John grew up in Tenafly, N.J. and considered following his father into medicine.
“You really have to love it,” he said. “While it was somewhat attractive, I didn’t love it that much.”
By contrast, he said, he gets fired up about the world of finance and business.
“I think the most interesting thing is that you get to see a lot of different businesses, meet a lot of people involved in running those different businesses and understand how those businesses tick, how they work and why they’re successful or not,” he said.
A highly organized thinker and speaker, perhaps fitting a man who was required to analyze the myriad facets of corporate finance, he spoke about businesses as if they were intricate machines.
“When I was dealing with large corporates, I dealt with a number of larger chemical companies – Dow Chemical, American Cyanamid, companies like that,” he said. “In those cases I thought the companies were quite successful not only because of their size and the economics that come from size, but they seemed to have a keen insight into the marketplace and the major customers they were serving, and maintained that focus over a long period of time, enabling them to grow along with their clients.”
That keen insight, he says, comes from having what he simply called “the right people,” without whom most advantages are irrelevant.
If that doesn’t sound as complicated to the layperson as one might expect, it may be because, as John said, basics and fundamentals are key in business and their neglect often comes at a price.
“Part of the experience I’ve had in business is that oftentimes when you see major problems occur, you go back and look at what went wrong with the basics,” he said, referring to the burst of the economic “bubble” in 2008.
“The basic common-sense rules of lending went right out the window,” he said.
John studied business and economics at Georgetown University before earning an MBA at Columbia in 1966. Following that, he went into active duty with the Army. He was commissioned as a secondlieutenant for two years, one of which he spent in Vietnam.
But John was never far from finance, even during his time with the Army Corps of Engineers.
He was sent to Cam Ranh Bay, where the outfit he was supposed to report to had moved. The unit he wound up reporting to instead was using a local labor force of a few hundred skilled and unskilled workers. Oversight, organization and funding were needed, and John was deemed the man for the job.
“They looked at my personnel file and said, ‘Guess what? You’re it. We’re going to turn this program over to you and we’re going to give you some staff, but it’s maybe half a dozen GIs and a sergeant, and you’re going to have to figure it out.’”
During the following year the operation grew to more than a 1,000 workers and spread out geographically.
Workers had to be recruited from local villages, and funding secured from the South Vietnamese military in places like Nha Trang and Saigon. At first, that might seem like a mundane task, but John said it was fraught with some unique hazards.
“I would go to Saigon, to this compound, and draw the equivalent of $20- or $30,000 U.S., put that in a duffel bag, go out into the street and flag down a cab and go the airport to bring the money back. Or, I’d take a driver and somebody with an automatic weapon and we’d drive somewhere 40 or 50 miles away, load up paper bags full of money and then drive it back along the QL1.”
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