The most interesting person I know died on Saturday.
I met John Blaisdell in 2008. Salient, where he was CEO, wanted to replace a local financial institution that had participated in a first leg of growth for their fund-of-funds business. I was an associate at a private equity firm that existed to do deals like this. Our brilliant idea was that we’d pay a sub-equity multiple for a self-amortizing share of revenues, which is a fancy way of saying it just goes away after a certain number of years. Did I say brilliant? I meant terrible. Yes, the idea was to produce nice, clean transitions for asset-light, founder-owned investment businesses. The problem was that we always got outbid on the best companies and ended up with too many adversely selected ones – firms who did a deal with us because they couldn’t really get an offer from anyone else.
We were outbid by Summit.
Most of the investment management companies we looked at buying a piece of were niche investment operations run by a Founder-CIO who begrudgingly took on the CEO title. Salient was not that. John was definitely not that. I honestly didn’t know what to think of him at the time, but I don’t think he ever did anything grudgingly. The man was a dynamo in the most literal sense of the word – in a constant state of physical, intellectual motion. Ever planning. Ever adjusting those plans. Ever tuning his words describing those plans to best reflect the mood of the moment in the room.
I think I didn’t like him.
I didn’t meet him again until 2012. Lee Partridge was trying to introduce us. I was at Texas Teachers. My best friend Todd (another Texas Teachers PM) and I both thought most OCIO providers we’d met were designing a scale product to appeal to the optics sensibilities of risk-averse boards. Lee wasn’t. He wanted to deal with their fundedness issues and extreme reliance on robust returns for US equities head-on. And he was at Salient. We wanted in.
So I went to meet John and his partners. I still didn’t know what to think.
Imagine a map of the world, only instead of a map of geography, it is a map of temperaments and personalities. Put a pin in Auckland, New Zealand and call it Greg Reid, who ran the midstream energy infrastructure franchise. Put another in Kamchatka. That one is Lee. Put your third pin in Tierra del Fuego and call it Jeremy Radcliffe, John’s right hand man. Then drop a fourth on the Aleutian island of your choosing and call it Andrew Linbeck, who ran the Houston-based wealth business.
There was no pin for John Blaisdell. And there was no pinning him down to any sort of pithy description.
Oh sure, you’d think you had him nailed, but then he would tell you a story about his years as a dancer on the Puerto Rican version of Soul Train. Once you had him pegged, you’d learn another tidbit about his time as Miami city manager during the vice years. And as soon as you thought you finally had the measure of him, you’d walk with him into a restaurant you’d been to two dozen times in the last six months without him as a regular, only to have every server, host, valet, sommelier and unoccupied line cook in the place line up to shake HIS hand and exchange pleasantries with him in perfect Spanish. Then the next week he’d fly to San Francisco for a closing dinner, stand up in the middle of the winery owned by the billionaire who sold him a company, and belt out a raucous Cielito Lindo, utterly indifferent to whether anyone else joined him on the chorus that normal people know.
I think a lot of people who didn’t know John very well often felt that this dynamism – this intentional tailoring of his words and actions to each person and circumstance – had to be some kind of attempt to manipulate them. Or at the very least, a kind of intellectual inconsistency. I was one of them. For a while.
No one event changes this kind of perception. But some stand out. Like when my wife was due with our first child on Thanksgiving Day in 2014, and John stayed up the night before making a second thanksgiving dinner in addition to the absurd feast he prepared for his own family celebration. Sous vide turkey breast, gravy, dressing, salads, casseroles and pies, with hand-written instructions for the best way to reheat and prepare each. He showed up with full bags at our hungry house, unlooked-for and unannounced. I think the only person who knew was his assistant, whom he asked for our address.
We weren’t alone. Ours was one among a hundred similar stories.
Ultimately, I came to believe that John’s great gift was his ability to spot the innate, under-the-surface potential for connection between people. His great joy, I think, was to forge those connections in the most surprising ways possible. He always wanted to do good deals, yes, but better yet if that deal could shock and surprise, something no one else had thought of. He always wanted to hire good people, but far better if it was a person vastly different from his current partners, in whom he saw the potential for powerful and unexpected connection. And yes, he wanted to be the chain that forged those connections, the hidden link between those pins on every corner of the map.
But those simpler commitments to doing right by his clients and partners were real, too. And not in the obligatory way that all of us must be committed to our clients. In one of the last conversations I had with John, he shared with me something that he had shared many times before. It’s something I know would be familiar to each of his other partners and families. He told me that he had never once delivered a bad result for a family – or his partners – who stuck with him. We all build narratives of identity. This was John’s, an identity that I think he would go to any ends to defend.
Death is usually a sort of overdetermined thing, influenced and compounded and explainable by more things than any proximate cause. That is a lucky thing for the rest of us. It lets us off easy. We can comfort ourselves by saying “it wasn’t our fault” when someone we love dies way before they should have. And we’re right. It isn’t our fault.
But that doesn’t mean we’re not responsible.
Don’t get me wrong. A life well-lived is a life of investing in the lives of others and accepting their investments in our own. Are you uncomfortable that others’ commitments to you sometimes wake them up in the night? Are you uneasy that someone’s desire to make you safer, happier or more prosperous costs them something? Even if that cost is tough to quantify? Even if it’s one among a million reasons their health began to fail?
This glorious, flawed, messy and big-hearted giant of a person loved me. He invested part of his life in me, and I accepted it with a full heart. I also accept with clear eyes the responsibility that comes with that.
John, you delivered on everything you ever promised me you would. You didn’t need to do a damn thing more to be part of my sons’ legacy.