Value Added: David Rubenstein and the art of the ‘get’
By Thomas Heath,
Since taking over the Economic Club of Washington four years ago, Carlyle Group co-founder and managing director David M. Rubenstein has turned it into a hot ticket for national business and political leaders, as well as for people on the local scene.
Rubenstein, 62, succeeded Vernon Jordan, an attorney and intimate of former president Bill Clinton, in 2008 and has overseen a 33 percent increase in membership, to 570.
This week, the club celebrates its 25th anniversary with an appearance by billionaire investor Warren Buffett, a former director of The Washington Post Co. and its second-largest investor.
Rubenstein called from a fundraising trip to China last week to talk about the club, which has hosted big-time decision makers such as General Motors chairman [and former Carlyle partner] Dan Akerson, Microsoft chairman Bill Gates, former Google chief executive Eric Schmidt, Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner, Exxon Mobil Chairman Rex Tillerson, Fed Chairman Ben S. Bernanke, and PepsiCo chief executive Indra Nooyi.
Here are some of Rubenstein’s edited responses to our questions on the telephone interview:
How did you snag Warren Buffett for the Economic Club?
I offered to host a dinner at the National Archives for those who participated in the Giving Pledge [the Warren Buffett-Bill Gates initiative in which ultra-wealthy individuals pledge to give away the majority of their net worth to philanthropy]. I was there talking about the Magna Carta, the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. Buffett said he had never been to the National Archives and that it was one of the most enjoyable events he had ever been to. At that dinner, I asked Warren Buffett if he would be willing to do an interview at the Economic Club. He said yes. I don’t know if he knew what he was getting into.
How did you come up with the relaxed format for your interviews, sitting in easy chairs and having back and forth with your guests?
When I took over the club, I wanted to make it more lively. Having four speakers a year wasn’t engaging people enough, so we decided to have eight events a year.
We wanted to make sure it wasn’t just business people giving speeches.
The format that had existed — where the guest gives a speech and then takes some questions from the members — we did that for a year or so. Then I realized that business people aren’t always the most scintillating speakers. Some are good. But some just read a text and aren’t exciting.
I found that during the Q and A, which I would lead off with a few of my own questions, the answers were getting more laughter and more interest. I concluded that I would ask the people not to read a text and instead let me just interview them.
The audiences have enjoyed it. I ask all types of questions but always include funny ones, hoping to bring people out of their shells. It has been interesting.
Who was the hardest “get”?
The guest who was the most anticipated was Bill Gates. He rarely did this type of thing. I had known him, and I asked him to do it.
He is very tightly scheduled. His appointments are scheduled a year in advance. So I had to find some time when he was in Washington.
Typically, we don’t say “these are the dates.” We ask what dates can someone come, and we’ll work something around them. A lot of people will accommodate your dates.
We’d love to get [Facebook founder Mark] Zuckerberg. We’re trying to get Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer. She said she would do it. She would be good.
We’re trying to get the president. I hope for Hilary Clinton. Mike Bloomberg said he will do it. We’ve had almost every business person I would want.
Who have been the best guests?
[Gates] was funny. I thought people enjoyed him. I asked him, “You are Mr. Computer. How did you come up with Control, Alt, Delete?”
He had a very logical answer. He said it was designed so you couldn’t unintentionally turn your computer off.
[House Speaker] John Boehner did a good job. He was pretty direct on some things. What guests tend to like is the interview format. They like that the questions are not unfriendly.
Rex Tillerson . . . is very direct. Very blunt.
While I was interviewing former U.S. Treasury secretary Larry Summers, we had protesters come up on stage. I said, “Larry, are there times you wish you hadn’t gone back into government?” It got a laugh.
[D.C. sports mogul] Ted [Leonsis] is very engaging. A really good sports team owner. He talked about his book on happiness.
What do you look for in guests?
I look for someone who has name recognition. So if I said, would you like to come see Mike Bloomberg or Warren Buffett, you’d say, they are interesting persons with something to say. I’m often amazed when I watch these Sunday TV talk shows and the people there take a lot of pride in not saying anything. I look for someone who will say something. I want someone to be a draw.
How do you find and approach a guest?
I know them all. I either send them a note or an e-mail. Nobody says I absolutely won’t speak at the Economic Club. I get invited to make lots of speeches myself, and I generally try to accommodate people. And I find most people will do the same.
How do you prepare for the interview?
I generally know something about the person. I read as much as I can a week before. Then I have in my mind what I want to talk about. I type them up. I memorize them. I don’t like to read the questions. You want to make it seem like a conversation.
Talk about your interviewing style.
I try to engage them in conversation. I am not out to embarrass them. I have asked questions that elicit laughter. I try to show that these people are human. I try to get them to enjoy the conversation and be glad that they came and delivered a message. And people in the audience get to know the person and like them better.
For previous Value Added columns, go to postbusiness.com.