My guest today is Chris Powers, founder and chairman of Fort Capital, an industrial real estate investor based in Fort Worth, TX. Chris is also the host of The Fort Podcast, which I was a guest on just last week and we’ll link to that episode in the show notes. Chris has built an amazing real estate firm and recently promoted his business partner Jason to CEO so he could step into a chairman role. We talk primarily today about his role as a leader in Fort, but we also recorded an episode together a few years ago with a focus on his investing strategy — episode 70 from June 2021.
This discussion centers around what he’s learned running Fort, both as CEO and Chairman, including tactics and strategies that have been effective, how organizations scale, looking up to peer businesses and modeling the path there, identifying what you’re good at, and mentorship.
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(00:05:11) Chris’ elevator pitch
(00:06:22) What drives your passion for thinking?
(00:07:45) Are there any companies or people you study and learn from?
(00:10:10) Are there any common mindsets at places like Berkshire and Blackstone?
(00:13:06) What feels risky to Fort Capital that wouldn’t feel risky to a Blackstone?
(00:14:47) Are there any dangers to studying people or companies who are 10-20 steps ahead of you?
(00:17:19) How do you identify “your way”?
(00:20:09) How did focusing only on industrial real estate lead to massive growth?
(00:27:09) What do you notice from folks who remain as the CEO as they get from 0 to 1?
(00:29:11) Fear of delegation
(00:35:20) How has the flywheel spun since you stepped out of the CEO role?
(00:39:03) What have you done to sideline your ego in decision-making
(00:42:58) Where have you drawn the line between your decisions and those of the CEO?
(00:46:50) What have you learned about healthy disagreement?
(00:48:43) How do you get people to understand that disagreements aren’t personal?
(00:51:43) What are some ways you’ve found to be an effective mentor?
(01:01:02) Chris’ experience with executive coaching
(01:04:30) What skill are you hoping to achieve over the next year?
Alex Bridgeman: I think for the first podcast episode you came on for Think Like an Owner, we basically talked about just real estate at that point. And I don’t think I really knew you enough to give a full wide ranging podcast episode and conversation. And I feel like the more I’ve gotten to know you, the less interesting the real estate part of your life is and the more interesting the rest of it is. So I’m excited to have you on for a full ranging podcast episode. I think most folks are probably familiar with your background, but what’s just a quick 30 second elevator pitch for Fort Capital and what you’ve been focusing on career wise?
Chris Powers: Yeah, I’m the luckiest guy in the world; I get to run Fort Capital. Fort Capital is based here in Fort Worth, Texas. And to date, we have really been a real estate, private equity or real estate investment company that has focused on acquiring what we call Class B industrial assets throughout the southeastern United States, primarily Texas. We own and operate just under 8 million square feet. And we have done that through syndicating equity on a deal by deal basis. And when I say we’re fully vertically integrated, that really means that we basically own and operate all the way down to property management everything that we buy. And we really like to think that our edge is that we can find deals and operate deals better than anybody. Our mission at Fort is to be the best real estate operator in the world. And so, it’s just kind of baked into the culture to be continuous improvement and operational excellence.
Alex Bridgeman: Yeah, I love the vision of being the best real estate operator in the world. It seems like, just from my time getting to know you, that you’re just a big thinker; you have a bigger vision for what you want to do and accomplish. Is there anything driving that? Or is that just an idea or mindset you feel like you’ve always had?
Chris Powers: That’s a great question. I think every personality test I’ve ever taken would say that some of it’s just like naturally how I’m wired to think big picture. But I think, especially I know some of the podcasts you do are with smaller, medium sized businesses, there’s things that you do when you’re small, and you sometimes fight like, well, we would never do it like the big guys do it or the bigger companies do it. And then you kind of get a little bigger and you realize, like you have these aha moments, like, oh, this is why they do it. And I think if you have enough of those, then you start paying attention at a higher level to, okay, well, what are the people or companies that have done the thing I’m going to do, what are they doing right now, and look at their actions over decades, and then you try and synthesize that into like, okay, here’s probably the next best step. Even if it doesn’t feel comfortable at the moment, I think it’s always been natural for me to think, well, it’s inevitable we’re going to get here, so I might as well start thinking along these lines, and almost working your way backwards, going, okay, here’s the outcome you want. How do you work yourself back to like what do I need to do today to take the next best step to get there?
Alex Bridgeman: Are there any particular companies or entrepreneurs you feel like you’ve studied the most or learned the most from?
Chris Powers: That’s a great question. Yeah, there’s a few. I mean, my mentor growing up, it’s a guy named Meyer Marcus from El Paso, Texas. And he has still to this day one of the best real estate companies I’ve come across. It’s a family-owned business. They’ve owned retail properties going on 40, 50 years. And a lot of how he structured his business has impacted how we’ve structured ours. And then I can take it as far as like, this might sound like a common answer, but Blackstone. Blackstone’s the biggest in the world for lots of reasons. And it’s not because they just got lucky. There’s probably luck involved along the way. But there’s so many things that they do that are just excellent, from how they raise capital to how they deploy capital to how they decide what they’re going to go into to how they collect data to just why they do certain things and why they do it so well. And so I’ve studied them quite a bit, thinking, not that we’re a small Blackstone, but a lot of the things that we do in our business, because if you look at your business, you’re like, okay, here’s some things we do no matter the size, you could look at a huge company and be like oh, they do those things too, just on a much larger scale, but we still match up in several verticals of our business. Now, Blackstone’s infinitely larger, better, quicker, faster, whatever you want to call it, but that doesn’t mean we can’t sit back here today and go, okay, they’re really good at this. Why are they good at this and where’s the gap between where we are and where they are? And sometimes those gaps are big, and sometimes they’re not as big as you think even though the company might be much bigger. And so that’s probably another one. And the third I would lean on, and I know they’re kind of- you have my local mentor hometown hero that has a couple billion dollars in real estate, you have Blackstone, and then maybe somebody that couldn’t be more opposite than Blackstone in a lot of regards and it’s another obvious answer is Berkshire. There’s so many things I’ve taken from the way Berkshire- really more around like incentives and how they think about longevity and things of that nature. I don’t know how to buy companies, maybe one day I’ll learn how to do that, or buy stocks, but there’s a lot of just wisdom that translates out of them. And a lot of it is I don’t think anybody’s learned how to incentivize the right outcomes more than Berkshire has.
Alex Bridgeman: Are there any common threads of thinking or mindset amongst the leaders of these companies that you’ve studied from a personality and habits and tactics standpoint?
Chris Powers: Yeah, I think a lot of people would say, oh, they take a lot of risk. And I think there’s some element of truth that people that are at the forefront of these companies are willing to take more risks than maybe your average person. They’re outliers in that regard. But the thing that you have to counter that with is what seems risky to somebody that- risk in general, like if you go talk to somebody that doesn’t know about Bitcoin, they’ll say it’s the riskiest thing in the world. But if you go talk to someone that’s devoted the last 10 years of their life to Bitcoin, they’re like, this is the most no brainer thing in the world. What’s the difference? One person knows a lot, has a lot of information on it and is very focused on it and doesn’t see it as risky. And somebody else does see it as risky. Like, if you tried to buy an industrial building tomorrow, if I said you need to buy an industrial building tomorrow, you would think that’s really risky. And what you’re really saying is like I just don’t know much about this. But Alex, you’re super smart, you’re super capable. A year from now, it wouldn’t seem as risky. But the only difference is you spent time learning. So, on one hand, they have an appetite for risk, but I think it’s calculated risk. All the people I just mentioned are so deeply ingrained in what they’re doing, that what seems like risk to a lot of people probably feels like second nature to them. The second is, in order to get to that size and magnitude, and we can really look at Berkshire for this, but you could also look at what Schwartzman has done at Blackstone, incredible opportunity to delegate power to those around them. Warren might be as good as anybody in the world at it. I don’t know if there’s anybody better. But in order to build a large organization, they built the ability to, one, attract talent, but two, delegate authority, power, and decision making to that talent. And then the truth is, you’ll never retain great talent if you’re not willing to do that because I think great talent requires that. So, you look at that. And I think all of them have had a really- all the people in my life that I admire have a long-term mindset. And so even at Blackstone, like maybe they’re the shortest-term mindset on any one deal. Like my mentor has held properties for 40, 50 years, Warren’s kind of notorious for holding things for a very long time. I don’t think Blackstone necessarily holds any one asset for a very long time, but the vision of the company in general and just like how they think about the company is in decades and multi decades. So they might own a building for three to five years, and that could be looked at as short term, but if you said what’s your philosophy on just like the business, they’re just thinking very far out, very big picture. So those are maybe a few things that come to mind.
Alex Bridgeman: What feels risky to you and Jason today that doesn’t feel risky to Blackstone or Buffett?
Chris Powers: I don’t know. That’s a really good question. I think if you look at them, they all have multi business units. So, we just promoted a gentleman at our company to president of our management business. And I wouldn’t necessarily think it’s risky, but I think it’s the next thing we need to learn, so there’s maybe more caution around it is we see Fort starting to build out multiple business units. If you look at the center of Fort, it owns a lot of real estate. But if you go down the P&L of what makes that real estate operate, when you own 8 million square feet of roofing, it’s not crazy to think- or of buildings, it’s not crazy to think you should own a roofing company or a stake in a roofing company, or maybe you should own your own insurance captive at this point, or maybe you should own your own trash service. Because if you’re already spending millions of dollars a year on any one of these line items, it’s almost a business in and of itself. And so, we’re getting to the point where you can see that as we buy more real estate, there are business units that we should eventually create that kind of orbit in that ecosystem. And so that’s like maybe something like where our heads been at a lot is like where’s the next- What line item on our P&L is like the next thing that we should go start? And how will we run that, and how will it feel seamless to where it still operates under one flywheel even though it’s a unit with maybe its own leader or business leader? So that’s maybe one thing that comes to mind. That’s a great question. There’s nothing that jumps out. That’s maybe the one place that we’re learning the most right now.
Alex Bridgeman: Do you think there’s any particular dangers with studying companies or people who are not just like a couple steps ahead of you but maybe 10 or 20 steps ahead of you in terms of the magnitude of the enterprise they are running?
Chris Powers: Yes. And it’s a great question. Because I think I spent a lot of the earlier part of my career, maybe not like with Blackstone or Berkshire, but just even maybe like a peer that was maybe a company closer in size but maybe a little bit bigger, and would go have like- go to a YPO conference or go have dinner with somebody and like hear how they did it and already associate, okay, these people are successful, this is how they do it. This is immediately- it was like, okay, we’re going to do it this way. And I wouldn’t say all the time that ended up being a bad decision, but what you really come to learn in some of these special companies, and I think Fort Capital is special, I don’t know if anybody else does, but I think about it that way, is while we all might do something similar, the greatest companies kind of do it their own way. That’s what culture is. If you were to get like- I think there’s a- I think it’s Toyota, Toyota is known for some of the best manufacturing in the world. But if you were to get all those people from Toyota and like move them to America and say start all over again, they’d probably never be able to replicate what they have at Toyota. The best companies in the world have this almost intangible secret sauce. One is just like millions of reps of doing something over and over. And when you think of a company, think of a company like Blackstone that’s, I don’t know, 30, 40 years old, it’s compromised of probably trillions of decisions that had been made, not just with people working at Blackstone, but the vendors that they worked with and how they were incentivized, and the vendors’ vendors, and it’s this collective of all these micro decisions. And so, I think the answer to that is it’s great to observe what other companies have done, and there’s certainly certain parts of a business that you don’t have to recreate the flywheel. It’s very obvious like, hey, we should do something like this, like accounting, you don’t have to go- you don’t need to go get magical with accounting. But when it comes to sales or marketing or things of that nature, there’s just things that you say, yeah, this is how they do it, that makes a lot of sense, but we still need to do it our way. And if you look at the companies I admire the most, they all have an element to them that’s their way.
Alex Bridgeman: How do you identify what your way is and have the conviction that your way works and is effective?
Chris Powers: I think that goes back to, one, what’s your culture, what do you value, and what do you incentivize. So culture is like what you’re willing to accept. And so, that’s part of it, it’s just things we believe as a company that other real estate investment companies don’t believe. And so, because we believe those things, like one example is we believe to approach the industry from an operator standpoint, knowing that if we can operate assets how we- and operating isn’t even how you operate assets. It’s how you operate your company, how we raise money, how we deal with investors, how we onboard new investors, how we recruit people, how they go through our recruiting process, like all these little things are what make up a company. But I think it starts with like what are you after. And so for us, we have approached the industry saying we just want to be the best operator that there ever was in real estate. But there’s people that approach the business and like we just want to do lots of deals. Maybe we want to be the best, I don’t know, financier or the best bottom feeder and find the craziest, most hairy deals ever. We don’t really care how we operate. We’re just looking to buy things so cheap that it doesn’t matter how we operate. And trust me, that’s like a- there’s people that run their business, and that’s not wrong. So, I think it really starts with what you value, and what you value tends to be the type of people you attract and the way that they think. And so, then the second thing I would say is like time horizon, a private equity company that was just bought that has a three to five year window to turn the company around or increase EBITDA quickly and then flip that thing to the next guy is run so much differently than a family business that has no intention of ever selling. And so, they just do things differently. I think time horizon actually is one of the biggest components of how people- why people do the things they do is the time window that they’re given.
Alex Bridgeman: Yeah, I remember listening to your podcast with Brent Beshore and hearing about your decision to focus on industrial real estate in Texas primarily. Of course, you’re well beyond Texas now. And then simultaneously focus on industrial but then ignore these other deals around the edges that you could have been doing just because you wanted to get deals done. That always has felt like a counterintuitive idea for me, to focus on one particular thing that you’re really good at and ignore everything else. That feels like a limiting action, something that would make your world smaller, not bigger. But it seems to be the opposite is the truth, that you can, through focus, expand and grow in a more effective way. What did that look like for you from focusing to industrial real estate? In what ways did that lead to better growth for you?
Chris Powers: I’ll kind of give you two different answers. So, we’ll start where you started where it’s sometimes hard to envision why focus in business could be really powerful and not taking advantage of all these other little ideas. And I’ll start by this: For some reason, when we talk about it in a business context, it’s a little more blurry to people, but when I’ve explained it like this, it kind of resonates a little bit more. Let’s take Tiger Woods, for example. Do you think Tiger played tennis and baseball and football and all these other sports and oh just so happened to be great at golf? Or Kobe Bryant or name the best athlete. I was talking to Apolo Ohno the other day. I met him from Twitter, best I guess speed skater in the world. You listen to how he grew up – he wasn’t playing ten sports or going hey, just because I’m really good at speed skating, maybe I’ll be good at volleyball. I mean, I’m just- I’m something else. But when you look at it through a sports lens, it’s very obvious like, oh, you should just play one sport and get really, really good at it. Like nobody that you know that’s a sporting person is playing multiple sports and somehow ends up being the best in the world. It’s like never happened. I mean, Michael Jordan went and played baseball and was the laughingstock of the baseball field, greatest basketball player ever. And so, I think if you take that mentality and go, well, why would that be different in business? Why in business should you be allowed to be really good at one thing and then like spin a bunch of plates and have all these other activities? Why it happens more often, I think, is because, one, the game is much longer, two, founder types or people that are willing to start the first company usually have that muscle in their brain that they like new ideas, the shiny object is actually what’s more addicting than building the great business. The best part of starting a business sometimes is like the idea and that early phase of like getting really excited about it. And then you talk to most people that have been in it for four or five years, they’re like this ain’t exciting anymore. But that’s because business at the end of the day starts to look like chicken at the end. It’s very bland. It’s like you’re paying bills, you’re receiving bills, you’ve got sales and marketing. And it’s like the same thing in every business is what every business eventually becomes. But you play the game a lot longer. It’s not physically taxing, so it’s not like you need to be in the gym every day, becoming the best football player. You can be the best business guy on Earth and not workout at all, not really eat healthy at all, and just spend your day on the internet just seeing idea after idea after idea come through. And when you’ve made money and you’re successful in something, like everybody in the business world is coming to you going- and I don’t know why this is in the business world, and I’ve experienced this. As we got more successful, everybody’s like you should start buying multifamily, or you should start a new business that’s like not even in real estate. But I don’t think Tiger Woods, as he was getting better at golf, had people coming up to him going like, dude, you should play baseball now. I just don’t think that was the thing. But in business, it’s like the more successful you get, the more ideas come your way that just aren’t the thing. And I was listening to a podcast the other day, and it was like the amount of entrepreneurs that have built like a $10 million business or $100 million dollar business and wanted to get to 200 million, they thought that the way to get to 200 was to go start another $100 million business instead of why don’t I just double the business that I’m already good at and go from 100 to 200. And the real answer, it gets back to like just humans, it’s not as exciting. The idea of that new thing is like way more exciting than- because at the end of the day, I don’t think most people are after it for money, or at least they aren’t over the long term. Maybe earlier in their career they are until they get a base. But I don’t know, Warren Buffett’s not in it to make the next- at this point, he’s playing a whole different game, and it’s not about getting to 200 billion so that he can go spend it. He’s just like how can I become the best that there ever was? And that’s what he’s really chasing. And so, as I think about it through that dichotomy, like you would never go tell Tiger Woods start playing football because he got really good at golf. But for some reason in business, when somebody gets really good at something, everybody and their mother’s like go do this next thing that’s not what made you successful.
Alex Bridgeman: Yeah, that analogy makes it a lot more clear. Did you listen to the Jeremy Giffon episode on Invest Like the Best?
Chris Powers: So good.
Alex Bridgeman: It was really good. I listened to it twice and have several pages of notes. But one concept I was reminded of as you were sharing was he said something about how folks want to be successful and rich but with certain conditions, like that the work is engaging or it’s flashy or gives them status and something else. No one wants to just get rich in a really boring way. And so, you felt like that is like the enduring advantage. Like are you okay doing things that aren’t as flashy, like starting a new business or starting another 100 million dollar company. Maybe the best way is just to do the thing you’ve already been doing and are getting good at and just focus there, and that’s ultimately the better means of success, even if it’s not going to fulfill the same checkboxes around status or excitement or thrill or what have you.
Chris Powers: And I just think that like, I don’t know, you go back to the boomer generation or the greatest generation, and you saw a lot more of these folks that just stayed in the same business for 50 or 60, 70 years. It’s just kind of what they did. I think part of it is our generation, we’re being- there’s so many things hitting us every day, sensory overload, that like maybe back then, there just was nothing else to think about. It’s like, I wake up, I don’t have a cell phone to look at all day, I look at the newspaper for 20 minutes, I’m just going to go work on my company. And now it’s you’re reading articles and getting on Twitter, hearing of all these crazy stories. But you take someone like Jeff Bezos that went from one guy, everybody’s seen that infamous picture of him starting Amazon, to transcending as CEO to like a 500,000 person company. And all I can say about somebody like that is absolute unicorn of a person to be able to level up and stay in the game the entire way through. We might end up talking about this, but most people can’t and shouldn’t ever be the same CEO from zero to 500,000 people. It’s just not how most people are built.
Alex Bridgeman: Yeah, we should definitely talk about that. It is amazing that someone like him from $0 in revenue to tens of billions can be just as effective in both places. That seems incredibly, incredibly rare. Have you met folks like that? And then what stands out to you about folks who can do that really well?
Chris Powers: Well, I think if you take Jeff, and I think about this a lot because I also think like this something that can be learned over time if you’ve been in the game long enough. And I don’t think Jeff started until 38. So, he had a lot of years of his career under his belt. He probably got over being immature in his 20s and 30s. And so, he entered the game at a period where he was maybe a little more mature in life. But if you go back and you just read all of his letters, going back from like the very first one, it’s so fun to do because you can see like he always knew the vision of where he was headed. He wasn’t really guessing what the next step was. And so, I think what I’m trying to say there is there was an element to him that none of the levels he kept reaching were a surprise to him. They were expected to happen. He had thought that far out. And he says it in his letters every year. And that’s, I think, one of the ways that you stay in the game that long is you have to have that time horizon so that as you’re reaching these new levels of the company, you’re not really surprised by them or taken aback by it. You are, in fact, expected to be there. Now, whether you can operate a system and manage people and do the thing that needs to happen in that moment, that’s a different skill set. But I think there’s some people, I think, actually, there’s a lot of people that are scared of getting too big, or they’re scared of reaching those next levels. Like, it might sound good to talk about, but they get there and there’s a lot of pressure, there’s a lot more stakeholders, there’s just a lot going on at these next levels that you see some people that I almost say are like scared to succeed. It’s like Brent says, they’re just going to stay small forever. They don’t know why. But it’s like they’re just scared to take that- to succeed, which often is also correlated to scared to delegate power and decision making to people around them. They would rather control and be the best at something rather than let everybody around them be the best at something.
Alex Bridgeman: Do you think that’s where most of that fear comes from is the fear to delegate and trust someone else to do the same process with the same level of care and effort and vision perhaps that you have?
Chris Powers: 100%. I mean, there’s just some- again, we go back to Brent, small businesses don’t stay small on purpose. Most small businesses are small because the founder CEO doesn’t realize they’re the issue. They’re the one keeping the business back from growing. Now sometimes it’s because you have a terrible business or a bad product or just bad market. There’s headwinds. But there’s a lot of businesses out there, and you see it all the time, business has been around 20 or 30 years, somebody with a new set of eyes buys the business or the right CEO enters, and all of a sudden, what was once this like slowly growing fledgling business is a rocket ship. What was the difference? Leadership changed out. And what usually happened there, power was delegated, ideas were taken. You go into any company that’s been small for a long time, and you hear this on podcasts, Twitter, I mean, you read about it all the time. And these future buyers are going in and doing due diligence, and they’re asking the employees like, hey, what would you do to make this business better? What’s holding you back? And it’s like ten of the most obvious things on the planet of what should be done. It’s like, well, why aren’t you doing it? It’s like, founder doesn’t want- it’s like it’s a founder issue, or it’s a leadership issue. They don’t want to hear it. They don’t want to rock the boat. They don’t want to take the risk. And so yeah, there’s one thing you can see in all amazing companies is an incredible leadership team.
Alex Bridgeman: You mentioned Warren Buffett being one of the best delegators that you’ve seen before. Is there anything tactically from his skill of delegating that you think is applicable or has been applicable for you?
Chris Powers: I think just one, just seeing that like, again, going far out and going is this possible? Can you delegate power like this and be successful? The answer is yes. So, in some ways, Warren gave, at least for me, permission that this was a possible game to play. It’s been proven. He’s done it. So, then I have to look myself in the eyes and go, I’m not saying I need to build Berkshire Hathaway or I’ll be anywhere close to him, but going, do I have what it takes to even do a little bit of what he’s done? Like, that’s more just looking at yourself in the mirror and kind of sizing yourself up, going okay, it is possible. He’s done it as masterfully as anybody. So I can’t now blame that like, oh, this just doesn’t work. No, it works. And so, on a lot of ends, Warren, not just on how he delegates, and other leaders, it’s not just Warren, they’ve proven that it’s possible. So then as an entrepreneur type, you’re kind of sizing yourself up, like do I have what it takes to do this? And I don’t know the answer. Some people think they do, and they don’t. But at least giving the permission I think is huge. And then I think the other part is, once you’ve worked with somebody really great, like I don’t think- I think some people, maybe they have had the opportunity to work with great people, maybe they never have. But once you’ve actually seen it happen, even in a small company where you’re like, I’m giving up this part of the business for this person. Like since I left being CEO of the company, our business has like 5xed. And I can sit here today and tell you had I stayed CEO of the company, we would not have 5xed. There’s just no way. There’s so many things I’ve seen that I was doing that was going to handicap things. But then it’s not like you have to go build Berkshire overnight, but you go okay, maybe if he’s proven you can do it at that scale, I’m going to prove that I can at least do it with one person. I’m going to give this part of my business to this person, I’m not going to expect him to be amazing at it in 30 days; I’m going to give him a year. But this is my goal this year, to delegate a meaningful part of the business to somebody. And then you do it, and it works. And now you’re like, okay, game on. Because the truth is, that becomes the game. If you want to build a great big company, it’s a constant delegation of authority and power to great people.
Alex Bridgeman: I remember even a small example, we share the same podcast producer. And I remember getting a producer for the first time and then going and moving and having Johnny take over the show. And I remember how freeing and exciting it was that somebody else loved the part that I really wasn’t a fan of and was vastly better at it than I was. And that was a very freeing thing. There’s a number of CEOs I know who, to get that sense for like what’s possible, they’ll go to companies and peers or friends that run larger companies and say, for example, they don’t have a head of sales, they might go meet the head of sales or the CRO of a much larger business to get a sense for what’s possible, what kind of talent could you bring into your company over time. And it turns on a lot of light bulbs for CEOs.
Chris Powers: It’s huge. And I would end it by just saying it’s self-reinforcing. So, if you’re a controlling person, and you try and delegate and then your whole purpose for delegating is just waiting for them to screw up so you can kind of prove that you should have been doing it anyway, you become more controlling over time. The opposite is true. As soon as you give something away with the expectation, like look, this person is probably not going to be perfect at it, but then you see them build that muscle and then you go, like you just said, Johnny is way better at this than even I am, you’ll probably never take audio editing back inhouse again. If Johnny were to quit tomorrow, you just go find the next person, but you’d never go, well, I guess I’m going to start doing it again, like maybe temporarily for a month so the thing kept going, but not for the long term. So, there’s self-reinforcing in both directions. Once you learn to delegate, all you want to do is delegate. But if all you want to do is control, you actually control more and more as time goes by, not less than less.
Alex Bridgeman: One thing I want to make sure we talk about too is your transition from CEO to Chairman and hiring Jason as CEO. I would love to hear how to your point just now that self-reinforcing mechanism from delegation in a positive way, since having Jason become CEO, how have you seen that flywheel spin for you?
Chris Powers: Oh, I mean, again, I started by saying I’m the luckiest guy in the world. And part of it’s because I get to work with great people like Jason. I’ll go back to maybe something I said earlier. What makes somebody great at getting things started and breathing life into something and really getting the ball going is a different type of energy than the energy needed to take something where the excitement’s kind of worn off. Now it’s time to take this thing that’s moving in the right direction and just make it better. And this is where business in some ways starts to feel like chicken. It’s like we’ve got to do annual budgeting every year. And we’ve got to have the correct hiring processes. And we’ve got to have the right incentives at all times. And we have to just kind of do everything a little bit better every day. A great business ends up being boring in the best way possible. Not every day should feel like the Super Bowl with these new ideas coming in and like it’s crazy. That’s like chaos. And so, I think, a couple things, like one, I never worked for anybody. I never worked for anybody. And so I’ve never really gotten to see how other people did it. Two, I think our culture praises the CEO like it’s the end all be all for everybody. And what I would tell you is they’re paid a lot, but their job is not easy. And there’s a lot we could unpack of why CEOs deserve a lot of respect. But then we also said the CEO of a ten person business is not the CEO of 100,000 person company, like radically different skill sets. And so, what I started to notice- and then there’s the humility and the ego of what I think some people do is they are like I started this business, and come hell or high water, I’m going to be the CEO this thing forever. And what’s really happening there, whether they’re- and I don’t even think they even think about it necessarily like that, it’s what’s happening is the business should not be there to serve the CEO and their ego and their personal interest. The business is there to serve customers. And so, the best people need to be working at the company to serve the customers. But you see all the time, these businesses that are just wrapped around the CEO’s finger, they’re doing all these kinds of crazy things that only like would happen because the CEO is the CEO. And I kind of ran the business that way for a long time. It was like kind of a business, kind of my personal playground, kind of we did things that if you were to like- if I was going to go try and sell the business, the investment banker would be like, why do y’all do this? It’s like, oh, Chris likes doing that. But that’s so common in these businesses. Jason, on the other hand, he had been at a great company, he had seen how great companies are built, he had seen how the, quote unquote, chicken works. And he stepped in and said we’re going to build a company that no matter who’s CEO, it works. Like, we’re not building a company that serves the CEO. We’re building a company that serves the employees, that serves our customers, that serves our team. And so, what I would tell you today is it’s given me back the opportunity to work on things I want to work on. I’ve paid attention, very much attention to how he’s run the business the last three years. I feel like I’ve gotten a world class education. And I’m not saying I ever want to be the CEO of another company again, but man, has he opened my eyes to what it takes to do it. And it really makes me think like is that something I would ever want to go do? And the answer is right now, no, I would not ever want to be the CEO of another company again.
Alex Bridgeman: What have you done to reduce or sideline your ego from some of these business decisions?
Chris Powers: So I think the first thing is, and man, I’m challenged by it every day, I think you’re constantly learning, but there’s a big difference in owning a business and running a business. And I’ve talked to plenty of people that own hold cos or buy companies and manage CEOs, and I don’t manage a CEO. My CEO is my partner, so I’m lucky in that regard. But we do hold each other accountable. And there’s a lot of things I’ve had to learn over the last three years. And one is there’s no like perfect line, but if the CEO is going to run the business, they have to run the business. And they have to, again, they have to be given the delegation of authority and power to make the decisions they need to make. What you sometimes see is like people that transition out of CEO, but they still want to inflict their opinion on every decision and be really involved. Well, in that case, it’s like you should have just kept running the business. And so, there’s this line in the sand, and nobody quite knows where it is. I’ve talked to Brent Beshore about this a lot, that’s somebody that your listeners probably know, is when’s too much too much. Because once you’ve crossed the line, and the CEO no longer feels empowered that they truly have the power, it’s kind of like you kind of have it until you make- do a decision that I don’t agree with. Do I agree with every decision Jason makes? No. Would he agree with everything I make? No. I think that’s healthy. The key is like when- How do you disagree together? It’s easy to agree with people. How do you disagree, especially as an owner when you’re maybe the largest owner, and you have the most equity in the company? And so, I think there’s this constant balance that I’m thinking of is like where am I pushing it too far? Now, how do you get over that? You communicate regularly, you have a very transparent way of communicating, you trust each other. I mean, I can’t imagine owning a business where you don’t trust the CEO; that would be terrible. So, you have this embedded trust. There are certain things that we’ve agreed these are the things that are the big things in the business. And as long as we’re sticking to those, we don’t have much to talk about. If we want to deviate from those, we have something to talk about, not from like I need to have some magic wand to like make the decision. It’s is just here’s the playbook. And if we’re going to run a different playbook, we should probably both make sure we’re both on board with it because that’s probably the right thing to do. But the ego is also this, and this is like the main thing I guess I’ll get to, we’re only given so many gifts as humans. And there’s things that you just- we just made the example with Johnny, there’s things that I can’t stand doing, that there are other people on this planet that love doing them. There are people on this planet that could not even imagine starting a podcast. And there are people on this planet that love podcasts. And so, part of the ego is really checking yourself at the door going where are my gifts? Where are they not? And now the game is how do I surround myself with people that are so much better, that are specialists in these certain verticals? That is the game that you’re really playing. The game is not how can I be better at everybody and everything. That’s a selfish personal game. That’s not how to build a great business game. You’ll never meet a business where the CEO or the founder the whole way through said I’m going to be the best at accounting, finance, marketing, sales, construction, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. What they become the best at is knowing who the people are that need to be around them. That’s the name of the game. And that’s lowering your ego.
Alex Bridgeman: From that transition from CEO to Chairman, where have you drawn that line in terms of decisions that Jason makes versus ones that you make? There’re still, I imagine, decisions you’ll make at Fort. They may be different in some ways. But how do you divide responsibilities effectively?
Chris Powers: Again, I don’t have this like perfect drawn-out answer. I think if you trust your partner, you trust your CEO, and the whole relationship is built on trust, there’s less what decisions are each person going to make. It almost happens like through osmosis. We meet every Monday morning. He knows the things I care about. I know the things he cares about. I trust him that there’s really not many decisions that like I think he would make that I would say he has to get my permission for. That’s not the right way to think about it. But there’s just things we come to each other with that’s like, hey, what do you think about this? Can you give me a different opinion on this? Now I would say this, we’ve said we don’t develop, we only acquire. So, if Jason were to come to me tomorrow and say, hey, I want to start developing properties, it’s not like it’d be like, well, we said we weren’t going to do that. I was like, okay, let’s think about it. Let’s talk about it. Why? But I’m already starting the conversation with like Jason obviously has good intentions. He thinks it strategic. He’s the one in the day to day of this business. So, he’s talking to more people daily than I am. I just want to make sure as the owner of the company that we’ve thought through it and that we’re both confident in it. He wants my blessing. I want his blessing on certain things. I think where the only place we differ in decisions, not different opinion, is anything that happens to do with the day to day, I’m totally out of. I probably spend more time on capital raising. And then when it comes to deals, he ultimately makes the decision if we’re going to do it or not, but we chat about every deal. I mean, it’s very, very rare that, I can’t even remember the last time that he was like, we should do this deal, and I was like, no, we shouldn’t, or vice versa. You kind of, when you’ve been together 10 years, you kind of remain on the same page. So, I don’t have a great answer. Because here’s the one thing I would say, in my case, I founded the company. My fingerprints and my DNA are all over that company. I know the people really well. I love them really well. It’s like a piece of my life. I don’t know if it would be different, and I can’t speak from this experience yet. Now, I’ve sat on boards, so maybe I have a little bit of an inclination. But I’ve often told people, I wonder how I would be a different Chairman if I went and bought a company where I wasn’t as emotionally invested in it as I have been for Fort. And in a very positive way, I’m trying to become less emotional about Fort over time. I still want to love the people the same way and care about them the same way. But for a long time, candidly, just being honest, it was a big part of my identity. If I went and bought some widget manufacturing business tomorrow, it wouldn’t be my identity. I would look at it as purely like how do we do great business here, which is treating people well, which is serving customers, which is doing all the things. But I couldn’t have memories of like, oh, I remember when I was 23 and we did our first deal and all this nostalgia that comes with it. And so maybe in those cases, there would be more clearly defined lanes of what decisions I make and what decisions the CEO makes. But Jason is my partner, we’ve been partnered for nine or ten years. Yes, he’s the CEO. Yes, I’m technically the chairman. But we’ve been in it for so long together and so much of the company has been built together, that there’s just very few things that he asks permission, like I can’t really think of much. We’re very in tune.
Alex Bridgeman: What have you learned about healthy disagreement?
Chris Powers: It is the most powerful thing in the world. I have a painting up, you’ve seen it, in my conference room, and it is a line of people at a stand called “Convenient Lies”. And that line is full of people. And then there’s another booth next to it that is “Inconvenient truths,” and there’s nobody standing at that. And I think it says a lot about where the world is today. People don’t want to be told the truth even though the truth is often the thing that sets them free, helps them grow, gets them better. There’s nothing positive about a situation that’s not going great and everybody pretends like it’s going great. There is like nothing positive about that. Like people have been in bad relationships with a bad girlfriend or boyfriend. The worst thing you could do is pretend that you have this great relationship when inside it’s rotting your soul. And that’s the same thing that happens in business. And so, I think the thing, the only thing that makes it hard is if you don’t trust where it’s coming from or trust the person or feel safe and you think that it’s personal, it’s toast. Jason knows, and trust me, this happened the other day, we disagreed on something. I wrote him a nice email, I stated my case, but he didn’t read it and go this is a personal attack. He read it and said, here’s a different opinion from someone that cares about me, cares about the company, and this is just an opinion. And so as soon as it’s not personal, it’s great. And I think it’s where the biggest breakthroughs in the company happen are when you can have like thoughtful disagreement in a relationship, you might call it heated fellowship.
Alex Bridgeman: I like that phrase. I’ll have to find a way to use that. How do you get folks to understand that your feedback or disagreement isn’t personal? I think it’s easy to take disagreements personally. And it takes some special nuance, I think, to communicate that no, I’m disagreeing with you because I care about you and I want you to have the best information for this decision you’re making.
Chris Powers: I think it’s what you just said. When your parents punished you as a kid, did you think it’s because they hated you? It’s because you thought they wanted you to get better, but underneath all that, you knew they loved you. And I’m not saying in a workplace it’s the same love that you would have maybe in a family. But as a leader, the first thing is like is this person for me? And once you can get that out of the way, you can say a lot of things. As soon as somebody- and I think this can show up in lots of ways. It can be direct words. It can be actions. It could be hearing that somebody’s talking poorly behind your back, things of that nature. But if somebody is for you, which the earliest relationship we can really see that manifest is our parents, that is the underlying current of the relationship, then it makes everything else you’re about to say easier. The other part is like consistency. If people are expecting this stuff to come up, and, one, it’s like baked into the culture. I think the most radical I’ve seen is Ray Dalio’s Bridgewater where they like rate each other after every meeting through some crazy system. And a lot of people can’t handle it. But there’s a reason why the people that make it through the first two years end up staying there for 30 or 40 years – they thrive on that constant feedback. And so, I think it’s a cultural thing. But I think the person has to be for you. And then it has to be in a manner that is not- it’s like you never spank your child when you’re angry, spank them when you’ve talked to them, and hey, I’m going to give you a spanking. But as soon as you spank them out of anger, it’s like it’s a whole different thing than a spanking that’s given with intentionality. It’s the same thing with employees. If you think you’re going to correct somebody by putting them on blast in front of a whole roomful of their peers and that they’re going to well receive that message, that’s a lot different than pulling someone aside in a one on one, having a thoughtful conversation with a low tone of voice, where they know you’re for them, you’re just trying to help them get better, and that’s a trusted conversation, as opposed to, like I said, just embarrassing someone in front of a lot of people. So tone, context, situation matters. But I think at the end of it all, the short answer that I made long is when somebody is for you, you give them permission to tell you things that you wouldn’t allow somebody that’s not for you to tell you.
Alex Bridgeman: One kind of similarly related topic to this is mentorship, which I know you’ve given a lot of thought to in terms of you mentoring younger and ambitious, hungry people through your organization or outside of it. What are some ways you’ve found effective at being a mentor to somebody else?
Chris Powers: I think mentors are- the mentors that are alive and mentors that are dead. We all have mentors. And I think the thing that I think is the cheat code to life is having the guts, not even the guts, the confidence to go to somebody older than you that has walked the walk, that has done the thing that you want to do and ask them how they did it. Most successful people that have been successful in something, it doesn’t even have to be building a business and making money, it could be a successful guy that’s proven to be a great husband or a dad that we all want to be like when we have kids or somebody that’s given back a lot to the community. How did they do it? What drove them? Most people that have been successful, something that I have found in my life, one of the things that makes them successful is it’s like the nature of their heart. And you never meet like a- maybe every now and again, you meet this curmudgeon Scrooge that somehow made a lot of money, but nobody really loves the guy, it was self-serving, or the girl. But it’s usually a guy that’s an ass; women are much nicer. And you go to them, and you’re like, hey, how’d you do this? And what I found with most of these people is they are overjoyed to share with younger people how it happened. And so, the first step to answer your question is, one, mentors are amazing, and, two, seek people out that have done the thing that you want to do. And then like a real estate career, that first mentor could just be somebody that’s bought five properties. They’re the best next mentor because they’re going to be able to share things that are applicable to how you get from like zero to five. Then you might find a mentor that’s like, okay, who built a company doing this? So now I’ve got five properties, but now I’m trying to turn this into a company, the next mentor. And then you get to building a company, and then maybe it’s like, okay, how do I build a really big company? Okay, now I have a mentor that’s done this. But one thing I can say about my life, and I don’t know if it was a gift, it’s just how I’ve been born, it’s always been the most logical thing to me is to immediately find the person that’s done what I want to go do and either read a book about them, try and talk to them, learn everything I can about what they’ve done. So that’s kind of step one. It’s the cheat code to life. They’ve made all the mistakes. They’ve hit all the landmines. There’s so many errors I’ve dodged along the way because of a great mentor. The second for young people listening to this, I think there’s mentorships that are formal and informal. I was probably good at having more informal ones where like I talked about my first mentor, I think I called him my mentor, but he and I were good friends. And I just was always around him. I was always asking him questions. And we had this wonderful relationship where it was just kind of understood that he was teaching me along the way. But I also had mentors that I literally went to them and was like, hey, for the next year, I’m trying to learn this one thing, can I talk to you once a month, and every time I show up, I’m going to be prepared, you’re not going to waste your time on me. And after a year, if it’s run its course, like it’s over. And it was more formal. What I wouldn’t recommend young people doing is the whole like can I pick your brain, and can I just have this kind of flimsy relationship that I kind of half ass care about. The ones that have had the most impact on me and the ones where I’ve probably had the impact on the younger people, it’s very intentional, these people always show up ready to kind of learn, and they’re on a mission to get something accomplished.
Alex Bridgeman: What about from the other direction, too? So if you’re a CEO, and maybe there’s an opportunity to be a mentor to somebody younger that you know, what are some things you’ve done that have been most helpful to that younger person?
Chris Powers: Is that somebody within the organization or just like anybody in general?
Alex Bridgeman: Anybody in general.
Chris Powers: I think I started with- the relationship doesn’t end up feeling so formal, but it is formal in the sense of, okay, we’ve agreed that we’re going to meet once a month, and we’re going to meet for 60 minutes or 90 minutes, or whatever it is. And you’ve agreed that you’re going to send me an agenda a week ahead of time about what we’re going to discuss. As the mentor, it’s not my job to come up with material to teach you. As soon as like I now have a job, it’s usually when things aren’t going well. Now, if you’ve sent me something and said here’s what I really want to discuss, as a good mentor, I should probably come prepared. So, I’m not saying there’s no work that goes into it. But the mentee is really driving the relationship. The mentor has plenty of things in their life they could be doing. This is a service that they’re doing to somebody and helping them out. And so, one is a little more formality. Two is, I think, just being super transparent, like if you’re going to mentor someone, don’t keep all the secrets- don’t mentor someone and not tell them what you know. That’s wasting everybody’s time. There’s some people that live in this world that think if they give up the secret, they’re screwed. There are no secrets, and most people aren’t going to go do what you know anyway. I’ve been radically transparent. It’s given way more back to me than it’s taken from me. But I think you do sometimes see mentors that like want to pretend like they’re helping, but they’re not really helping. They’re just kind of filling space, and they’re not giving the nitty gritty. The things that I have benefited from the most are practical, real life situations where a mentor can be like this is going to eventually happen to you, and this is exactly what we did about it. And it might not have happened yet, but here’s how you handle it when it happens. Or this is how we let people go gracefully. Or this is what happens when we get sideways with a bank two weeks before closing, or just all these like little things that are very practical. And I think try to give the most transparent answer as possible.
Alex Bridgeman: What else about mentoring have you given a lot of thought to recently?
Chris Powers: Well, I do the podcast, which I think is like this ongoing mentorship. It might not be a one on one mentorship, but I see the feedback I get from people, especially young people. All I can say is I started this by saying I’m one of the luckiest guys on the planet, and I’m lucky because I’ve had these both formal and informal, you might not- like yes, I think you’d call them mentors. It’s not like I necessarily even called all these people mentors. Looking back, they were mentors. They’ve helped me become better father, they’ve helped me become better husband, they’ve helped me become a better leader. You go back to the people, the five closest people in your life impact you the most, like there’s so much truth to that. And so sometimes those five people, like you don’t even think of them as your mentors. It’s not till later in life that you realize that look at everything I’ve benefited from having been close to that person. So, I think the word mentor, you can think of it as this very formal thing. But I also look back in my life and go like that person was actually a mentor, I didn’t even know it at the time. They just cared a lot about me and helped me get along. And so, I think it’s more of a reflection of looking around your life going like are the people around me helping me move forward in life, whatever that is. And if that’s not the case, and I’m not saying everybody has to be this mentor, but if you often talk to the most successful people in any one aspect of their life that’s usually characterized by people around them that have walked the walk. And so, like you don’t just- now I’m getting out of business. I’m a father of three young kids. You don’t just accidentally become a good father. It is super hard. The best fathers often probably hang around with other great fathers or had a great father or their grandfather was great. There was somebody in their life that modeled what being a good father looks like. And so I think that’s how you’ve got to think about mentorship. Whatever area of your life you’re trying to improve on, if there’s not people in your life that have already done that thing, I’m not saying you can’t do it, but it’s just a lot harder and why make it harder than it already is on yourself. And the other thing I would say, and I don’t have any experience with this, and so I’m not saying it’s a good or bad thing, but if you’re having to pay someone to be your mentor, I’m not saying it doesn’t usually end well or it’s a bad thing, I would just question it a lot more. I’ve never had somebody in my life that I look back on over the time I’ve been here and go that was the best one I ever had and I paid them, with a caveat. I had an executive coach for 18 months, I wouldn’t really- maybe they were a mentor. And I paid them. And it was some of the best value I’ve ever had. But that was their job. They were an executive coach. Every other, I would say, leader in my life, informal, formal, whether I knew it or not, was just somebody that cared a lot about me, going back to what we said, they were for me.
Alex Bridgeman: It seems like executive coaching has become more common, at least among the CEOs I know or have met. And I really enjoyed your episode with Julie Gardner. That was fantastic in terms of her expertise, being an executive coach. Talk about your experience with executive coaching. What made it valuable? What was helpful coming out of that?
Chris Powers: Yeah, humans are kind of weird. Sometimes they know the answer, they just have to have it be told to them by somebody else to actually let it resonate. And so, you see this often, like you’ll see executive retreats where they bring a moderator or they bring a facilitator. You see all the time, you’ve read the book by Peter Lencioni, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, where like everybody in the room knows what the problem is, they just don’t know how to solve it because, one, they probably don’t know how to have tough conversations, they kind of need that third party unbiased opinion to come in and say what everybody’s already thinking. That’s just like how we are as people. And so, part of that is what a coach does is they help bring to fruition the things that you’re probably deep down inside feeling but don’t maybe know how to articulate or you don’t really know if it’s right. And so they kind of give you permission to understand yourself a little bit better. The other- one of the reasons they’re able to do that is because they have an unbiased opinion. Unless the executive coach has equity in your business or some huge financial upside if the business goes well, you’re just another client. Like they might love you, but their job is to help you get better for no other reason than their job is to help you get better. And so I think with a lot of these things I’ve learned over time, it’s okay to pay people to tell you sometimes the thing you already know because you see people that live long parts of their life, whether it’s business, relationships, you see families that have kind of been torn apart, and they know the answer to make it all better is just to forgive each other. That’s the answer. It’s the simple answer. And they’ll go 20 years without doing it. And then they’ll finally meet a counselor that will bring them together and like force the function, and then you see this like beautiful healing happening. Most of the issues that are plaguing where we’re headed in life are not these huge mysteries. Now, I’ll caveat that. If you’re growing a big company, and you’re leveling up, and maybe you’re trying to be that Jeff Bezos that’s going from step to step, yeah, there’s things you have no idea about that they’re helping you level up on and they’re teaching you how to do things that you’ve never done before. Again, that goes back to being a good mentor though, you’re talking to the people that have walked the walk of where you’re headed. But a lot of times, executive coaches aren’t necessarily teaching you how to do all these things you’ve never done before. They’re teaching you how to handle what’s in front of you that day, how to prioritize your time better, how to manage people better, how to do all these things. And so, nobody had to tell me I was a bad manager. I was a bad manager. I knew it. Now, it helped him to clarify what a great manager was, what it took to do that, where the gap was, and would I be able to fill it. He said it to me in a non-threatening way. But I didn’t need him to tell me I was a bad manager. What I needed him to do is go here’s maybe where you should be thinking, here’s where you should be spending your time rather than just trying to be a good manager. He gave me the permission to go I’m not a failure for being a bad manager. In fact, I can give 10x more to this company if I just focus in these areas of the company and not doubling, almost like doubling down on my weaknesses. So yeah, I don’t know if I got off track on that answer.
Alex Bridgeman: No, it’s still helpful. Over the next year, what skill or leveling up are you hoping to achieve?
Chris Powers: It’s a great question. I want to learn how to buy a business. I don’t know if that’s leveling up or achieving anything, but that’s something that’s intrigued me, going back to where we’ve been, that might be totally off topic. As far as like a tangible skill, patience is my constant, what I’m constantly working on. There’s an element of wanting to move fast and do things quickly. But again, I think some of the greatest wisdom over time is to kind of be patient. I think, as I look back, and now I’m kind of entering this prime of my career, I don’t need any one thing to happen tomorrow. And it often feels that way as an entrepreneur, like got to get this done, got to get this done. Yeah, there’s some things that you need to get done today. I think the skill and I don’t know if I’ll- I don’t know how I’ll test if I’m better at it, it’s just being patient, with people, with projects, with problems, with everything. I think my strength is I can move quickly, and my weakness is I move really quickly. And again, you just look at some of these, we can take this back to where we started with Berkshire, one of the most patient men you’ve ever met. But when it’s time, it’s time. When it’s time to move, they move faster than anybody. But they’re also cool being patient for a really, really long time. And I think we’re entering a market and a new time in the cycle, the economic cycle, just people are going to be distressed, there’s going to- just human emotions are going to be up a little bit. Now is the time to be patient, not the time to be not patient.
Alex Bridgeman: I love that. Chris, thank you so much for coming on the podcast for a longer and more deeper dive into your professional and personal life. So, thank you for sharing your time. I’ve really enjoyed getting to know you and visiting you in Dallas and meeting you at Capitol Camp and I thoroughly enjoyed spending time with you.
Chris Powers: Alex, I think the world of you, I think you know that. You’ve gotten so much better at these podcasts. Your questions are great. And I’m always rooting for you, man.
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