Financial journalist BG Willis recently had the opportunity to interview Seattle’s most reclusive and enigmatic businessman. Here are her probing questions.
The “Grey” Areas
A business empire built on classic entrepreneurial practice and innovative altruism
The view from the 20th floor is impressive: the beautiful Seattle skyline and Pacific northwest landscape. The view inside is equally impressive: sleek, modern office décor punctuated by contemporary – and extremely expensive – art; and the highlight is the man behind the desk.
Everything about Christian Grey impresses; his rags-to-riches story, his unquenchable entrepreneurial spirit, his multi-billion dollar company, and his enigmatic personality.
The CEO of Grey Enterprises Holdings Inc. doesn’t usually talk about himself or his company, so the business press have often ignored him. But it’s hard to ignore the man who holds the title of most successful US businessman under the age of 30. Even if you factor out his age, he still ranks in the Top Five American CEOs.
I had a rare opportunity recently to spend a few moments with Mr. Grey, to talk about his success and to learn more about the advances his company has made in Africa and southeast Asia; advances that will not only revolutionize agriculture in poorer countries but boost even further the entrepreneurial reputation of Grey Enterprises Holdings. And it was clear from our few minutes with him that Mr. Grey lives up to his reputation as a man intensely focused on his business and deeply protective of his personal life.
1. This is an impressive view. And I’m not just talking about what I see outside the windows. You can see the entire city from office. And you’ve surrounded yourself with beautiful things – the art, the décor, the people who work for you. You in your surroundings…you seem to be master of all you survey. Is there any symbolism in the environment you’ve created, here in your office, in your company …in your life?
I’ve never consciously deployed symbolism in any environment I’ve created. I would consider that self-indulgent, and a waste of energy. I prefer to work in a clean, functional environment free from distractions. I do collect art – a great deal of art – and I’m interested in local artists, as you can tell from the Trouton here. But there’s no more significance than what you see. When you reach a certain level in business, people expect… well, they expect to see the trappings of success. The art fulfils that purpose. None of it is cheap.
2. Considering the success of Grey Enterprises Holdings Inc. and your personal success as an entrepreneur, it would appear from the outside that this is the culmination of a grand plan, each move calculated to bring you and your business ventures the ultimate gain. But when we look closely at your history, this is not the stuff that screams “Billionaire at 25.” So how does a man, adopted at a young age into a prominent family from what is suspected to be a difficult childhood, who struggled as a teenager, and later dropped out of Harvard become one of the most powerful businessmen in the country?
I see you’ve done your research.
What I have, I’ve achieved through hard work and focus. Hence my fondness for an uncluttered environment. It’s true, I never followed the crowd. I was what some people like to call a bad boy. It made me resilient, persistent, and tenacious, and it taught me to take risks, to question the received wisdom and to think laterally, unconventionally – as the cliché goes, think outside the box. Risky decisions have never frightened me. I go with my gut and ninety-nine percent of the time it doesn’t let me down. If you can free your mind from the clutter of other people’s expectations and the constraints of what’s expected of you, there’s no limit to what you can achieve.
It helps if you can read people. There’s a saying: ‘The fish rots from the head down.’ The strengths and the weaknesses of individuals are reflected in the companies they run. I’ve always been able to read people in business, and as I’ve gotten older, I’ve found it even easier. I also have an excellent team around me. Give good people room to work, pay them well and they’ll pay you back, time and time again.
3. Was there something in your past, in your childhood, that drives your ambition? Who would you consider as your biggest influence, professionally? Personally?
I think you’re being disingenuous, Belinda. Since my speech at WSU’s 2011 graduation ceremony, it’s well known I often went hungry as a small child. Hunger motivates. I have no wish to be hungry again, ever. Professionally, I’ve been influenced by my adoptive parents, who excel in their chosen fields. My mother is an accomplished physician here in Seattle, and my father an extremely successful lawyer, despite having the disadvantage of a conscience. They have been my guiding light. Although I’m not sure they’ve always felt like that, given my… ‘troubled’ past.
I also try to be guided by great industrialists, such as Andrew Carnegie. Back in the early twentieth century they faced the dawn of a new age of technology, just as we do today. Then it was electricity, mechanization and transport – now it’s digital technology, communications and the Internet. Information is the new global currency. I want to be in the forefront of the movement to propagate information across the planet, enabling less well-off communities to reap the benefits of faster, cheaper and more reliable communication.
There’s a vast untapped pool of human ability and talent out there, and I want to be the one to bring that online, to everyone’s benefit. And to the benefit of my company, of course.
4. But for you it isn’t just about making money and being successful. You are not only considered among the most successful and shrewd businessmen today but one of the most innovative and philanthropic. Most would see that as a contradiction. Care to explain the different sides of Christian Grey, businessman?
I don’t see it in those terms. I never have. As I’ve said, I’m merely trying to enable those less fortunate to contribute. Not just through better communication, but through sustainable, affordable technology and agriculture. Every one of us has a stake in this planet, but short-term thinking and get-rich-quick greed has plunged our economy and economies all round the planet into crisis. What do huge profits really achieve? Where does the profit motive get us? A few get mega-rich, sure, but to the detriment of all us. Fundamentally people have simple needs: food, shelter, and work, so they can provide for their children. If and when these needs are met we will have a functioning, sustainable, thriving global economy.
5. Much of the innovative nature of your business focuses attention on environmental issues and particularly those that strive to make a difference in the lives those less fortunate. Can you make money changing people’s lives?
Profit is not the point, but yes, if you insist. We’ve made tremendous progress in soil fertility and arable technology, allowing us to pioneer low input systems in our Third World test sites that have increased crop yields thirty percent per hectare. And naturally, the same innovations can benefit farming in the US. Sure, crop yields here are way higher than in the Third World, but only thanks to fertilizers that are incredibly energy intensive to produce. With the soaring cost of energy and the threat of climate change, we can’t expect those yields to last forever. First World, Third World – we’re all going to have to learn to manage our resources better.
6. What project excites you the most now and why?
The development of solar-powered and human-powered technology. I find this field fascinating. We are developing some mind-blowing projects at the moment.
7. Whose work do you admire; is there a contemporary of yours out there who is doing something you admire, or wish you were doing?
Who do I admire? My brother. He builds sustainable housing. He leads what you might call a simple life, but he’s on the cutting edge of all this. His work proves sustainable living is not only possible, but beautiful, and desirable.
8. You are very involved in promoting higher education. You fund scholarships in a wide area of studies and you have a close relationship with the Washington State University in Vancouver. Yet you didn’t finish your education. Is that why it has your attention and your financial support? Do you regret not finishing your Harvard degree?
I have no regrets about leaving Harvard early. Academia wasn’t for me. I’m more… practical, and I left because I was ready to start my own business. But there are no hard feelings – I lecture there once a year.
As for funding scholarships… it goes back to what I said earlier. Young people are the hope for our future, so recruit them early, empower them, and inspire them. Discourage them from following the crowd, let them think and dream for themselves… then watch them fly.
9. You keep your personal life very private. You are close to your family – how to do they feel about the life you’ve created, the business empire you run?
My private life is precisely that. To my family, I’m a son and a brother and that’s all. To them my business life is not relevant, so it’s not something we discuss, and if we did, I wouldn’t tell you.
10. Where do you see yourself, professionally and personally in five years? Ten years? If you master all of these areas you are currently involved in, and those that interest you, what’s next?
We’ll see, Belinda, we’ll see. To those with an open mind life is full of possibilities.
Questions by BG Willis
Editing by NEW
My sincere thanks to them both and to Hoot too and to the lovely Dr Collins.
(c) E L James 2011 – No unauthorised reproduction of this article without the express written permission of the author.