Three-Time Olympian and Private Equity Pro Paul Teti on Leadership, Teamwork, and Charity
12.25.18
Interviews

Paul-Image.jpgPaul Teti is a former member of the U.S. National and Olympic rowing teams. He competed in the Sydney, Athens, and Beijing Olympic games. In addition, over the course of his career, he won 10 national championships, three World Cup medals, and a Pan American Games gold medal. Now a Partner at Normandy Real Estate Partners, Paul leverages many of the skills he developed as a competitive athlete to excel in business. We chatted with Paul to learn more about what it takes to sustain a high level of performance over an extended period of time. We also discussed Paul’s ongoing dedication to community engagement and giving back, including several of the causes and organizations he actively supports.

To learn more about the causes and organizations Paul supports, please visit the following links:

Playworks – Helping schools and youth programs create recess and play environments so that every child can experience the social, emotional, and physical benefits of play.

The Diabetes Research Institute – Dedicated to researching a biological cure for diabetes.

The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society – Focused on finding a cure for leukemia, lymphoma, Hodgkin’s disease, and myeloma, as well as improving the quality of life of patients and their families.

The National Rowing Foundation – Supports year round training, development, and competition for the U.S. National Rowing Teams.

Row New York – New York City youth impact organization that combines the discipline of competitive rowing with rigorous academic support to enable young adults to excel.

(Hear the full conversation with Paul on iTunes or Podcasts.com)

RJ: Paul, thanks so much for joining us today. Really delighted to chat with you. I’ll give a little bit of an intro here. You’re a three-time Olympic rower. You’ve won 10 U.S. National Championships, three World Cup medals, and a Pan American Games gold medal, which is truly extraordinary. How are you able to sustain such a high level of performance year after year, over such a long period of time?

Thanks for having me. Happy to join you guys and have a great conversation this morning.

I think perhaps part of what attracted me to this sport was also a key ingredient in having some level of sustained success over time. Number one, you start seeing the effects of your training right away. I saw very early on in my athletic career and my rowing career a direct correlation and relationship, almost linear, between what I put into it from a training perspective and the progress I was seeing. That’s not always the case in some other sports where I think that there’s more inherent talent. Not that inherent talent isn’t necessary for rowing, but I think that a key thing that drove me to this sport was the direct relationship between hard work, training, and the results that you could see. In the case of the rowing machine, you see it right in your face every stroke you take, but even in performance over time.

To get back to your question of sustained performance – success is defined a little differently for different folks, but certainly I enjoyed some level of success over a 10 to 12 year period. I think there was a cumulative effect to my training. When I think back over my career, really from my freshman year in high school all the way through my last Olympics, and even during periods where I wasn’t necessarily “formally training on the team,” I bet I didn’t miss two days in a row of training during that entire period – from ages 14 to 30. And to be totally honest, while certainly the total time training has gone down substantially, that’s still a big part of my life.

During the period where I was competing competitively, I think a key for me was really sustaining my training and never taking significant periods of time off. I would joke often at the end of my career, when I was kind of an elder statesmen – in fact, most of my teammates called me “Uncle Paul” during that 2008 run – I had old man strength. When I think back to it, some of the scores I produced towards the end of my career – at least the physiological scores – came a lot easier to me than they did when I was 22, 23, or 24 years old. A big reason for that is the cumulative effect to muscular endurance training. I’d say that was probably the most critical ingredient for me.

RJ: Did you decide early on that rowing was going to be something you pursued and that you would achieve these accolades in?

When I was younger, I grew up playing just about every sport – football, basketball, baseball. I ran track a little bit. In seventh or eighth grade I thought my most difficult decision in life was going to be choosing between the NBA and the NFL. Then I got to my freshman year in high school and everyone started to catch up and then pass me in size. I’d pretty much been the exact same size since I was in fourth grade. It became very clear to me that those two things were not in the cards for me.

I grew into rowing during high school and then got more and more serious over time. I was fortunate enough to have great coaches at an early level. In fact, one of my high school coaches, Dave Krmpotich, was actually an Olympian. He rowed in the 1988 Olympics. He’s a super humble, hard-working guy. While he didn’t say a whole lot, he was certainly an inspiration to me.

As you know, RJ, my brother who’s 21 years my senior also competed for a long time. Once I got into the sport and it started to grow on me, the cumulative effect of my training started to take shape. Even though it might not have been explicit, and I never necessarily stated it out loud, having people like that around me made it feel like [high levels of competition were] a subliminal, realistic goal; that this was something that I could achieve. I don’t know that I had specific aspirations of National teams or Olympic teams at that time, but I certainly felt like this was something I could continue to progress. I didn’t see that immediate ceiling in front of me. Whereas I think some other sports you see a ceiling a lot earlier on. Whether it’s because of your physical size or other attributes that you may or may not have.

I think that’s similar of other muscular endurance sports like swimming, running, and cycling. The interesting thing that drew me to rowing specifically was, it’s really the ultimate team sport in a lot of ways. You’re trying to get eight men to do the exact same thing at the exact same time over a five-six-seven-minute race. There’s no better coordination of athletes. That team aspect was something that really drew me in as well.

RJ: I imagine you must have exceptional leadership and teamwork skills in order to compete at these elite levels. Could you share with us what leadership means to you?

I’m one of 10 children. When you grow up in a household of 10 you learn “team” pretty quickly. In my household and definitely my rowing career, leadership meant something a little bit different than what people typically think of when you say “leader.” They’re picturing one person standing up at a podium in some cases. For me, the type of leadership that I learned in my household and over the course of my career in rowing was more leadership both by example and by being a good teammate.

What does that mean in the context of a family? I think it means you’ve got 10 people at various points in their life where different things are important to different folks. As an example, when I started rowing in Philadelphia, the boathouse was about 15 to 20 minutes away from our high school. I started rowing my freshman year, and all of our coaches worked, so we would typically practice before school at 4:45 in the morning. What does “team” mean in the context of my rowing career for the Teti family? It meant either my mom, dad, or one of my brothers and sisters driving me 15 minutes at 4:15 in the morning. Because for me at that time there was nothing more important than my rowing practice. For them, perhaps they had to get to work or my mom had to get back and get the other kids ready for school.

To relate it back to the question about leadership, if I think about my dad getting up at four o’clock in the morning, after whatever he was doing working that night before, that was a display of leadership. He had leadership, he had responsibility for me, in that case, one of the Teti family team members.

Apply that to some of those lessons that I learned throughout my rowing career – certainly there are times that you need to speak up. Certainly there are times that you need to bring people together around a common goal. Those are pretty typical leadership skills. But in the context of the sport rowing, there’s no MVP. It’s not like someone on the team scores a touchdown and someone else is the blocker. We’re all going to cross the finish line either first or last together. Leadership in that context really means coordinating a team around a goal and being part of that team, not above it or below it. I often think that my family upbringing uniquely positioned me to contribute as a productive team member and perhaps in certain cases as a leader.

My professional career has taken a very similar path in terms of being drawn to more of a team-oriented environment.

RJ: That’s a good segue. I did want to chat about how your experience as an athlete and your experience competing has served you in the business world, especially since there are similar dynamics. In business, you’re working within an organization and you have to figure out how to win together. I would be curious to hear more about leadership and teamwork in the business context from your perspective.

For better or worse, rowing is not a revenue-producing sport. One of the only ways that I was able to continue my rowing career was to have a job that allowed me to train as well. In terms of my professional career, it’s a lot of those same attributes in terms of being drawn to a team environment.

I’m a partner at Normandy Real Estate Partners, which is an investment manager and developer based here in the state of New Jersey. We operate between Boston and Washington, with offices in Boston, New York and D.C. Coincidentally, Normandy’s two founders are Finn Wentworth, who happens to be one of 10 children, with the exact same [age] split as me – seven sisters and two brothers. And the other founder, a guy by the name of Dave Welsh, was quite an accomplished musician.

I point that out because in both of those contexts you are contributing as part of a team. We talked a bit about being from a large family and that large family dynamic where everyone’s expected to contribute and lead at certain times and bring their talents to the table. I think it’s similar with a musician as part of a band or a team where everyone has their own set of responsibilities.

When I think about our company and how it has formed – I joined when there were only four or five of us. Now we’re about 130 people. I think about how our company has been built over time and how that team environment is being created. It really comes back to Dave and Finn and a third partner that they brought on to start our fund business, Jeff Gronning. Everything that we’ve built as a company has been in a team environment. My upbringing, my large family, certainly contributed to my success in rowing. And there’s no question that the time I spent training and competing athletically – both in high school and then in college and on the national team – uniquely positioned me to be a successful contributor as part of a team that has grown to be a successful platform.

Some of the things we talked about like making sure that every day you show up there’s a contribution. There’s ultimate responsibility in the sport of rowing because you can’t take a play off. You’ve got a 200-meter race. There are eight of you, plus your coxswain, or four of you coming down the course. It’s not like I can take a breath. There’s inherent responsibility insofar as the boat is moving and you’re expected to move with those other team members. That ultimate responsibility when you come into the professional environment – and it’s not necessarily that someone is watching or sitting right in front of or right behind you – but that concept is so ingrained in me.  When I think about my work day and my work week or long-term goals, whether it’s a large deal that we’re trying to close or something more day-to-day, I feel that constant draw of a responsibility to contribute.

It’s something that I think about every day in my professional life and I certainly draw that line back to my training and my family life. I often say when we’re meeting new partners or investors and they ask, “What did you do before Normandy?” Obviously, I had jobs, but the real answer is that my primary goal was training for the U.S. National Team. The most transferable skill in a joking sense is pain tolerance. I say that oftentimes when people ask about the connection between the two. The real answer is that responsibility to be a constantly contributing member of the team. It’s really important in the investment business and specifically in the real estate investment business where it’s fluid and there’s a need to be constantly contributing.

RJ: You said something interesting the other day regarding how you think about some of the deals and investments you’re working on. You apply the same thought process you had when you were training for an athletic event to how you manage and anticipate what could go wrong and try to mitigate it. You get ahead of it. 

That’s right. If you think about the complexity of a real estate transaction, whether it’s a new acquisition, a lease, or a financing. There are things that are typically identified upfront. Let’s take a lease transaction, as an example. Let’s say RJ Capital wants to sign a 300,000 square foot lease with one of our properties in New York City. We tour the property, we meet, and we develop basic economic terms. There’s some kind of letter of intent agreed to. So now we’ve established our goal. Our goal is to consummate this transaction.  There’s all sorts of complexities that might have been left out of that term sheet. It’s going to take us weeks or months to complete, so let’s put it a few months out.

An example of a direct correlation in my athletic career: we’ve got the National Championship in June and we’re sitting here in January with a goal of winning the National Championship. What are those interim steps that I need to take between now and June to make sure that anything that could occur during the race I’ve prepared myself for? There’s a series of steps. In the case of rowing there’s a long-distance training period to build my base. There’s fine-tuning as we get closer to race pace. There’s health and wellness: what I’m going to be able to eat that day. And I said, “Well, if I’m racing in Bulgaria and I’ve got these very specific diet requirements that I can only adhere to in Princeton, I’m going to have a problem when I go to the line against the Germans or the Dutch or whoever it may be.”

Now we’re back to the real estate deal. And I say, “Okay. I’ve done a number of deals with other private equity or financial institutions that are just like RJ Capital.” What are some of the things that came up? How can I prepare myself to get out in front of some of those issues that I know are going to present themselves between now and when we’re able to consummate the lease transaction? Let’s get out ahead and let’s talk to our attorneys about them. Let’s make sure we staff this project properly. Let’s make sure that the things that have come up in prior transactions that may have either caused timing or cost delays, let’s identify them now and work our way through them.

I would probably not be as well-suited for something that happened intra-day where I was in and out of a position during the course of a day. I don’t think that applies as directly to my rowing career. However, having a medium or long-term goal, it requires lots and lots of work, energy, time, and focus in an interim period. That’s something that I’m very familiar with from my rowing career and I think correlates almost completely and directly to the investment business. We’ve often talked on Sundays, on our walk from church to the coffee shop, about deals we’re working on. We often say, “I hope we can get through this,” or, “This has been a real challenge,” or, “There’s a challenging partner or counter party.” That’s constant in our business and it’s expected.

Back to the concept of the cumulative effects of training. There’s a cumulative effect to training for a real estate investment transaction or a real estate lease transaction. Each deal you go through, I think it’s my responsibility – back to that responsibility element – to learn from that transaction. When I get another one that looks like it has a similar complexion, that I take those things and apply them to this new situation, this new transaction. Those common themes are constantly presenting themselves. They also present the ability to try to get out in front of the challenges that you know you can’t avoid and that you’re going to have to work through.

RJ: That’s fantastic, to see the mindset you’ve been able to apply when planning and thinking through all the little steps required along the way to accomplish a big goal. Maybe switching gears a little bit, it’s really been a pleasure to get to know you over the last several years. You’re someone that gives a tremendous amount to the community and various charitable causes. Where does this dedication to giving come from?

Some of this is going to sound familiar because I do think it comes back to the family element. I was actually just thinking about this the other day because there is a school that I’m somewhat involved with that is running a fundraising campaign. I was thinking about this exact question and the reality is, I’ve been the direct beneficiary of charity. My mom used to always say that charity starts in the home. In my athletic career, there’s absolutely, positively no question – I wouldn’t have ever been able to take the first step if it wasn’t for the contributions of my brothers, sisters, mother and father, and even extended family. Whether it was driving me to practice or passing the hat around so that we could buy a rowing machine to put in our cellar that I would live on in the early mornings and late nights when I could get extra work in.

I went to private school for a year. I went to the Hun School and I remember getting there and thinking, “Oh my goodness. People call this high school. Wow.” It was such a great experience and the reality is it was because of not just charity in terms of support, but also financial help. Everybody I knew, everybody in my family probably had some level of contribution to help me have that one-year experience that was life-changing for me. In some ways it benefits the school too to have a community of people that are able to have that experience that maybe they wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford, whether it was thorough aid or financial help or whatever else.

From a community involvement perspective, it’s just something that I grew up with – my father in particular. I can give countless examples – I think I’ve told you some of them. He started a soup kitchen that ended up becoming a homeless shelter in Philadelphia. There was a period where he came up with this idea that during the winter months people that are without a home on the street, an ideal scenario is all these churches in our community, of every denomination, that are empty during the night. He thought this was such a perfect idea. We could utilize these empty churches as temporary places for people who are out in the cold so that they can spend the night in a warm place. As you might imagine, while that’s a very good idea, there was certainly community push back, but that’s just one example.

I grew up with that within my family. My parents certainly ingrained in us that there was a responsibility to the community that we lived in. Because you’re benefiting from that community, there’s a responsibility to give back within the community. Also, to give people who might not otherwise have access to the things that you’ve been lucky enough to attain, to give them similar access. There are a number of organizations that I’ve been lucky enough to get involved with where either my time, financial resources, or experience could be helpful. When those opportunities present themselves, I certainly try to take advantage of them. I’m as proud of those things as I am of any medal that I’ve won or deal that I’ve closed.

RJ: Maybe what we could do is close with some of the charities that you support. What we’ll do is include links to those charities so that our listeners and readers can learn more if interested. You’re involved with some really interesting ones. I happen to know Playworks through you, so maybe we can talk a little bit about that, if that works.

That’d be great. I could give a run-through of the things that I’m currently involved with. If there’s anything interesting, we could off-shoot.

Playworks is a group that I got involved with. It’s a fantastic organization whose goal is to provide children basic access to play and recess. We’ve got children, so we know how important this is. We are particularly focused on areas where it is either unsafe or too difficult for schools to provide access to basic recess outside. It started with that and it’s grown into significant research on conflict resolution and healthy kids, healthy play, and safe play. It’s a very basic thing that requires a lot of work from a lot of people to provide every kid across the country access to basic, safe, and healthy play. That’s an organization I’m really proud of.

I’ve also been involved with the Diabetes Research Institute, which is part of the University of Miami. I think we probably all have friends and family that have been touched by that disease, but I had the opportunity to learn about the organization through a real estate group in New York City who produces the largest single fundraiser for the organization. I had the opportunity to get a little bit more involved through them. That’s been really fun.

One of my teammates actually, a guy by the name of Tom Auth was diagnosed with leukemia. This is going back maybe five-six-seven years ago. That was a real wake up call for me because this was a guy that I looked up to in every way – family, personal, professional, certainly health. He’s a two-time Olympian, scratch golfer, champion cyclist. Just an incredible physical specimen. This disease hit him at a time when he had children and a wife and was growing his career and family. I took that opportunity to get involved with a part of the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society called Light the Night. It’s an event that they put on every year and I got quite involved with that for a few years. I’ve tried to stay involved as a contributor.

As you know, there are a number of rowing-related causes I’m also involved in. I’ve gotten so much from that’s sport that I’ve stayed pretty involved through the National Rowing Foundation. I’ve been involved with the organization over at Mercer Park and more recently involved with a boat house that’s being built in New York City for an organization called Row New York. It was originally founded on the concept of giving young, underprivileged women access to the sport because it is such a confidence-builder and provides so much access to many other things. It’s now grown to literally hundreds of young girls, as well as adaptive rowing and other athletes training in multiple locations around New York City.

Those are some of the things that I’ve been involved with or that I’m currently involved with that I’m really proud of and excited about. The progress they’ve made and the small contribution I’ve been able to make.

I also shouldn’t leave out the closest thing to me, our kids’ school, which I’m involved with through the Board of Trustees. I’m trying to play an impactful role there as well.

RJ: Fantastic. Well, I know we ran over and definitely appreciate the time you’ve taken. 

Absolutely.

RJ: Wish you and the family a great holiday season.

Absolutely. Thank you. It’s great that you put on this series. It’s a good opportunity to take a few minutes off and talk about the things that interest us.

RJ: Thanks, Paul.

Hear the full conversation with Paul on iTunes or Podcasts.com

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