Thoughts on Turning 43 Today

When I turned 40 I was in a state of panic. I had been reading “the Summer of 49” by David Halberstam about the 1949 Yankees.

In the book he comments about how the Yankees team was going to have problems because of its aging players. For instance, “Dimaggio’s body was breaking down.” You would think Dimaggio was 90 years old. He was 34. So I put that book down and opened up Chess Life Magazine.

I remember back from hanging out at the Manhattan Chess Club as a kid – the old men stroking their beards, pondering moves for hours. So in Chess Life I turn to an article about the top 20 chess players in the world. The article mentions there are only two “oldtimers” on the list. Viswanathan Anand, age 38. And Boris Gelfand, age 37. Great. I guess I’m too old for that also.

So I did the only smart thing – I called someone up who was double my age.

John Pappajohn is exactly 40 years older than me and is one of the most successful investors in the world. He has started, sold, brought public, over 50 different companies in the healthcare space. He’s averaged over 60% a year on his investing since the early 1970s. He’s given over one hundred million dollars to charity just in the past few years. He started his career as a venture capitalist at the healthy age of 41 in 1969.

“You’re calling for what reason? What!?” he asked and then laughed.

“Listen, it only gets better,” he said, “I have seven financings going on, a company I’m involved in that might go public soon, and we just did a reverse merger with another company. Things are better than ever.”

But, John, when you started your first venture deal at the age of 41, were you a little scared?

“Oh sure, you’re always apprehensive. That’s normal. And heck, this was 1969, hardly anybody was in venture capital back then and I decided to go into it. I called up another investor, Warren Buffett, and he told me, ‘John, you’re making a big mistake’. He told me he was getting out of the business and going into operating a company. And you know what, James, he was right. Interest rates went to 16%, the economy went into a horrible recession, the venture business was dead. I was doing little M&A deals to make a living but that’s it.”

“I started my venture business with $100,000. That’s all. My wife and I drove around in old cars, we lived within our means, but I always kept a PMA – positive mental attitude. I always held onto that. And then I started a company, Kay Laboratories, which eventually merged into Baxter. I started Caremark which grew much bigger, I started Medical Imaging Laboratories. Altogether I’ve been involved in 50 companies that eventually got bought or went public, all in the medical space.

“And I’ll tell you why it gets better. Everyone always calls me now when they have a deal. I’ve been around so you get to know everybody. Keep your nose clean, build good relationships over the years, and people will keep showing you good deals.

One more thing he said: “Giving money away is a prerequisite to making more money. When you get older,” he told me “you have to keep thinking of new ways to create value. That’s important.”

So a few days ago, the night before I was to leave for India for a two week yoga vacation, John called me to see if I wanted to grab dinner. Of course I dropped all my other plans and said yes. We met at E.A.T, a small diner-ish place on the upper east side. John showed me a page from his notebook. It had a list of about eight deals he was working on right then. “I’m interviewing a CFO for one company,” he told me, “meeting a bank about taking another company public, meeting with some IP lawyers about a tech company I’m invested in, and reviewing the ongoing trial of another company I’m invested in. Its all good, James.”

And I was relieved. Because over the past three years I had basically invested in every company John was involved in, both the public and the private ones. I was glad to hear he was confident in all of our investments together.

And so it occurs to me while I’m writing this: I’m sitting here in India celebrating my 43rd birthday. Three hours ago I touched my toes without bending my knees for the first time in my life in a yoga class. Now I’m writing with a nice breeze coming into my room. Outside its about 70 degrees and sunny.

Meanwhile, an 83 year old man is in his suit, traipsing through the blizzard of Manhattan, making deals, negotiating contracts, trying to get IPOs going for investments he (and I) have made. He’ll put in 15 hour days every day next week in five different states and three different plane rides. He’ll use his rolodex built over 50 years in order to, ultimately, generate money for me while I’m enjoying myself in India.

I’m feeling a little guilty now as I write this. But I’m sure right at this moment, John’s probably the happiest man alive.

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