The Chicago Innovation Awards – Part 1
I’m talking to investing legend, Loren Bukkett—the Prophet of Pekin, immediately after a big event in Chicago. “Twelve whole years,” he says. “A hundred percent of their winners are all still in business. And tonight they break that perfect record.” He’s talking about the winners of the Chicago Innovation Awards and he’s got my attention. Which companies are going down?
This guy is seemingly unassuming. Uncombed hair. Rumpled blazer. Now he leans across the lounge table of the big Gulfstream G450 and speaks softly to the lady taking shorthand. “Pardon me Aussy,” he says, “Would you please file this conversation with the rest of tonight’s papers?”
She nods and then graces me with a striking smile and I think back to a time before they got hitched. One smile, that’s all, and I’m lost in the past, only vaguely aware of the man’s voice in the background. This gal sure doesn’t show her age.
“Hey Jonelis, you awake?”
With that, I stop ogling his wife and look him in the eye. This is turning into a strange interview. Because of his tight schedule, we’re going Mach 0.8 at 40,000 feet in this beautiful corporate jet enroute to—I don’t know where. In an hour, he says he’ll send me back in another plane. I’m hoping for something small. A Piper Citation can land at my home airport for an early-to-bed. This big jet is a corporate timeshare. I saw a similar timeshare scheme pitched tonight, but with trucks instead of airplanes.
An acerbic voice jars me to my senses: “Jonelis—are you done daydreaming yet?”
I smile. “For now, I guess—till I get another chance.”
“Good, then stay alert. As I was saying, Chicago’s in big financial trouble. A lotta trouble. You know it as well as I do. Heck, the whole state’s in trouble—almost as bad as California.” He gives me a down-home grin. “And as you’re no doubt aware, that’s what brought me here tonight.”
“You see a bottom?”
“A bottom? Nobody ever knows if it’s the bottom but use your common sense. This place will bounce back eventually. I’m not saying this town will solve its problems—likely as not they’ll do nothing or move in exactly the wrong direction. But business here has such a long, long way to bounce—a heck of a long way. I’m willing to take a position on that. The trouble with young investors any more is they don’t have the nerve or the stamina.”
I scribble some notes. It seems a safe bet he just took a stake in some of the companies honored at tonight’s event—maybe all of them. Could be he acquired all of them. He’s going on:
“One thing most people don’t understand about hard times—and John, these are real hard times—no doubt about that. The thing people get wrong is this: Tough times don’t blunt the sharp point of innovation. Not at all. When it gets this bad, desperation feeds creativity. Invention kicks in. People find a way to survive. Look how India and China exploded out of utter ruin in spite of their governments. I see Chicago as the next center for thought leadership in the entrepreneurial world. It could rival New York, Boston, Silicon Valley.”
“You’re really sold on Chicago?”
“I think I made myself clear on that. I’m not betting on the city—not even the state. No, I’m looking at individual companies that rise out of these terrible circumstances. Only strong organizations succeed in an environment this nasty. If they can make it without greasing palms, I’m interested.”
I scribble more notes and try to memorize as much as I can. “You’re telling me that squalor makes it easy for you to pick winning companies.”
“You think you got me figured out. Put away that blasted pencil.” He glances at his wife. “Aussy, see that Mr. Jonelis gets a transcript, would you please?” Then he swivels his leather chair and faces me head on.
“I’ll lay it out for you straight. It’s real simple. Here’s my secret: Hard times create a supply and demand imbalance. Innovation takes off, but at the same time investors run scared. Banks won’t lend. You end up with too many good ideas and not enough capital. That’s when I buy.”
“At a bargain?”
He looks at me from under his shaggy eyebrows. “D’you think?”
That draws a laugh out of me and I tuck away my notes.
“John, you’re the one that lives in that town. Look around. Don’t you see the huge vacuum? You know what happens in a vacuum?”
“Sure. It gets filled. Real fast.”
“That’s exactly right.”
Now that I’m in on his game, I can picture how it unfolds. “And when that happens, politicians grab the credit.”
He just smiles.
“And you laugh all the way to the bank.”
He tenses like a gambler holding his cards to his chest. “Let’s just leave it that the vacuum gets filled.”
“So what’s your take on the mayor and governor getting awards at the event?”
He grins. “That’s how the Chicago Innovation Awards loses its perfect record. But you do not want to get me started on politics!”
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