Five Minutes with

William Conway Jr., ’74

Published: September 28, 2007
William Conway

Image by Matthew Gilson

What do you consider your greatest accomplishment?

I hope it hasn’t happened yet! I’ve just been a very lucky person. I don’t know of anybody who’s any luckier than I am. Actually, I hope I don’t think the greatest accomplishment of my life is building Carlyle into a multibillion dollar company.

What’s been your most humbling experience?

In business, I’d say it was when we first started out in Carlyle. I’d been CFO of MCI Communications. I had an MBA from the University of Chicago. I had worked in a big bank, First Chicago, for 10 years. And I thought, “I can do this.” I remember the very first transaction I did was a company that we invested about $9 million in. Right away, it went south. People lost their jobs. This is now almost 20 years ago. On your great deals, you think you’re a genius. And on your tough deals, you learn so much more, because nobody’s a real genius when it comes to this. That early deal taught me that maybe I wasn’t so smart, and I wasn’t so good at this, and all my experience wasn’t necessarily relevant. And there’s a very human side to this business. It’s fine to say, “Carlyle invested $800 million in Hertz and turned it into $2.5 billion.” But there’s a real human side—yeah, but somebody lost their job. Or maybe things didn’t go as great for everybody else as they did for you.

What do you wish you had known at the start of your career?

Two things. I wish I’d known how easy it was in the past, compared to today! If I knew 20 years ago what I know now about private equity . . . . It was much easier then than it is today. The second thing is, I would have had more fun. When I started my career, people were going to work for 30 or 40 years and then retire and go lawn bowling in white patent leather shoes at the age of 65. The world’s a lot different now. People are going to work off and on, and they’re going to maybe work until they’re 80 or 90, if they’re healthy. And maybe they’ll take five years off in the middle and then go do something else. Knowing what I know now, I would have had more fun and I would’ve been less serious.

What’s the hardest part of your job?

Dealing with people’s compensation. People in the private equity business make so much money, and yet I guess maybe they don’t find it satisfying. Or they think everything is relative and very little is absolute. If you think about people who are having a tough time, it’s somebody who’s working two jobs or two shifts and trying to make a car payment and put a kid through college. And yet in our business, you can have somebody who’s 28 years old who only got a $300,000 bonus and is crushed. I don’t think I’ve met anybody who said, “Boy, I’m overpaid!”

One thing about private equity that makes it a great business is that you can do things in private and fix businesses, as opposed to having to report quarterly results or monthly numbers, and have them analyzed and somebody’s disappointed because this is 1 cent below that. In private equity, you’re really saying, “What can I do today that’s going to make this business worth a lot more in five years?” not, “What can I do today that’s going to make it worth a lot more tomorrow?”

What’s the best part of your job?

Having a chance to do great things for people. A firm like Carlyle has probably made profits for our investors of at least $10 billion in the past five or ten years. It’s a staggering amount of money. And most of it is going to pension plans around the United States, and some outside the United States. It’s pretty rewarding to help people like that. One thing I always tell people inside Carlyle is that we work for our limited partners, and we should always be trying to do what’s in their best interest. If we do that, everything’s going to be fine. We’ve really tried to build a highly ethical culture here.

If you had to choose another line of work, what would it be?

I’d love to play baseball for the Boston Red Sox. I grew up in New England, and I’m still a Red Sox fan, a Celtics fan, a Patriots fan, and a Bruins fan.—P.H..

Last Updated 5/14/09