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Ron Perelman

Ron Perelman, one of the wealthiest men in America, sits down for his first ever Q&A.

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Perelman: Resources beyond anybody's wildest imagination. And I think that this in and of itself concerned a lot of people. It concerned corporate America; I think it concerned some of the political structure, and I think there was a great fear over the product and, in turn, of Michael. I think that brought about a lot of the concern and the antagonism toward Michael and toward the product.
Shanken: I'm sure from time to time you have thought about Michael Milken, and I would assume that as any friend you feel a certain amount of sadness that he spent the past few years in prison and now he's very sick. Is there a moral to this story?
Perelman: I don't know, you tell me. I think your observation of this is the same as pretty much anybody else's. I think there was a change of times. I think that the '80s were very different than the '90s, and I think looking back at them we wonder how we did some of the things we did in the '80s, how we bought some of the things we bought on a personal consumption level. It was a different time than now. I don't know if there's a moral here. I think there's a shift in attitudes and values.
Shanken: Is it that had he not been as great a success as he was, perhaps no one would have bothered to put him out of business and lock him away?
Perelman: I think there's probably a lot to that. I think there was a lot of fear created about what was going on in the country, and in large part, the fears were focused on Michael and the product that he created. He became sort of the symbol of the '80s.
Shanken: On the flip side, you can ask yourself: Should one man make a billion and a half dollars a year, and his brother a half billion?
Perelman: But America is not about legislating economic success. I mean, you might tax it, but don't legislate against it. This country has been built in large measure by the entrepreneurs who came out with either a concept, or an idea, or a product or a way of doing business.
Shanken: As far as I know, Ron Perelman is untainted. But you're up there, and people want to take shots at a guy who's successful, visible. Do you think sometimes that somebody's going to want to get you?
Perelman: I think that we've been very diligent about making sure that what we do is not only legally correct and morally correct but has the appearance of both. I think that early on I recognized that we would be doing business in arenas that were new to me. And as such, I surrounded myself with a lot of talent--legal talent, financial talent--to make sure that everything we did, was and looked and smelled proper and correct. And I think that's been very important to us in the past and will continue to be important to us in the future.
Shanken: One of the things I read about also is that you have this small group of associates who not only are bright, but you are all great friends. As the story goes, you have breakfast together every day, you have lunch together every day. When you and I had lunch last month, you brought two of them along. Who are these people and what are their roles in this senior management group?
Perelman: Well, the first senior executive that joined the company was Bruce Slovin, who had been the second most senior guy at Hanson Industries--a Harvard-educated lawyer. He started out and continues to be primarily associated with acquisitions. Then, probably my longest and dearest and closest friend in the world, Howard Gittis, who was my lawyer when I was in Philadelphia. He was the managing partner of Wolf, Block, Schorr and Solis-Cohen and was considering a change of career about 10 years ago. And I said if you're going to change your career, there's only one career path that you're going to be on, and he joined us. He's the senior administrative officer. And then Donald Drapkin, who had been our partner at Skadden Arps, likewise reached a point where he was thinking about a change of career, and I made the same speech to him that I made to Gittis and he joined us at that time, and he's basically our in-house strategic thinker. He's our in-house investment banker.
Shanken: Are you like brothers?
Perelman: In a lot of ways, we are. We have been very fortunate to have within the enterprise a unique relationship.
Shanken: You are very lucky then. What do you say to yourself when you think about what you've accomplished in your career? Your career isn't over?
Perelman: I hope not. I try not to think about it in that kind of way. I think I've been enormously fortunate. I am a great believer that you don't do everything on your own, that there's in fact a plan, a grand plan, and I try to minimize the amount of time that any of us spend thinking about the job that's been done in the past, whether it was the best we could have done or not. Just concentrate on what we're doing today and what we'll do in the future. I can appreciate you asking the question, but I don't think about it.
Shanken: But there have to be moments of weakness. There are perhaps a dozen people in the world today who have achieved what you have achieved, pretty much on your own.
Perelman: Yes. With a group of intelligent, well-experienced individuals as part of the team.
Shanken: But you are the team leader. If you were a failure, the failure would not be passed on. I mean if you screwed up, you're the one, not the guys around you.
Perelman: Absolutely right.
Shanken: So, there has to be a moment when you have to take enormous pride and satisfaction.
Perelman: Very rare. I guess I don't think about the scope of it that seriously, and I guess I put it in context with what I'd like to see us doing over the next several years. But what we've done in the past doesn't take on any importance to me. From a distance you might think that it would. I really don't think about it in the context of what we've done in the past or pat ourselves on the back or take great satisfaction. I mean...
Shanken: So what you're saying is that the job is not done yet.
Perelman: It's just beginning.
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