The Milken Way
“The scarce resource in our society is not money but people.”
Legend has it that in 1970 a young trader sat in the early morning commuter bus from New Jersey to Manhattan with a miner’s headlamp strapped to his head. The lamp allowed him to read financial filings in the darkness before arriving at the office. This story about Michael Milken may be apocryphal, but his commitment to his work was without question. Milken often arrived at the office at 4:30 a.m. and prided himself on making hundreds of phone calls a day. He was on a mission to make high yield bonds a household name and acted as the nerve center for a burgeoning network of investors and entrepreneurs.
Capital is a lot less scarce today than when Milken set out to “democratize” it. On the other hand, access to the right people and deals is more valuable than ever. That presents a challenge for introverts like me whose eyes roll over at the mention of networking.
We can count ourselves lucky that Milken’s life provides a blueprint to authentically connect people, ideas, and capital and benefit from the resulting ecosystem. Milken mastered this process both out of personal ambition and necessity. Starting out in a niche market, his objective was to grow the pie and ensure that the pieces were passed around the table, allowing his trading desk to take a cut of the transactions. Before his downfall, he had turned a stale backwater into a gushing fountain of fortunes.
Despite a presidential pardon, Milken, who spent time in prison, remains controversial to many (just compare the reactions to the pardon in the Journal and the Times). However, if you are interested in building enduring networks of shared information and opportunities, I recommend you study his career.
In this piece I will focus on the process Milken applied in both business and philanthropy. I will keep the recap of his background short and perhaps follow up another time with a piece on the interesting people he worked with. You can find more on Milken’s career in books like Predator’s Ball, Den of Thieves, and Highly Confident: the Crime and Punishment of Michael Milken (the latter taking a more favorable view of him).