Michael Milken - Philanthropist, Financier, Medical Research Innovator, Public Health Advocate  

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"Let me tell you a story about Michael Milken …"

Excerpted with permission from "Never Eat Alone," by Keith Ferrazzi with Tahl Raz (Currency/Doubleday 2005)

Loyalty, to me, means staying true to someone (or something, like a brand or a customer segment) through thick and thin. Loyalty is a marathon rather than a sprint. As any good brand manager knows, you don't win customer loyalty quickly. It has to be earned. How?

Let me tell you a story about Michael Milken: yes, the financial and deal-making guru but also a man who is a philanthropist and deeply insightful human behaviorist. Through Entertainment Media Ventures (EMV), Mike was an investor in the start-up company I joined after Starwood. And, during my recruitment as CEO, I made it clear to him and my friend Sandy Climan, who led EMV, that a big motivation of taking the job would be to learn from Mike while running the company. I had already gotten to know Mike independently a few years back while acting as an advisor to DuPont, when the company was starting a consumer soy-milk joint venture. Mike was someone I had always wanted to meet — one of my early aspirational contacts. I had discovered through some articles I had read about him that he had a great deal of interest in soy and its curative effects. He had suffered a bout with prostate cancer, which he turned into a passion for health care and the importance of preventative medicine. To Mike, diet was an integral component in that mix, and it became a personal and philanthropic passion.

From the beginning of my tenure as CEO, I sought to build the company and further my relationship with Mike. He, in turn, took me under his wing and opened his world to me. If he was going to New York for one of his many fundraisers, which support scientific research ... or traveling to someplace to give out recognition and money to exceptional teachers through the Milken Family Foundation, I would try to catch a ride. My only goal was to watch how he worked and perhaps glean a few insights in the process. I made it a point to identify customers or prospects at whatever destination city he was going to, so it was time well spent for YaYa as well.

Most of the time, we would sit quietly working. He would plow through one of the ten bags of reading he lugs with him wherever he goes, and I, of course, would be pounding away on my computer, e-mailing and connecting with abandon for YaYa revenue generation and business development. There was much to be learned in simply watching what he read and how he thought or reflected.

On one trip in particular, Mike and I began to talk about people's passions, what really mattered to people. It was then that I received profound insight about people and loyalty. You see, Mike, in addition to having a brilliant quantitative mind, is also a relationship artist.

I have seen him spend hours talking to people you'd never expect him to take an interest in: secretaries, the very old and the very young, the powerful and the powerless. He loves people, their stories, and how they view the world. When I mentioned that to him, I was reminded of what Ralph Waldo Emerson once said: "Every man I meet is my superior in some way. In that, I learn of him." Everyone had something to teach him.

This focus on people was the reason so many of them showed so much loyalty to him. I feel that same loyalty. I asked how so many people became so invested in their relationship with him. What did he know that others didn't? Mike paused for a moment, as he does when he particularly likes (or dislikes) a question. Then he smiled.

"Keith," he said, "there are three things in this world that engender deep emotional bonds between people. They are health, wealth, and children."

There are a lot of things we can do for other people: give good advice, help them wash their car, or help them move. But health, wealth, and children affect us in ways other acts of kindness do not.

When you help someone through a health issue, positively impact someone's personal wealth, or take a sincere interest in their children, you engender life-bonding loyalty. Mike's experience was, in fact, backed by research. Psychologist Abraham Maslow created a theory outlining human beings' hierarchy of needs. We all have the same needs, Maslow believed, and our more basic needs must be satisfied before our higher needs can be addressed.

The highest human need, said Maslow, is for self-actualization — the desire to become the best you can be. Dale Carnegie astutely recognized this. But Maslow argues we can't attend to our highest needs until we attend to those at the bottom of the pyramid, like the necessities of subsistence, security, and sex. It is within this lower group — where health, wealth, and children reside — that Mike was saying loyalty is created. In addressing those three fundamental issues, you accomplish two things: 1) You help someone fulfill those needs they most need met, and 2) You allow them the opportunity to move up the pyramid of needs to tackle some of their higher desires.

I reflected on my own experience and found he was absolutely right.

Recently, a friend of mine was diagnosed with prostate cancer. Because of my relationship with the [Prostate Cancer] Foundation, I knew the lead doctor there. I gave him a call to see if he could spend some time with my friend. Another friend, Mehmet Oz, the wunderkind who directs the Cardiovascular Institute at Columbia University and is a founder and director of the Complementary Medicine Program at New York-Presbyterian Hospital, is always taking the calls of people I send his way.

I know intimately how in a time of anxiety a reassuring expert is worth all the wealth in the world. Throughout my father's heart-related illness, a family friend named Arlene Treskovich, who worked for one of the best heart doctors in Pittsburgh, gave us access to medical advice few blue-collar Pittsburgh families can afford. She was just doing what she was taught; her mother, Marge, had worked at the Latrobe Hospital and used to make sure that any member of our family or friends of our family who were hospitalized were treated like royalty, even if it was just an extra Jell-O from the kitchen when it was closed. To this day, I would do anything Arlene asked of me.

Sometimes, all it requires is taking an interest and providing emotional support. Let me give you an example. Robin Richards was the founding president of music portal MP3.com and built one of the highest-profile Internet companies in the world. He skillfully navigated MP3.com through a very difficult period before selling it to Vivendi Universal, which subsequently hired him as a key executive. I met Robin around this time because he was leading a negotiation to buy our company.

The deal ultimately fell through, but during the process, I learned Robin had a young child who had suffered from a terrible form of cancer. When he shared this deeply painful and private piece of information over dinner with me, the dynamics that so often attend a negotiation flew out the window. We discussed our shared experiences and I introduced him to Mike, who was equally passionate about finding a cure for this form of cancer. Robin and I are still good friends to this day, and I know we would both bend over backward for the other.

Have you helped someone lose weight by passing on a good diet? Have you found a particular vitamin or supplement that has helped you and passed it on to others? These may seem like little things. But with these three issues, health and diet included, the little things mean everything. When it came to wealth, I thought of the many men and women whom I've helped find jobs. While it's not the same as making someone millions through innovative financing instruments, as Mike had done for many people, a job significantly altered these friends' economic situation. If someone I know is looking for a job, I reach out through my network for leads. If they've already found a job they're interested in, I call the decision maker. Sometimes I'll simply help someone revise his or her résumé, or act as a reference. Whatever I can do. And I do the same for businesses. For the restaurants I frequent, for example, I make it my mission to send as much business their way as possible. I work hard to funnel customers to all my contacts who are consultants, vendors, and suppliers of all stripes. I know they are good, I trust them, and I want others to benefit from their expertise as well.

People's children mean everything to them. I take it upon myself to mentor kids. It's fun, it's helpful, and teaching is the finest method I know for learning. The loyalty I've gained from placing a person's child in an internship, whether at my company or a friend's company, is immeasurable.