America the Blackboard

After thirty-six years of living on the East Coast, I packed up my possessions and followed the footsteps of pioneers, gold rushers, dust bowlers, and dot-commers in search of the West of the Imagination.  In fairness, it’s a stretch to say that I packed since the rest of the family got stuck with the stuff while I set out on the annual PE pilgrimage, going from one annual meeting to the next in search of enlightenment and meaning.

As my punishment for sidestepping the heavy lifting, the family got to fly west while I was demoted to driving.  Across country.  Alone.  In a minivan.  With two guinea pigs.  It probably doesn’t get any worse.  Aside from a nice dinner in Evanston with some truly Super LPs, the trip was a grind: interminable stretches of open road punctuated by fast-food rest stops and one-night cheap hotels.

To pass the time during the mad dash across the endless expanse of the Republic, I played “wave to the portfolio company,” the LP version of license plate bingo.  Initially, I’d hoped to take a leisurely journey and visit a bunch of companies along the way, but as the summer slipped away and the trip’s timetable tightened I settled for a hand-marked map and some dog-eared quarterly reports that I’d review each night; my hoped-for visits had turned into well-researched I-80 drive-bys.

It was still worthwhile, though.  With many hundreds of underlying companies, it can be tough to keep up with those firms not lucky enough to be the “impact companies” that take center stage at annual meetings or those unfortunate enough to be the “problem children” that occupy our Advisory Board time.  It was cool to contextualize (if perhaps from a couple of counties away) the businesses that we read about quarter after quarter in increasingly audited, but decreasingly informative, reports.  Those companies – with their ups and downs – represent the pulsating, vital, thriving quintessence of the economy.

I’m lucky to be able to watch these companies strive and struggle and (hopefully) succeed.  It’s almost as if we LPs get to be Olympic judges sitting in the best seat in the house, watching the action unfold right before us.  Except that we’re not just judging one event; instead, we’re taking stock of the entirety of the Games.  We get to gaze into the chaotic innards of the economy, and it’s thrilling, frightening, inspiring.

* * *

Since I sometimes seem so crabby about the PE asset class, people naturally ask me how I get up in the morning and put on my LP hat?  The answer is simple (and it’s not just that I’m a curious dilettante): I’m privileged to know some really distinctive people who invest in endlessly interesting businesses.  And I like to believe that these GPs are catalyzing change, helping their companies become more innovative, more competitive, more streamlined, more essential.

And that’s the beauty of private equity done right; you constantly feel the blowing of the Perennial Gales of Creative Destruction.  And these winds of change are everywhere: from the whippy lake squalls of the industrial Midwest where manufacturers reinvent themselves daily, to the humid and earthy gusts of the heartland where agriculture is exciting again, to the hat-snatching howls out among Wyoming’s burgeoning coal beds and wind farms, to the jasmine-and redwood-scented breezes of Silicon Valley where every garage awaits a moment in the spotlight.

* * *

Before we left the East Coast, the kids and I hoofed it up to Brooklyn to visit the grandparents.  (Every trip comes with a complimentary helping of immigrant wisdom slathered in portent: “son, where you’re going, I’ve been . . .”)  And whenever we visit, I always walk my daughter, G, around the old ‘hood to give her a feel for a place that’s unlike the leafy college towns in which she’s grown up.  I love telling her about the people who passed through the neighborhood, the teeming masses who started their American adventures right there.  The storefronts help to tell the story:

“Check it, G.  That’s where Giovanni’s shoe shop used to be.  He came from Sicily at age 11 and started fixing shoes the same day he got off the boat . . . that Polish travel agency over on Church Avenue, I remember they gave away pierogies the day they opened . . . see that Bangladeshi grocery over there?  That’s where the Ruiz family had their bodega before they moved up to New Rochelle . . .”


“Yeah, G?”

"America’s like a blackboard, isn’t it?”

“How so, G?”

“People keep writing on it, erasing it, and writing on it again.”

“You know what G?  You’re absolutely right.”

A breeze kicked up in the gloaming and we turned the corner onto McDonald Avenue.  “Look around, G.  By the time we get back here, some of this stuff will be gone, but most of it will still be around.  You miss what’s gone, but appreciate the energy and the passion of the folks who are still there.  That’s continuity and change, and it’s what makes this place and this time so much fun.”