really doing well. And, interestingly, wages are going up faster than inflation --
BECKY QUICK: Uh-huh.
STEPHEN A. SCHWARZMAN: -- so consumers have more money to spend. So as long as that cycle holds in, we'll keep growing.
BECKY QUICK: New NAFTA, you were an advisor, sitting at the table on that. Does it get passed, USMCA? Does it get passed by the end of the year?
STEPHEN A. SCHWARZMAN: You should ask Nancy Pelosi because she has control of that. I think there will probably be some last-minute trade that can accommodate the Democrats in the House. And, you know, I wouldn't be surprised if that finally got done.
BECKY QUICK: Last question. China trade talks with the United States.
STEPHEN A. SCHWARZMAN: Yes.
BECKY QUICK: You've been an advisor to the very top in both the White House and in the Chinese leadership. Would you think a deal gets done before the 2020 election?
STEPHEN A. SCHWARZMAN: It's an interesting thing, because it's hard to know until you -- until you see the first cards that the Chinese put on the table. That will start on Friday of this week, tomorrow. And then, you know, their senior group will be coming over the first week or two of October. You'll know by the time that meeting is finished, generally, what they are prepared to do, and then you should ask that question. Before they come over and display what their current thinking is, it's sort of hard to say.
BECKY QUICK: Steve, I want to thank you very much for your time today. Folks, the book again is called "What it Takes: Lessons in the Pursuit of Excellence." And as you can hear from the stories he told today, there's a lot there. You got to check it out.
STEPHEN A. SCHWARZMAN: So the book is a lot of fun, as you can see.
If you don't laugh out loud, there's something wrong with you because it's somebody else's misery, not yours, and you're supposed to learn from it. So I talked with Mark Hoffman before, and I don't think you have a book, because we were just too disorganized to do it. But, you know, he promised us you'll get a book. So, you know, that will work out. And if you love the book, which you will, because people tell me that, not because I'm asserting it, then what you should do is buy it, you know, for your brothers and sisters, or --
-- or somebody who works for you, because they want to learn. And that's happening all over. You know, it's fascinating to me that that's occurring. I'm giving all the profits of the book to charity. I've got, you know, a charity called New Teacher Project where what they do is they interview and hire people for public schools, and they also help public school districts with curriculum. And, you know, I think that's like a needed thing. And sort of -- I don't need the money so much and, you know, it's a good thing to do. I just want to sell a lot of books because I want to help people avoid some of the things that happened to me and be a positive thing for you. So, you know, don't -- you can even send it to that roommate of yours from college who isn't doing so well.
BECKY QUICK: Steve, thank you very much. Thank you, everybody.