Other Voices

Golf shirt, shorts, compassion and a huge fortune

Richard Rainwater
Richard Rainwater

Richard Rainwater, a Fort Worth businessman whose successes and exploits have been recounted in newspapers, magazines, books, blogs and firsthand reports, amassed a fortune and decided to give it away in support of at-risk children.

His influence on me, a former employee, made me a better leader and inspired the work I do.

After I organized educational programs in Houston and Memphis that received financial support from the Rainwater Foundation, Richard invited me to meet him in Fort Worth to discuss the goals of his foundation.

That meeting proved to be pivotal and taught me a lot about the man who would be my boss for the next six years.

When I arrived at Richard’s office in a suit and tie, I was only slightly surprised to see that he was in a golf shirt and shorts.

His office was on the 22nd floor of the building he owned through Crescent Real Estate Equities, a company he co-founded.

While I could tell there was a casual feel in the office, the family-like qualities of the small team of eight — yes, seven employees and Richard were managing his billion-dollar empire — were most inspiring.

Every afternoon, the team ate lunch together around the large circular table in the office, a tradition they continue today. They spoke knowingly about each other’s families, shared stories about their lives and readily talked about both struggles and joys.

They also laughed a lot. Much of the laughter came from the boss, the guy at the table in shorts and a golf shirt.

After lunch that afternoon, Richard and I talked about where he wanted to take the foundation. He wanted to put it on a trajectory that would one day ensure that his wealth would be invested in the most rewarding nonprofit organizations.

When I asked Richard what he wanted to support, he replied only that if I took the job I would need to find what works and support that.

It took me several months and frequent repeats from Richard to “find what works and support that,” but I realized he was approaching philanthropic decisions in much the same way he approached financial investments.

The rules Richard often repeated included:

▪ Find what works and support that.

▪ We invest in people, not programs.

▪ Find great leaders and support them.

▪ Focus on things we can observe and understand.

▪ Don’t do one-shots — sustained programs are better.

He often repeated Andrew Carnegie’s idea of extending ladders to enable people to rise above their present circumstances.

Motivated by such a notion, Richard invested more than $260 million to grow some of the highest-performing nonprofit programs in the United States, all in support of at-risk children, higher education and medical research.

I treasure my six years working for Richard. Around that lunch table sat business school classmates of his, hedge fund managers, global business leaders, family members, social entrepreneurs and even former presidents.

Richard could have taken on any persona, eaten at any restaurant in the world and met those incredible colleagues in any city imaginable. Yet he had them sit at the round table with the rest of his team in Fort Worth.

I suspect there are many lessons Richard tried to teach me that I will probably be too slow to grasp, but his modeling of what a great leader looks like is a lesson I cherish.

Richard showed me that a great leader doesn’t put on airs, loves to laugh, treats his staff as family and doesn’t forget where he is from.

This past weekend, I learned that Richard lost his long battle with progressive supranuclear palsy.

Oddly enough, on Saturday afternoon I was giving a keynote address to a gathering of Teach For America alumni and spent a portion of my talk reflecting on the leadership lessons I learned from Richard.

I am sad that he is no longer with us, but I know his influence and his legacy will be felt for a long time to come.

Kelly Garrett is former executive director of the Rainwater Charitable Foundation and current executive director of KIPP St. Louis.