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5 Secrets to Ray Dalio’s Hedge Fund Success

Hedge Fund Craftsmanship

By most measures, Ray Dalio has achieved great success during his 62 years on earth. Unlike Donald Trump, Dalio didn’t inherit wealth. As a middle-class kid, he delivered newspapers, shoveled snow and was a caddy during the summer. The company Dalio established in his apartment in 1975, Bridgewater Associates, is now the world’s largest and most successful hedge fund manager, with more than $120 billion in assets under management. Last year, Bridgewater’s profits were larger than those of Google, eBay and Amazon combined. Recently, Dalio was ranked by FORBES as the 52nd wealthiest person in America, and the 162nd wealthiest person on the planet, with a personal net worth of $6.5 billion.

So in a highly competitive landscape populated with nearly 10,000 hedge funds, how has Bridgewater been able to rise to the top of the investment management world and remain there? It’s unlikely that Dalio and his team know more about the markets, across every asset class, than all other hedge fund managers. It’s unlikely that Dalio simply has had a luckier hand in the bets he’s placed over the past 4 decades. And it’s also unlikely that Dalio has sold his soul to the devil.

In fact, Dalio makes no secret about Bridgewater’s success, and it’s articulated in great detail on his firm’s website. Dalio even provides a “Principles” playbook that you can download.

Briefly, here are 5 “secrets” to Dalio’s success:

He’s built a values-based organization – Dalio understands that Bridgewater’s ability to get 1,200 smart people to sing from the same songsheet requires clarity and consistency on what his company stands for, what it’s trying to achieve, and how it intends to get there. His belief system is based on the concept of “radical transparency,” which encourages employees to question everything, to think for themselves and to speak up.

He works ON his business, not AT his business – Dalio understands that intellectual capital, enterprise experience and operational systems & processes must be captured, documented and integrated into the day-to-day decision-making of a firm. Like Ray Kroc, Dalio has invested great thought and effort to create an organization with intrinsic value that does not rely on him, or on any individual, for its continued success. In Bridgewater, he has created the McDonald’s of investment management.

He has no patience for ego or emotion – Dalio understands how personal agendas and corporate politics can destroy any organization. He has been relentless in his efforts to remove ego barriers and emotional reactions in Bridgewater’s decision-making process. Institutional and personal transparency is the cornerstone of Bridgewater’s corporate culture. Some employees who’ve found it difficult to survive under such a high level of scrutiny either drop out or are invited to leave, providing the firm with a very effective natural selection process.

He’s focused on the importance of mistakes – Dalio understands that corporate arrogance is the most significant potential liability for successful companies. Because he believes anyone can be wrong, the Bridgewater culture views mistakes as opportunities to learn, rather than something to be avoided. James Comey, who serves as Bridgewater’s general counsel, describes the firm’s “obsession over doubt” as an asset that drives constant improvement and reduces the chances of bad decisions being made.

He’s not motivated by money – Dalio has been wealthy for a long time, but being wealthy was never his primary goal. In his own words, “I started Bridgewater from scratch, and now it’s a uniquely successful company and I am on the Forbes 400 list. But these results were never my goals—they were just residual outcomes—so my getting them can’t be indications of my success.  And, quite frankly, I never found them very rewarding. What I wanted was to have an interesting, diverse life filled with lots of learning—and especially meaningful work and meaningful relationships. I feel that I have gotten these in abundance and I am happy.”

The corporate tag line describing Bridgewater Associates is aptly titled “A Different Kind of Company.” And Dalio is a different kind of American businessman. Unlike Apple’s Steve Jobs, who managed by arrogance, fiat and intimidation, Dalio has created a meritocracy that’s based on honesty, clear thinking and humility.

Bridgewater doesn’t produce clever electronic gadgets or software apps designed to entertain us or make our lives easier. Dalio’s greatest achievement is unrelated to the wealth he’s created for himself or for his institutional investor clients. Dalio’s most valuable and enduring accomplishment is based on his role as the architect of an organizational management model that can radically improve the world of work, as well as the lives of people who seek personal meaning through their work.

Unfortunately, most companies – regardless of industry – don’t have the courage or the desire to adopt Dalio’s brutally honest management approach. That’s why Bridgewater is likely to be the most world’s successful hedge fund manager for a very long time.  True hedge fund craftsmanship.

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Fighting Online Brand Sabotage 101

Brand Sabotage May Warrant Ninja Tactics

Complaint websites such as Yelp, Glassdoor and Ripoff Report – that empower actual and imaginary customers or employees to anonymously post their accurate or bogus comments online – have created new brand-related challenges and opportunities for their corporate targets.

Thanks to search engines and social media, anyone with a computer and a personal agenda can now inflict substantial, long-term damage to the reputations of institutions that may or may not be deserving of their viral sabotage. It’s become a dangerous and foreign world for CMOs, PR heads and others charged with protection of their company’s brand; especially for small and mid-sized companies lacking the sophistication or deep pockets to mount a serious defensive strategy.

At the risk of oversimplification, here are a few down & dirty street-fighter tactics that should be on the do-it-yourself checklist of every company that’s a real or potential target of brand saboteurs:

Keep Your Eyes Open – This advice appears rudimentary, but many companies don’t bother to stay on top of online content.  At the very least, all companies should use Google Alerts to keep track of what’s being said about them online. This service is free, but does not provide a comprehensive view of everything that’s being said. There are scores of sophisticated social media monitoring solutions, tailored to meet your budget and level of interest. Here’s a list of them.

Take the High Road First – If your company has made mistakes or fallen short of expectations, it’s best to man up quickly. If there’s a way to respond directly to a negative post, then admit your error, offer to make amends, and follow through on any promises you make. Negative posts are opportunities to showcase your company’s integrity and to build goodwill.

However…if it becomes clear that an employee, customer or competitor is using social media primarily to inflict brand damage, it’s appropriate to protect your company in a far more aggressive manner. The basic ninja tactics and rules involve:

Hit and Run – At the risk of being labeled a “troll” by the strange subculture of people whose hobbies include trashing companies online, it’s worth the effort for your company to fight fire with fire, by anonymously posting contrary opinion and evidence, on a selective basis, to discredit the brand saboteurs. If your defensive post is well-crafted (which means it’s not totally obvious that it was written by someone from your company), readers will conclude that the saboteur may not be correct, or at least that there is a difference of opinion.

Avoid Fistfights – If you employ anonymous hit and run tactics, never go toe-to-toe online with saboteurs by responding to their follow-up posts (where they will accuse you of being a shill for the company.) If you engage with them, your original post will lose its credibility, you’ll give them additional opportunities to trash your brand, and it will attract additional attention. If you can’t maintain your discipline, then don’t use hit and run tactics.

Call In The Cavalry – The odds are, if you’re running a successful business, that you have plenty of satisfied employees and customers. The problem is that brand terrorists are always more motivated to trash your brand than your brand ambassadors are likely to praise it. The solution is simple: swallow your pride, and ask for help from your fan base. Don’t tell them what to say, but do provide them with the specific information (or send a page link) they will need to post their positive opinions where it will have the greatest impact. Solicit at least one positive post every month, and don’t forget to thank those who take the time to help you.

Become Transparent – In a world driven by search engines, no news is longer good news; in fact, no news is a brand liability when you are the target of a brand saboteur. The most effective way to reduce and offset brand sabotage is to consistently generate online content that positions your company in a positive manner. This does not simply mean pumping out a press release every time your company introduces a product, wins an industry award, or appoints a new vice president. The content with the greatest value – both in terms of viral shelf life and marketing impact – provides insight into your firm’s intellectual capital…so that target audiences have a clear understanding of your company’s value proposition.

Pull Out the Legal Saber – If the damage caused by brand saboteurs is substantial and consistent, your company should consider legal means as a last resort. This can be expensive, but some companies have succeeded in neutering false and defamatory posts by first filing a lawsuit against the author of the post (not against the website or search engine); if successful in that suit, obtaining a court order related to the offending post; then presenting that court order to Google…which typically will honor the court order by removing the webpage with the offending post from its search index. Although this legal tactic will not remove the post from Ripoff Report, Yelp or Glassdoor, the post will no longer appear in Google search results, which is a significant damage control victory.

Many companies will continue to do little or nothing to prepare for online brand sabotage, on the assumption that it’s unlikely to ever happen to them. Like the classic Fram Oil Filter commercial, they can pay a little now, or pay a much bigger price later.  But there’s a growing list of CEOs who regret having rolled the dice with their company’s reputation at stake.

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Using Negative Publicity as Negotiating Leverage

Shakedown of BMW of North America

The disclosure last May that Facebook had hired public relations firm Burson-Marstellar to initiate a smear campaign against Google’s “Social Circle” raised the hackles of many PR practitioners who labeled the tactic as unethical.  Although there’s no direct reference to the practice of using accurate information to disparage a competitor’s reputation in the PRSA’s Code of Ethics, it certainly can be classified as a bare knuckles strategy that most companies would not attempt.

A related behind-the-scenes tactic that’s more widely practiced (often by law firms on behalf of their clients) involves using the threat of negative publicity as a negotiating ploy. In many high-profile divorces, disputes involving celebrities or sports personalities, corporate mistakes or shortcomings, and misdeeds of senior executives, the direct or implied suggestion that unpleasant, embarrassing or damaging information will be disclosed to the media often serves as an effective bargaining chip.

Having witnessed the power of negative publicity, I decided to use it for personal advantage in my dealings with BMW of North America involving the lease of a 1992 318i, which over the course of less than a year had 27 different problems – including engine failure, faulty muffler system and a sideview mirror that simply fell off the car.  After multiple trips to my local BMW dealer, I felt it was time to bypass Lemon Laws and escalate the issue.

So here’s the strategy I developed:

  • I created a simple tombstone ad that read: “Looking for Reasons NOT to buy or lease a BMW 318i ? Call me. I’ve got 27 Good Ones for you.”
  • I drafted a press release entitled “Irate BMW Owner Places Ads in New York Times and Wall Street Journal After 27 Problems With 318i,” that detailed the car’s various issues.
  • I compiled a comprehensive list of automotive editors at every major publication.
  • I drafted a letter to the CEO of BMW of North America that said, in effect, “As a courtesy, I thought you would like to see the advertising and press release that’s scheduled for distribution next Wednesday.”
  • I FedExed the letter, the advertisement, the press release, and the editor list to BMW headquarters in New Jersey.

Two days later, I received a call from BMW’s head of service, who opened with, “Mr. Andrew. I understand you have a problem with your 318i?”

“In fact,” I responded, “I’ve had 27 problems with the car.”

“Have all of those 27 problems been fixed to your satisfaction?” he asked.

I countered with, “What is BMW’s slogan?”

“What do you mean?” he said.

“What’s your tag line, your advertising slogan, the phrase BMW uses to distinguish itself from other cars? “ I said.

He said nothing.

“Doesn’t BMW claim to be The Ultimate Driving Machine?” I asked.

His tone of voice changed. “What do you want from BMW, Mr. Andrew?”

“I want a new car.” I said.

He laughed. I didn’t.

“Here’s the deal” I said. “You give me a new car, or I place the ads and distribute the press release on Wednesday. It’s your call.”

After a very long pause, he asked, “Can you give me more time than that?”

I said, “You have until Friday. Thanks for your call.” And hung up the phone.

On Thursday, I received a call from my local BMW dealership, asking me to bring my car in as soon as possible for “an inspection.” When I arrived at the dealership the next morning, I noticed that all of the parts & service staff were wearing ties. I asked the service manager (who was also wearing a blazer with a BMW logo on the pocket) why everyone was dressed so formally. He pulled me aside, and whispered, “Mr. Andrew, I’ve worked at this dealership for 7 years, and no one from BMW of North America has ever been here for any reason. Today the head of service for all of BMW will be here, and he’s coming to look at YOUR car.”

Bingo!

Here’s what BMW offered me: If I paid for taxes and registration, they would swap the 1992 4-cylinder 318i clunker for a brand new 1993 6-cylinder 325i.  I took the deal, and never had a single problem with the 325i while I owned the car.

The lesson in this for people looking to use negative publicity as negotiating leverage, is that you must:

  1. Possess truthful information that’s likely to cause tangible reputational / brand damage
  2. Convince the other party that you have the ability to disseminate that information credibly
  3. Demonstrate that you either have nothing to lose, that you have a few screws loose, or both

The lesson in this for BMW of North America is that by dealing with me fairly, they created a lifelong customer. I believe BMW does live up to its Ultimate Driving Machine claim, and I currently drive a 2011 328xi for that reason. But the assumption BMW should have made in its negotiations with me is that there was no way a guy who was too cheap to drive one of their 7 series cars would have made good on a threat to place ads in the NYTimes or WSJournal.  I was bluffing, but with negative publicity as a card I might be holding, I won the hand.

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