Trump the Entrepreneur
I will vote for Donald Trump for President. Why? My reasons are somewhat different than the usual.
Like many of Trump’s supporters I evolved from a very different place. Initially, Trump was not on my list of possible candidates. Only after I had sorted through my doubts about the other candidates did I start to look seriously at Donald Trump.
Of course, Trump has political negatives. I recognize that some people are put off by his bumptious style – or, much more often, in response to the many deliberate slanders. These have little impact on my perceptions of the man. Donald Trump has been described as a “Blue-Collar Billionaire.” Indeed, he is competent operating heavy machinery. It is his blue collar behaviors that most seem to offend the self-appointed literary and political elites. Trump’s mannerisms don’t bother me at all. Although I now am a member in good standing of the professional intellectual class, I started my career as a blue-collar worker -- a janitor actually, followed by other more demanding blue collar jobs. Thus, from practical experience, I early-on developed respect and appreciation for my fellow blue-collar workers and their ways of thinking and expression.
Trump’s negatives are well known. But what about his positives? For half a century I made my living as a physicist and engineer. During that long period I have known a great many program managers, good and bad. It is on that basis that I offer a different perspective about Donald Trump. Fundamentally, Donald Trump is both an engineering program manager and a risk-taking entrepreneur.
The program managers I have known have generally divided into the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Good managers get the job done with a minimum of fuss, on time, and within budget. A bad manager screws things up so bad that his program is a failure. The Ugly are a special breed. They may well be successful in managing a given program, but the wreckage they leave behind -- in talent burnout and loss -- leads to subsequent program, and even corporate, failure.
Among the many good program managers I have known, only three can be rated as superlative. These rare individuals share the common attributes of high intelligence, the ability to communicate and to lead, a knack for finding creative solutions to a program’s inevitable problems, a deep humanity, courage to buck their customer when necessary, and meticulous attention to the essential details. In looking at some of Trump’s program case histories, it is apparent to me that, as a program manager, he may well rank as equal to these superlative three. But more than that, his projects also show him to be in the first rank of risk-taking entrepreneurs.
On April 14, 2016 at the New York Republican Gala the three remaining Republican primary candidates addressed the crowd. Trump was first. Later, Donald Trump’s two competitors gave their usual policy-oriented speeches. They were mostly ignored -- Trump had already stolen the show. You can easily find his presentation with a web search. It is a half hour long and well worth the time. No teleprompters for Trump. He addressed the attendees directly and informally -- with considerable wit and corresponding audience laughter.
Much of Trump’s presentation described three of his early New York building projects. It is what he did, and how he did it, in those projects that really caught my attention.
The first of these projects was the hotel in which the Republican Gala took place. This was the Grand Hyatt Hotel. This venerable hotel was opened in 1919 as the Commodore. Originally it was one of New York’s premium hotels. But, by modern times it had become run down and the neighborhood around it had equally become decrepit. Against all advice, the thirty-year-old Trump went into hock and bought the decaying hotel. Except for the hotel’s beautiful ballroom and foyer, which he lovingly preserved, Trump striped the hotel down to its steel framework and rebuilt the entire structure as a glass-walled icon. Then sold it. Today the hotel is Hyatt’s flagship. The neighborhood around the hotel has, once again, become fashionable and upscale. Needless to say, Trump made a fortune on the transaction.
Trump’s next big project was the Jacob Javits Convention Center. While still in his twenties Trump recognized that the various proposals for a new convention center were nonstarters and would continue to be. There were too many problems with the proposed locations. At the time the Penn Central railroad was in bankruptcy and its railroad marshalling yard was up for sale. The twenty-nine-year-old Trump took an option on the site. To him it seemed perfect for the convention center because of easy road access and a lack of problems with the surrounding neighborhood. Taking an option was a huge gamble, of course, but Trump then made a convincing case to the city and the state for locating the center there. Trump made another fortune.
For New Yorkers the most popular of Trump’s projects was the Wollman Ice Skating Rink in Central Park. The history of this rink is a classic example of bureaucratic bungling -- made good by a talented entrepreneur. The rink was created in 1949 as a family commemoration. In 1980 it was closed for renovation. The project was to last two years and cost $9.1 million. Six years and $13 million later the project remained incomplete. At that point Donald Trump convinced Mayor Koch to turn the project over to him. He promised to complete the project in under a year for $2.5 million dollars. In actuality he finished the work in four months for $2.25 million. The completion was in time for the beginning of that year’s winter season. How did he do it? Trump tells us how.
There were two major problems with the original plan. First, the contractor had hired someone from Florida who knew refrigeration, but not ice rinks. That expert specified copper cooling coils with cold Freon inside. Of course, any pinhole in the miles of tubing and the coolant would be lost. What was worse, the copper was a magnet for thieves. Even under heavy police guard, the copper repeatedly managed to magically disappear. The second problem was the concrete floor of the rink. The floor was a foot and a half thick and therefore had been constructed in sections. As a result, the floor was tilted so that one end was nine inches lower than the other. This meant that the deeper pool of water at one end would not freeze even if the copper coils worked perfectly.
Trump’s solution: call in the right experts. He hired the guy who built the professional ice hockey rinks in Canada. Tear everything up and start from scratch was the message. The new rink would have a concrete floor that was only four inches thick. This thin floor would be poured in one continuous pour so that the entire floor would fully settle while still wet. The floor would then be laser level. Trump hired every cement truck available. The day of the pour the trucks were lined up north all the way into Harlem. The floor came out perfect. The freezing water then need be only a very few inches deep.
Cooling was easy. Instead of copper tubing filled with Freon, use a long rubber hose filled with brine -- that is, filled with very salty water. Brine remains liquid down to temperatures far below the freezing point of unsalted water. Nobody wanted the rubber hose, so no guards, and there would never be a problem with leaks. All very simple. Unless, of course, you happen to be a conventional thinker, which Donald Trump is not.
A bagatelle: at his Mar A Lago resort in Florida Trump wanted a flagpole which was tall enough that an American flag would be prominently displayed. The city fathers said no -- the flag pole must be much smaller. Trump’s solution: build a tall mound and put the smaller flag pole on top.
Finally, consider Donald Trump as an entrepreneur. That breed expects many of their investments to fail. In high technology the failure rate is typically ninety per cent. The one in ten success must be so profitable that it much more than makes up for the other nine failures. Trump reverses those odds. Critics complain that he has had a few bankruptcies. But these failures are only a very few percent of all the great many Trump initiatives. By entrepreneurial standards Trump is phenomenally successful.
Now we are starting to get a picture of the real Donald Trump. Is he high culture articulate? No. But he speaks Blue Collar fluently and that is very much appreciated by average Americans. Is he very smart? Yes. Is he highly creative in finding unorthodox solutions? Very much so. Is he courageous? He is really gutsy and he trusts his instincts. Is he a leader? His program management successes suggest so, but you be the judge. Is he humane? His people stick with him and apparently adore him. Finally, Trump is unabashedly a patriotic American.