"There are really two Fred Adlers," says Fred Adler, "the one that builds companies and the one that turns them around."
"Time, time, time," replies Adler, who is one of America's premier venture capitalists and turnaround artists.
"In a turnaround, you're coming into a situation that's desperate. You don't have time. You're trying to build a company fast; in a turnaround, you're doing it immediately. Cash flow in a turnaround is god.
"When you're building a business, allocation to product development and marketing is much more important. When you're building a company, you have the initial and continuing choice of people; you emphasize quality--you weed out anybody who's not top-of-the-ladder.
"In turnaround, you need to preserve your asset base. You keep productive people even if they aren't the sort of people you want in the long run."
At 58, Adler is an active manager/investor in more than 50 companies that span every aspect of high technology, from recombinant DNA to the software intricacies of computer-aided design. In the process of building companies from scratch and performing surgery on others that were hemorrhaging, he has made millions.
Adler also has had his failures, but they've barely nicked his reputation.
"Fred is known very much as a hands-on guy," says Stanley Pratt of the Venture Capital Journal. "He's also one of the biggest egos in the business--and he probably deserves it."
He's arrogant, impatient, and tough--traits he acknowledges--but he's brilliant as well. "He likes to give the impression of flippant intuition," says Richard Axel, a highly regarded Columbia University biologist who is both friend and adviser to Adler, "but he is, in fact, a very learned man. He knows what he is investing in."
"From what he eats to what he says, I don't think the guy has done anything unstudied in the last five years," says Esther Dyson, an Adler friend and computer industry analyst.
A smallish fellow with sharp, intense features, Adler is both senior partner of Reavis, McGrath, a Wall Street law firm, and the man who runs Adler & Co., his venture capital outfit. Adler & Co. supervises investment funds worth over $100 million. His first venture fund, which is five years old, has been appreciating at a compounded annual growth rate of 50 percent.
Adler himself, though he won't say, is probably worth well over $200 million. (His actual net worth defies assessment, however, because his capital is vested in so many high-risk/high reward ventures that have yet to pay out.)
A product of Brooklyn College and Harvard Law, Adler began as a hotshot litigator with a reputation for a sharp tongue and fell into his businessman's role by accident. A client's company was heading for bankruptcy so he wrote a memo outlining a plan to save it. "I did it because I had a big mouth," says Adler.
The plan ultimately worked, and that stint as hands-on operator propelled Adler on his path as entrepreneurial start-up and fix-it man.
Adler has launched literally dozens of companies into the marketplace. With names like Monoclonal Antibodies Inc. and Daisy Systems, some of them may ride the high technology wave to a place on Fortune's 500. Others may have simply served Adler's short-term needs for substantial return on investment.
That's what sets Adler apart from his fellow venture capitalists: the uncanny knack for balancing the demands of his investors with the needs of his business charges. "It's crazy," says Seymour Rubenstein, the head of MicroPro, a California software company that Adler helped turn around, "he likes to walk in and refer to himself as 'just a mechanic' and he's not: he's a brilliant manager and strategist."
The key to that is Adler's extraordinary quickness at assessing both the abilities and defects of his audience. "I use quickness as a means of obtaining intellectual supremacy," says Adler. From that supremacy, he maintains, comes the control he needs to oversee his investments and entrepreneurs.
Business is done out of Reavis, McGrath's 42nd floor office in midtown Manhattan. Adler never looks out the window to view the city. People shuttle in and out while his secretary pipes in a continuous stream of phone calls.
Adler's phone is a dual weapon. It transmits his presence anywhere in the world while simultaneously making the people sitting in his office squirm with mixed impatience and curiosity. He knows his conversations are being overheard, and appears to conduct them accordingly. He shifts from interrogator to interviewee to investor to manager to The Boss within the span of a few calls.
"When you pound a nail with your hand, you cut your hand," he tele-barks to one of his entrepreneurs, "Use a hammer. I'm the hammer. When you try to pull a nail out with your fingers, you rip your skin. Use pliers. I'm your pliers. I'm your tool. Use me."
By the time he returns to the visitors sitting in front of his desk, they've been totally psyched out. But he insists that his telephone pyrotechnics aren't an attempt to impress or intimidate, just his way of "being open."
Adler gets about five or six turnaround offers a year and takes maybe one. His last major turnaround was Gaithersburg-based Bethesda Research Laboratories last year. The company had been losing a million dollars a month. Today, BRL is set to go public--and earn Adler a cool $10 million for a $250,000 investment.
But what Adler really likes are the start-ups. That's when he has the chance to be the teacher and father-figure.
"I look for the superstars," says Adler, "a high-energy person with a high degree of understanding of both the technology and the marketplace." To get them, he will raid the top companies in an industry for their best people, dangling equity and opportunity as lures. He also has the superstars coming to him.
In 1980, Aryeh Feingold, an Intel expatriate, was trying to launch a computer-aided design company that would allow engineers to better design very large-scale integrated circuits. He called it Daisy Systems.
"We had been spending two months explaining to run-of-the-mill venture capitalists what we were trying to do," says Feingold, "and then I meet Fred. We start talking and after three minutes he starts telling me my business plan.
"He then flies us out to New York and we rush in like O.J. Simpson to give him our formal presentation. It's supposed to take one hour and with the other venture capitalists it took five hours.
"We go through the foils and he keeps saying, 'next, next' and in the two places where we have the b-------, this very nice man turns into a monster and yells at us for trying to deceive him. We finish the presentation in nine minutes. He then invites us to dinner.
"I vowed that we would do business with him and at the end of the evening we shook hands."
Feingold, after occasionally stormy sessions with Adler for the past two years, says, "Fred's biggest mistake was not [always] insisting that we follow his advice."
Daisy Systems will soon go public and probably make Feingold a very wealthy man and Adler and his investors still wealthier.
Adler's successes do not obscure the fact that he has been guilty of some of the excesses he calls his entrepreneurs on--most notably, overextending himself. He concedes that he has resigned from dozens of boards in the last few months because he had spread himself too thin to be effective. "I'm picking my spots more carefully now," he says.
He is very impatient, yet devotes attention to niggling details, a volatile mix that bewilders some of his entrepreneurs.
His critics say that Adler lacks the long-term sense of commitment needed to build a truly great company, even though he has spent more than a decade with several of his ventures.
According to one acquaintance, Adler "needs the excitement of a start-up or the danger of a turnaround to keep him going. Clearly, he has all the money he could need."
Adler agrees in part. In fact, he confesses extreme self-doubt about how well the companies he's helped launch will endure.
He says his business success, tempered by setbacks in his personal life, leave him uncertain as to what he really wants to do.
He talks about creating a charitable medical foundation run by venture managers who would seek out and sponsor short-term research.
He also mentions that, some time soon, he and a partner may try to buy a "very large" company. Several Fortune 200 names are discussed. "I would love to build a $10 billion company," says Adler.
"Would I bet against him on that?" says an Adler critic. "Are you crazy?"