Q24N (Forbes.com) – It’s January 5th, 2009 the first trading day of the new year. I’m Co-Head of Investments at Ramius Capital, leading our team meeting getting everybody excited and prepared for 2009 (following the global financial meltdown of 2008). My boss’s assistant hands me a slip of paper, “Tom would like to meet with you.”
She said it was urgent.
One hour later my job had been eliminated. Instantly, I joined tens of thousands of other unemployed investment professionals in the worst market crisis since the Great Depression. I was shocked.
I was at Ramius for 8 years. I helped grow the business from $100 million dollars under management to $4 billion dollars at peak, and from 4 people to 50 plus. And just like that, just like we let other people go, I was dismissed. I got it – it was critical for their survival. It was not personal. It was business. However, I just didn’t see it coming. I thought I was on the inside of the inner circle. In one instant, it became apparent that I was on the outside.
I had never been laid off or fired. I had always been recruited. I was never unemployed. I was always employed and hard-working. That was who I was. I recognized in many ways, my career helped define me. Now I had no career or job. This was a very difficult period but I remained upbeat. I spent 40, 50, 60 hours every single week pounding the pavement calling, emailing, meeting in person being interviewed looking for my next job. After all, I had three young children and a family to support plus mortgage obligations. So while the financial world was still in chaos, that did not negate or minimize my financial needs or my desire to contribute to society and grow personally. I was not done. There was lots I still wanted to learn and accomplish in life. This was the beginning of my entrepreneurial journey, only I didn’t know it then.
I was born and raised in Costa Rica. Spanish was my first language and I moved to the United States when I was 10. My father, an American entrepreneur himself, designed a life that allowed him to live in Costa Rica and operate a successful mail-order business remotely. Because he had no formal education, he prioritized education for my sister and I and we attended private schools in both Costa Rica and eventually in New York City as well. I graduated near the top of my class and ultimately went to Cornell University.
In 1994, I married a remarkable woman I started dating second semester of senior year (1991) at Cornell. She was incredibly intelligent and beautiful and driven. She wanted to be an Orthopedic surgeon (which to date remains a male-dominated medical field). She and I were equally ambitious and motivated and gave each other support and freedom to pursue our careers.
In fact, when I was accepted at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania in 1998, she supported my choice although she was a medical resident living in NYC. My second year at Wharton, I was recruited by a top investment firm, The Blackstone Group. There I managed the founders’ wealth in a variety of alternative hedge fund investments.
Eventually, I was recruited by Ramius Capital Group in 2001 and joined as the fourth employee in the hedge fund of funds group with about $100 million under management.
I ultimately became a Co-Head of Investment of that group which meant that I was largely responsible for all investment decisions: where to invest capital, which asset classes, which hedge fund managers, and dollars committed. Increasingly, as we grew the institutional investors base, my role incorporated marketing and client relations as well.
Then in 2008 the world’s financial market started to collapse. While our funds performed admirably in perhaps the most challenging marketing conditions since the Great Depression, nonetheless, we suffered losses. On a relative basis, we performed well – we beat our benchmarks, suffered smaller losses than many of our peers and competitors. Yet, the reality is, nobody wants to lose money. As we recognized the extent of the financial crisis, we prudently began to cut our expenses and headcount. Starting in 2008, we began a series of probably four or six rounds of layoffs. This was really troubling. Figuring out which of our staff, which of our team that we had so carefully crafted and put together would be eliminated. That was a most challenging and emotional period, but nonetheless we had to do it. Every time we trimmed we thought we’re being prudent and conservative in trimming more people than we needed such that we never have to trim again. And I remember saying to our team, “Rest easy since you made this cut and are listening to this speech, you are safe. We don’t need any future cuts.” Although the sentiment was sincere, none of us expected the severity of the global collapse, the speed and the depth and how much destruction occurred. And so we were faced with real hard business and life decisions about how can we survive as a business and continue to serve our client’s best interests. Which led to a second rounds of layoffs and then the third round and the fourth round and on and on.
Those were very difficult decisions but it was necessary. Remaining rational during irrational periods is critical as a business person, an entrepreneur, an individual, as a father.
And this brings us back to where we started. January 5th, 2009 – a day that changed my life forever. I can still remember all the vivid details – the boardroom table, who was seated where, how I received the note, how I walked down the hallway knowing my fate was sealed. And, objectively, I can also see it from a distance – how it was not personal. How it was necessary. How I would do the same thing. And, while many became bitter, I became driven to get back to it and not depressed or upset. It was time to move on – forge the next chapter of my journey.
I aggressively pursued employment opportunities but none surfaced. At the time, this period of my life was the most challenging I ever faced. I was unable to get a job. In fact, what was infuriating was I wasn’t even being rejected from job opportunities. I could not get either a “yes” or even a “no”. All these people that would have loved to hire me and previously hired headhunters to hire me and bring me over to their firm to help them to grow their business would meet with me. However, they were so shell shocked and worried about their own jobs and their own firms and their own fears that there was a hiring freeze and they too were laying off. They were happy to meet with me and see me and dream how they might fit me in. However, at the end of the day, they had to sit their hands and do nothing and so they didn’t even reject my candidacy because they wanted to keep the door open for if, and when, the storm passed.
And so, it was really frustrating. I had these open opportunities and interviews and I couldn’t close any of them and I couldn’t move forward. I felt that I was banging my head against the proverbial wall. I kept doing it until I realized that it was futile that there were no jobs in my chosen field and literally nobody was hiring and I recall thinking “Do I not add any value? Have I no utility that I can offer?” I would have gladly sat at any desk for free just to be intellectually stimulated. But I couldn’t even get that.
I faced the reality and I said, “I’m ready willing and capable.” I recognized that the market wasn’t receptive at this time and that time needed to pass and so with that, I started thinking of other opportunities and other things that were important to me as an individual. I started to run, I got really fit, which I have embraced and taken to new levels consistently every single year. I am in better shape today than I have ever been. Being active and healthy keeps me mentally alert and gives me strength. Ultimately, I decided I would give myself a break and take some time to think and recharge as summer approached. I decided to take the summer off and spend it in the Hamptons. I always wanted to do that and there were no job opportunitiers, I was not working, and so I turned to my wife and said, “I’m going to go to the Hamptons this summer and I’m going to figure it out what I’m going do. I’m going to take this time to recharge and rebuild and to figure it out.”
In this process, I recognized that I always had a yearning to be an entrepreneur. My father, although he had no formal schooling, was an entrepreneur. He was a self-made man and he was very successful and he was my role model. He influenced me and my outlook and his self reliance and entrepreneurial spirit was something that I always admired but had never really explored. Having the benefit of two Ivy League educations, I walked a more traditional linear path and was intrigued by finance and was fortunate enough to be recruited by top firms. I never really paused to think about the alternative. I wanted to work for myself, I wanted to create something out of nowhere. I wanted to risk it all and see how good I am. I was confident, I was capable, I was willing, and I was able.
I wanted be an entrepreneur. Armed with that knowledge, I went to my wife and said, “Honey I’ve got some really good news”
She said, “Oh yeah what is it?” (Praying I got a job).
I replied, “I decided I’m going be an entrepreneur!”
She looked at me concerned and said, “Really? You think now is the right time? The world is still blowing up, you can’t get a job, and you think now is the right time to start a new business?”
I said, “Yes often times during periods of dislocation it’s great to be optimistic and invest capital because everyone else is removing capital. In fact, we’ve made tons of money investing in a contrarian style. Yeah, I think it’s a great time to start a business.”
“Okay, tell me more. What is your business is going to do?”
I said, “Well I’m not exactly sure what the business is I’m going to create but I am going to figure it out.”
She was not amused and said, “I’m sorry this is supposedly a good news? The good news is that in the worst financial crisis in the world you’re going start a business and you don’t know what the business is going to do and I’m supposed to be happy about this?”
“Yeah, I’m thrilled and I don’t understand why you don’t share my excitement but thanks so much for the support. Now, I have a lot of work to do, I have to figure it out what I’m going to do.”
With that decision, that I was going to take charge of my life and become an entrepreneur and be responsible for my thoughts, time, business, culture, employees, clients and so on I started the next leg of my life. I started from scratch. Literally thinking about a million business opportunities and trying to determine what business to start. In the next blog, I’ll tell you more about the process and then ultimately the first business I launched.
Today (more on future blogs so stay tuned!), I successfully run three distinct businesses in different industries including: high end executive and event transportation services globally, a SaaS software company and a fledgling online real estate educational content company. Things are incredibly bright but never in a million years did I envision the path from there to here. I encourage you to read future blogs for all the interesting business models, pivots, obstacles and the business journey itself.
ut, one important update to cover in this initial blog to frame my current situation, mind frame, and opportunity set is personal. Very personal. And, I transparently share it with you because the point of this blog is to inform, encourage, motivate and learn.
I was happily married for 22 years and am now, very recently, happily separated. And, suffice it to say, the decision to separate was not my choice. I believe you cannot control other people’s actions, but you can, and should, control your own. I am eternally optimistic (aren’t all great entrepreneurs?) and am fortunate to see every crisis or bump in the road as a required hiccup on the way to ultimate happiness and success. In my personal life journey, I am confident that my entrepreneurial background is extremely helpful – I’m always expecting the unexpected and seizing opportunity. Contrast that with the population at large. Many freeze during periods of discomfort. The unknown can be paralyzing. To embrace risk and challenge and to seek personal growth and development irrespective of the outcome, is truly a blessing.
I’m really proud of how quickly I navigated the void, the loss, and the grief. So many people get stuck for a significant period of time. However, from my perspective, I’m 46 years old, healthy, fit, eager and excited and I look at this new life status change as a great gift. I have the opportunity to write the next chapter of my life and I want to get on with it immediately. I do not want to waste 1 minute, I don’t even want to waste 1 second. I want to figure out what my next steps are and what I really want to do and come up with a game plan to execute. In fact, this is a very similar approach and methodology, and parallel in a lot of my thinking, when I run my businesses.
In the next blog, I will detail the methodology I applied to figuring out which business opportunity to pursue as I began the process of self-discovery, introspection, entrepreneurialism and took charge of my own destiny.
Richard Fertig is currently the CEO of several operating companies ranging from high end event transportation (Brilliant Transportation) to a SaaS software company (LifeZaver).