INTERVIEW: ‘A rule for life — don’t lose money’

Illustration by Luis Grañena
Updated 17 November 2019

INTERVIEW: ‘A rule for life — don’t lose money’

  • The Blackstone co-founder talks about his career at the top of the financial tree — and Saudi Arabia’s ambitious transformation plans

DUBAI: I must confess I was a little nervous about telling Stephen Schwarzman, co-founder and CEO of the gigantic financial group Blackstone, that I had not read every single word of his recently published book “What is Takes — Lessons in the Pursuit of Excellence.”

Ahead of our intercontinental conference-call interview, his aides had told me that he could work out pretty quickly if an interviewer had read it or not, and a recent interview in the Financial Times had made the point that he is not the type of man to indulge perceived lapses equably.

There was a long silence when I told him that, although I had read large chunks of it, I had not quite finished it, but I needn’t have worried. I have seen Schwarzman speak on many occasions, most recently at the Future Investment Initiative in Riyadh, and he was as pleasant and softly spoken on the phone with me as he had invariably been on those occasions. No expletives or combativeness during our phone call.

Schwarzman is pretty high up the list of the most powerful people in the world. Worth some $18 billion, he is one of the financial “masters of the universe” who count presidents, kings and princes among his circle of friends, and who has the fate of hundreds of thousands of employees in Blackstone’s portfolio companies in his hands.

Why did he write the book, which is a mixture of autobiographical memoire and self-help advice?

“I was mostly trying to give people advice and used myself as a literary device. My life’s been pretty interesting, and I’m writing about the types of things that happen to almost everyone — how through dejection and disappointment you scramble to reinvent yourself and learn from your mistakes to establish a new paradigm,” he explained.

The message from the book seems to be encapsulated in the first of his “25 rules for work and life”: “It’s as easy to do something big as to do something small, so reach for a fantasy worthy of your pursuit, with rewards commensurate with your effort.”

The response to publication has been “marvellous,” he said, including a story about a woman who had passed it on to her children as a primer for life.

Schwarzman’s own life is one that, arguably, could only have been possible in the post-war US. From small-town beginnings in suburban Philadelphia, the son of second generation immigrants who ran a linen store, he worked hard at school, got into Yale, was a track-star who signed up for the Vietnam-era army reserve and ended on Wall Street, after Harvard Business School.

A decade of fast-learning at Lehman Brothers in the 1970s — where he rose to be head of global mergers and acquisitions — gave way to disillusionment when the venerable firm was sold, and gave him the spark for what was to become Blackstone, one of the world’s foremost private equity investors.

I suggested that he had “invented” the private equity business, but he was not having that. “Inventing may be a bit too grand. What we did do was invent in effect the full-line alternative assets firm, you could call it the full-line private equity firm, which doesn’t just buy companies, which a normal private equate firm does. We also buy real estate, we also lend money, we buy credit products, we also have a big hedge fund operation.


BIO

Born: Philadelphia, US, 1947

Education

  • Abingdon Senior High School, Philadelphia
  • Yale University, bachelor of arts
  • Harvard Business School, master’s in business administration.

Career

  • Analyst, Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette.
  • Managing director and head of global M&A, Lehman Brothers.
  • Co-founder and CEO, Blackstone.
  • Numerous political advisory and philanthropic positions.

 

“We started out with one private equity fund, but we now have over 50 different business lines. We were pioneers in looking at new things that could be done within a private framework. Our high performance products typically earn double the stock market and almost never lose money,” he said.

He and his co-founder, Peter Peterson, put $400,000 into Blackstone in 1985. The firm now has $554 billion in assets and $62 billion in market value. Innovation has been the key to that success, identifying new sectors, new geographies and new financial products.

But old-fashioned bricks-and-mortar has also played a big role. Schwarzman saw a buying opportunity in the US real estate market when property prices fell, and Blackstone is now the “largest owner of real estate in the world,” he said.

I asked whether the current trend for valuation was up or down — for instance in New York.

His response echoed the recent comments from his friend President Donald Trump who moved his permanent residence from his home town to Florida. “New York has some special circumstances and doesn’t have as good prospects as some other places. We have extremely high taxes in New York which discourages people,” he said.

I think the Kingdom has got very ambitious plans for both growth and reform, individual rights especially for women.

 

Other parts of the US real estate market are more appealing. “You do the best typically when you buy near water, so the east and west coasts tend to be the best places to buy.” But the best property asset classes are warehouses, he said, which are benefiting from the logistics boom brought about by the likes of Amazon’s home delivery services. He has around $1 billion in warehouse assets.

Blackstone went public in 2007, just ahead of the global financial which it navigated much more successfully than many on Wall Street, including his old employer Lehman Brothers which became the largest bankruptcy in American history.

Schwarzman was able to use to broad spread of Blacktone’s global business to “see what was going on, this massive housing bubble,” before the crisis hit. He stopped investment in some real estate projects, sold down property related loans and shorted sub-prime mortgages, even making some money out of the meltdown, though he admits to some “very minimal damage.”

“We had exited, while many of the others were like the people sitting on a beach in Thailand watching the tsunami coming in. We were already a few miles inland by the time it hit,” he said. Blackstone has grown sixfold since the crisis.

Another reason for my initial trepidation on talking to Schwarzman was a warning from his advisers not to ask him too early in the conversation about the Middle East. For the past few years, he has been a confidant and business partner of Saudi Arabia, appearing on panels and forums in the Kingdom and speaking supportively of the Vision 2030 strategy, but the region does not figure too prominently in the book.




Founded in 1985 with with just a $400,000 capital, Blackstone now has $554 billion in assets and $62 billion in market value. (AP file photo)

 

There are only a couple of references to the Gulf — a capital-raising trip in the early 1990s that “bombed,” and a Kuwait-Dubai visit that nearly turned into disaster when a colleague had to be evacuated after a medical emergency by a private plane that developed engine trouble over Iran. (All ended well.)

The book ends before his most recent involvement with Saudi Arabia, the $40 billion infrastructure fund jointly invested with the Public Investment Fund, but he is happy to update his relationship with the Middle East.

“We have extensive relationships with the region. Let me give you some perspective: Since my first trip to Riyadh, it has grown seven times in population; many of the roads were dirt roads back then, but now the city is a huge, super-modern city. It’s changing so fast.

“I was in Kuwait six weeks after the Iraqi invasion was thrown back, and you could still smell cordite and see bullet holes all over. That’s where we got our first money in the region, the Kuwaitis were so grateful and we were the first Americans many of them had seen,” he said.

Saudi Arabia has been a Blackstone focus for the past couple of years. “I think the Kingdom has got very ambitious plans for both growth and reform, individual rights especially for women. Those are all good things.

“There’s a huge emphasis on the digital economy there, which is quite unusual by the historic background, and 70 percent of the population is under 30. There has been a positive response from them for what is going on there,” he added.

The $40 billion fund with PIF was “going quite well,” he said, especially against the background of low interest rates. He and PIF have bought one of the biggest ports businesses in north America and a big US pipeline business.

Like many wealthy self-made men, philanthropy is an increasing element of his personal philosophy. Schwarzman estimated he has given away something over $1 billion to a variety of philanthropic ventures, ranging from a cultural center at Yale University to the biggest ever donation to a British educational institute, a £150 million ($193 million) gift to Oxford University.

He seems most proud of the Schwarzman Scholars, a program at Tsinghua University in China which he hopes will help defuse the tensions between the US and China that have resulted in trade wars that have damaged the global economy.

That fits in perfectly with the Schwarzman philosophy. Rule number 19 in his 25-item list is: “Don’t lose money,” but he noted: “You might say that’s the No.1 rule.”


INTERVIEW: CEO Maaz Sheikh sees business soar as Saudi viewers turn to streaming services

Updated 05 July 2020

INTERVIEW: CEO Maaz Sheikh sees business soar as Saudi viewers turn to streaming services

  • All eyes on Starzplay as lockdown reaps rewards

Maaz Sheikh has had a good lockdown.

The founder and CEO of Starzplay, the Middle East’s leading entertainment streaming channel, saw his business soar as curfews, social distancing and travel restrictions left people with little to do apart from slump in front of a TV and binge watch for hours on end.

“I think when the whole situation was unfolding, we were trying to think which way is up and which was down, both on a personal level and also as a company — what it means for our subscribers. It was nerve-wracking in the beginning,” Maaz Sheikh told Arab News.

In the region, it was Starzplay subscribers chose to watch, rather than Netflix or other streaming services, in English and in Arabic.

“What we benefited from, of course, was all the people staying home, but one of the things that worked in our favor was that we are an organization based and headquartered here, and we were able to adapt and localize our services much faster than anyone else,” he said.

“In Saudi Arabia, you can sign up for Starzplay via STC, Mobily or any of the other services. You can sign up with your mobile phone number. Netflix came to this region with a very US-centric mindset, thinking that everyone had a credit card and that having a credit card is a norm in the world. In fact, the reality is different, especially in Saudi. Not everyone has a credit card,” he added.

“So, through one bill where you pay your landline and your broadband, you can also have access to Starzplay on the same bill. You can just download onto your smart TV,” he added.

Starzplay has been in business for five years, and while it is probably not as well known as Netflix, it has been making big inroads into the region, especially Saudi Arabia.

The Kingdom accounts for 40 percent of total revenue, while almost half of all consumption in the Middle East and North Africa region comes from Saudi viewers.

And what have they been watching during the long weeks of lockdown? 

Lots of “Vikings,” “The Office” and Turkish-made romantic soap “Jusoor Wal Jamila.” 

Saudis on average watched more than 18 hours of Starzplay in May, compared with less than 12 a year before.


BIO

BORN: Islamabad 1970.

EDUCATION

  • Schooling in Dubai, UAE.
  • Oklahoma State University, US.
  • University of Kansas, MBA.

CAREER

  • Various executive roles in media and communications, US.
  • Chief sales and operations officer, OSN, Dubai.
  • CEO and founder, Starzplay.

“The beauty is that everyone has a mobile phone. We were there in the market with the right product, the right content, but also the right distribution so the masses can actually sign up for our service. It really benefited us.

“It was not just that we were a streaming service. The whole category benefited from the lockdown, but we were the only one in the market that had this kind of distribution and payment arrangements. We were the only one available to the masses,” Sheikh said.

It is not just the distribution platform that is different from Netflix. Starzplay takes a distinct stance on content, too, as Sheikh explained.

“Our industry is evolving in a simple and predictable way. What is happening is that the more Netflix has gone into its own originals, the more studios see them as a competitor. So studios have been pulling their content away from Netflix.

“Until now, with what comes out of Hollywood and the UK, 95 percent of English-language content was produced by seven or eight studios. In the UK it’s the likes of the BBC and ITV, while in the US it’s Warner, Disney, Sony, Showtime, CBS, all the major studios,” he said.

“So, the way the industry is evolving is that if you want Netflix originals, you go to Netflix, if you want anything else you go to Starzplay,” he said.

Sheikh reeled off an impressive list of top shows on his platform. “Big Bang Theory,” “Billions,” “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Britannia” are among them, while younger viewers soak up “The Flash,” “Supergirl” and other DC titles made by Warner Studios.

Starzplay has also made its first foray into original content, tailored for a Middle East audience, with the series “Baghdad Central.”

“Data is the new oil, they say, and ‘Baghdad Central’ was the result of our experience over five years of consumption history, with billions and billions of minutes consumed. So based on what people were consuming in our key markets and with those insights, we produced our first original,” Sheikh said.

“Baghdad Central” was launched in March with a big name Hollywood actor — Corey Stoll from the award-winning series “House of Cards” — as well as top British and Arab actors.

“We wanted to bring a show to the region that combined the best of the three. It was shot in Morocco in partnership with UK and US producers,” he explained.

That kind of content has pulled in the viewers during lockdown. The figures show Starzplay hit a peak of 6.5 million daily minutes of consumption in Saudi Arabia in the middle of April, compared with about 2 million before the pandemic lockdowns.

Existing viewers are also watching more. The average Saudi spent 28 minutes daily in front of a Starzplay show before the lockdown. That more than doubled to one hour as movement outside the home was restricted.

“To put that into perspective, it took us five years to go from zero to 2 million minutes a day, and it took us six weeks to go from 2 million to 6.5 million. We did more consumption growth in six weeks than we did in the first five years,” Sheikh said.

He is reluctant to forecast how many of these consumers will stay with Starzplay as the lockdowns are eased around the world and the region. 

“I’m expecting some churn, so it’s tough to predict what the base will look like later in the year. We saw tremendous growth, but as the lockdown eases I think we’ll see some churn on those subscribers,” he said.

But even as the lockdown are eased significantly in the region, consumers are not going back to pre-pandemic levels. There is likely to be a permanent shift in demand for Starzplay in the “new normal” environment.

“Unlike Netflix, one of the challenges we had in the region is that the brand awareness and content awareness of our service was comparatively low. One of the things that has happened is that because of increasing demand and awareness, people got to find out about Starzplay. People experienced that and connected the content to our brand.

“That is going to be an enduring and lasting benefit for our company. You cannot unlearn it. I’m expecting some churn in high sign-ups and reduced consumption volumes, but the lasting benefit we’re hoping for is the brand awareness and content awareness that was created,” he said.

That kind of growth is likely to accelerate Starzplay’s evolution from a privately funded startup to a listed public company. It has raised $125 million over its five years, from some pretty impressive investors, including US media giant Lionsgate, the big financial firm State Street Global Advisers, and Nordic investment firm SEQ, which backed Starzplay from the beginning.

With profitability just around the corner, Sheikh does not see the need for further funding, especially as investment sources have dried up during the uncertainty of the pandemic period.

“During COVID times, when consumption and new subscribers were going through the roof, the flip side was that we realized that capital markets were going to be out for 2020. Lucky for us, we are well capitalized, and we are not in a situation where we need to use funds. This is not a good time to be out there raising money,” he said.

“The goal is to serve our customers and also create shareholder value. There are multiple ways of doing that. One is that you generate cash and shareholders benefit from cash dividends. That’s the traditional model. The more high-growth model that is more applicable to companies like us is shareholders push for more growth and expansion to increase the enterprise value of the company,” he said.

Sheikh has set his medium-term sights on a public listing. “In the long run the goal is to continue to grow the business, and in the next three to five years to get into a position where we can list the company on the London Stock Exchange.

“We haven’t absolutely decided that, as it’s so far out. I’d say what we’re looking to do is list ourselves, and if not in London, then other markets, local or London. That’s the ambition, to look to IPO on London or other markets. We’re not there yet. We’re still two to three years away from a decision, but that’s our ambition,” he said.