The Complex Case of Floyd Odlum

From skimmed milk to whole milk to no milk.

This is a piece about Floyd Odlum, a once-upon-a-time famous investor who made his fortune doing distressed deals during the Great Depression. But I want to start with a reflection on my process and the challenges of diving into a story. Here’s why.

I had read some twenty articles about Odlum, and his life seemed straightforward: a young lawyer from Colorado made his way to New York to become a dealmaker in utilities, one of the growth industries of the 1920s. He started an investment fund on the side, raised cash in 1929, and avoided the carnage. Through Atlas Corp., his publicly-listed investment trust, he masterfully acquired other trusts at steep discounts to their undervalued portfolios. By the time that Graham and Dodd published Security Analysis in 1934, Odlum had closed 22 transactions and amassed assets of $150 million. Once wealthy and famous, he married his second wife, racing pilot Jacqueline Cochran, served in the government during WWII, and retired to an estate in Palm Springs where he did deals by the pool and was visited by Eisenhower from time to time.

This story and its lessons seemed so clean. Stand back during the bubble, swing for the fences when opportunity presents itself, case closed.

I knew that Odlum’s records were kept in the Eisenhower Presidential Library. What I did not know until this week was that someone had combed through them all and put together a voluminous draft of a biography. After reading the outline, I reached out to the author, David Clarke, bought a copy of his unpublished work for $19.95, and dug in.

But then I stopped myself. This was supposed to be a short piece. Something that I could churn out on a weekly basis with a moderate amount of research. Reading an unfinished 700-page biography would blow up my schedule — and for what?

However, I quickly realized that the neat little narrative about Odlum’s life was wrong. I had no choice but to at least skim the work if I wanted to learn the real lessons of his life.

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