Remembering Warren Hellman: ‘An Openness To Ideas And To People’

Tully Friedman, who formed his famous partnership with the late Warren Hellman in 1984, remembers the first time they met.

It was around 1970, Tully was looking to break into investment banking after starting his career as an attorney, and he was visiting the New York offices of Lehman Brothers.

The late Steven Fenster, then at the beginning of his career in corporate restructuring, had taken a liking to Tully and was hoping to make an introduction to Warren, then on a fast track to the presidency at the firm. Warren was walking down the hallway “at triple speed,” recalled Tully. Steven approached him to say he had someone he wanted him to meet. “Warren sticks out his hand, says, ‘Hi, bye,’ and disappears,” said Tully. “Ten years went by before I saw him again.”

Tully eventually broke into the business, rising to managing director at Salomon Brothers, where he established a West Coast investment banking business. The paths of the two men crossed again in the early 1980s when Warren, after a successful stint in Boston as a venture capitalist, returned to San Francisco, the city he grew up in, to again work for Lehman Brothers. The two ended up working closely together to help restructure paper company Crown Zellerbach Corp. Over lunch one day Tully mentioned he was planning to leave Salomon Brothers to partner with one of his early clients to start an investment firm.

“He said to me, ‘Gosh, I’d like to leave Lehman. Can we co-office? If I bring something in, can I have a [promote]?’” Tully said that his first prospective partner took so long to ponder Warren’s offer that he eventually became convinced the whole venture was going to fall through. A few months later Tully and Warren talked again. “I said to Warren, ‘I don’t think it’s going to happen.’ I said, ‘I’d rather do it with you.’ ”

The firm they created in 1984, Hellman & Friedman (Tully turned down Warren’s initial offer to call it Friedman & Hellman), went on to produce one of the most consistent and lucrative track records in the industry, buying and shepherding such companies as Levi Strauss & Co., Young & Rubicam and VoiceStream Wireless. Two traits in particular that Warren brought to the firm really made it all work, said Tully, who remained at the firm until 1997 before leaving to start a second shop, Friedman, Fleischer & Lowe (now doing business as FFL Partners).

One was a desire, shared by Tully, to abandon the sharp-elbowed, bare-knuckles world of Wall Street to create an organization where everyone had a say. “We really valued capable, capable people,” said Tully. “We attracted them. We promoted them. We listened to them. We created a firm that was very collegial.” The partners sat in a semi-circle of double-desks in a large open room on the 12th floor of One Maritime Plaza. A nearby sofa and chairs were available for impromptu meetings or entertaining visitors. “It maximized knowledge and communications,” said Tully.

Warren also “had an openness to ideas and to people,” said Tully. It was as if Warren had left behind the 1970 version of himself, the hard-charging dealmaker too busy or distracted to chat with his future partner. “I just marveled at the way he would sit there for hours with people, regardless of who it was or how far-fetched the whole thing was,” said Tully.

Tully observed that it was this same openness that led Warren to his startling array of outside activities, now well-chronicled in articles springing up in the wake of his death this month at the age of 77. These ranged from playing banjo in a band (The Wronglers) to long-distance running (he twice completed a 100-mile race called the Western States Endurance Run) to a variety of philanthropic ventures later in his life, including the creation and funding of the annual Hardly Strictly Blue Grass Festival in San Francisco.

“He thrived on it,” Tully said. “He was a terrific, unique guy. He was really something else. It’s all coming out now.”