From humble beginnings: Business mogul Nelson Peltz discusses path to success at business school’s Distinguished Leader Lecture Series

Nelson Peltz speaks in Storer Auditorium in the Miami Herbert Business School for the Distinguished Leader Lecture Series. Photo credit: Lia Mussie

On Thursday evening, the University of Miami Patti and Allan Herbert Business School hosted an intimate chat, part of their Distinguished Leaders Lecture Series, that attracted a swarm of undergraduate business students, MBA students, faculty, staff, industry professionals and President Julio Frenk, awaiting to hear the perspective of a prominent business executive speak about breaking into the industry and the secrets to success.

“One man, one woman can make an amazing difference in a company,” said Nelson Peltz, billionaire businessman and founding partner of Trian Fund Management, an asset management firm, to the crowd in the business school’s Storer Auditorium.

Peltz, the evening’s keynote speaker, was introduced by Ann Olazábal, interim dean of the business school, and Stuart Miller, member of the University of Miami’s Board of Trustees and UM Law alumnus.

The talk began with an anecdote from Miller, sharing how he and Peltz became acquainted through the attempted purchase of a company.

“I had a front-row seat to a straight-shooting, hard-hitting, direct conversation, no waste of time, crystal clear, not confusing, sharp focus, targeted, determined approach to a clearly defined target. It was an engagement that, to this day, I’ve never forgotten,” Miller said of his experience with Peltz in that first business negotiation.

Peltz took his first step in business by working alongside his father, at A. Peltz & Sons, shortly after dropping out of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business. Instead of pursuing his passion of teaching skiing in Oregon, Peltz’s father offered him a job. Peltz subsequently built the company value from $2 million to $150 million.

During the night, Peltz also revered the importance of meaningful business relationships and friendships in his success. He was able to work with other financiers, which allowed him to buy control of companies in which he saw potential.

“I was able to work with Michael Milken and others to finance acquisitions for businesses that were not being wellmanaged,” Peltz said.

The steep learning curve and real-world experience of working in his family’s business taught him everything he knows, allowing Peltz to go from poorly-managed, small companies to fixing the mismanagement of large corporations.

“It’s like going to business school,” said Peltz. “It was my way of learning.”

This trajectory allowed Peltz and his long-term partners to build an asset management company focused on investing in a small number of businesses that could benefit from targeted advice to improve their operations and strategy, with a focus on bottom line accountability.

He has positively influenced companies like Snapple, Heinz, Kraft Foods, DuPont, Procter and Gamble, PepsiCo, Disney and others.

The business titan’s family is a teaching experience for him. With 10 children between two marriages that span two decades, he will spend hours talking with his children, learning about their thoughts, concerns, and opportunities they see. Straight, honest discussion and crafting solutions with long-term impact are core values to Peltz.

When ending the evening’s discussion, Peltz closed with his thoughts on the status of the American dream in the United States, reminiscing on a time where discourse between opposing viewpoints could occur without hostility.

“It breaks my heart,” said Peltz. “This country still has maybe more opportunities than when I was younger. This is the greatest country in the world, but look at all the problems we have, socially and politically.”

“It’s your job, not mine anymore, your job to change that. I am very passionate about leaving a better country than I found to my 10 kids and their kids. You folks are the next generation, you can help solve our problems,” Peltz said.

President Frenk added closing remarks to the event, connecting Peltz’s key points to the University’s own goals.

“We are committed to creating a climate of absolute freedom of inquiry, freedom of expression,” Frenk said. “That way we can discuss ideas and then we can reach each other through our differences, not through our unanimity.”

Nelson Peltz was able to engage an auditorium of participants, particularly students. Carly Litt, a junior finance and real estate student, reflected on Peltz’s talk and learned to ask questions, talk to people and learn.

“The best way to grow is to hear other people’s opinions and the best ways to improve, whether it be in business or in life or in the world is to talk to people,” Litt said.

Peltz offered insight and background into some noteworthy events in business, many of which students study here at UM. “It was an amazing experience to hear him talk about Procter and Gamble because it was a case that I was starting in my marketing class,” Paulina Lutzagar said, a freshman majoring in marketing and sustainable business.

The titan’s impact in the business world transcends generations, as evidenced by the diverse crowd, and continues to provide a lesson to those taking their first steps in the field.

“When we listen to Nelson Peltz and the trials that he’s gone through – the successes and some of the pitfalls and failures – it is a business school lesson unto itself,” said Miller. “If you have an opportunity to learn, as we do here today, hang on to every word, because every engagement with Nelson Peltz is a business school class.”