Guy Hands, CEO of private equity fund Terra Firma, was once a punk – or, at least, Guy Hands liked punk music. “From the late 1970s, my favourite music was punk,” Hands told students at the annual London School of Economics Hedge Fund and Private Equity Conference today. “I didn’t have the looks or the body to dress like David Bowie,” added Hands, “but I wore tight black drainpipe jeans and an Afghan coat and pogoed to the Clash and the Stranglers.”
Hands – who now lives in Guernsey as a tax exile and likes to eat in the world’s finest restaurants – may seem a strange sort of anarchist, but says he spent his youth as disaffected as the rest: “Like many young people at the time, I despaired and had little time for the establishment.”
Things changed for Hands when the UK’s “bland, dark socialist prison,” was supplanted by Margaret Thatcher’s bold new enterprise-led economy. In 1982, he gave up his attempt at running an art gallery and joined Goldman Sachs as the 72nd person in its London office and the fifth person on their graduate scheme. The rest, is history.
Alongside tales of his counter-cultural youth, Hands had a broader message for the 300 handpicked elite students at the LSE conference: success is not objective, but if you want success in the sphere that’s right for you, you’ll need to be focused and you’ll need to work hard – for years.
You won’t succeed just because you’re bright
“Business is not an intellectual process,” said Hands. You might be intellectually very bright, but this won’t define your success (he personally failed at school due to his dyslexia).
In a lot of ways, Hands said business is similar to sport: “The people who succeed are the ones with the dedicated and willingness to withstand pain until they can made a difference.”
Success is particular to you
Not everyone is made to be an entrepreneur. Not everyone is made to work in banking, or consulting, or law. “At Terra Firma we have hired and tested tens of thousands of people,” said Hands. “At the end of the day, what makes someone successful has nothing to do with how well they do in tests. It has to do with finding the right role for you…from then on it comes down your work ethic and character.”
You will have to make sacrifices. You will have to let things go
“You are the generation that has been told you can have it all,” Hands told the students. “That is the myth of Western society. Instead of having it all, you should make your contribution in the way that is right for you.” This might not be working in finance. “You can have other aims in life. There are many other activities in a balanced society.”
Once you’ve decided what you want to do, however, you’ll need to make sacrifices if you want to be successful. “I love photography and I lived politics at university,” said Hands. “But let me be clear – I don’t think I would have made a good photographer and I’m certain that I would have made a bad politician. I found the right thing for me early on and I didn’t let other passions distract me.”
Focus on the long term
“Things are never as bad as they seem,” said Hands. “In 2011, after EMI, I thought there was a possibility I would go personally bankrupt.” Since then, he has successfully exited several multi-billion dollar investments.
Banking is the easy option
You might think the banking industry, with its notoriously long hours, is a tough option. It’s not: the tough option is becoming an entrepreneur.
“Look at long distance runners,” said Hands. “The ones who succeed are those who can run until their feet bleed and they’re gasping for air.” This is what it’s like when you’re an entrepreneur, said Hands: “If you want to become an entrepreneur you will need to face derision and doubt but to keep ploughing on.”
You can avoid this level of pain by becoming a banker, consultant or lawyer, he suggested.
Don’t expect to work less as you become successful
Guy Hands is personally worth around $500m. This does not mean that he wakes up late and spends half his time in the Caribbean. “I have spent a lot of my life working 80 hour-plus weeks,” said Hands. “My family have taught me to moderate this, but I still struggle to switch off.”
Becoming a manager is not what you think
Everyone says they want to be manager, says Hands. Few of them know what being a good manager involves. “Most people who want to be managers think they need to be better at doing things than the team and to demonstrate this. They are wrong. All the best managers focus on getting people to do a really good for them… The art of management is getting other people to do a better job than you believe you can.”
If a manager is better than the team, the rest of the team feels that it can’t add value: “They feel discouraged and morale goes down.”
Happiness is not where you expect
Happiness is not about working for Terra Firma, or Goldman Sachs, or J.P. Morgan. Happiness is, “to be able to look in the mirror in the morning and to think ‘I want to get up and go out there and add value today.’
Not everyone will add value in the same way, says Hands. Not all the elite students assembled at the conference should become entrepreneurs or private equity professionals, he added: “For the sake of a balanced society, I hope some of you will do something else.”
Photo credit: Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg