by Lew Harris
Vanderbilt Board of Trust member Michael L. Ainslie urged newly minted MBAs in the Owen Graduate School of Management to join in the technological revolution, give back to their communities and have fun and enjoy their careers.
Ainslie told the 268 graduates during his Owen School Commencement address May 8 that the current technological revolution is every bit as profound as was the industrial revolution 200 years ago.
"My advice is simple: Be a part of it," Ainslie said. "Take some risks; don't let the signing bonuses and big salaries make you become observers. You'll never be in a better position to take a personal risk than you are today. Even if you start on nights and weekends, this technology revolution presents you and your contemporaries the greatest business opportunity to come along in decades. There will be many winners and, of course, many losers. But don't fail to be a player in some way."
Ainslie, president and CEO of Sotheby's Holding Inc. from 1984 to 1994, said that having fun starts with enjoying one's work. He also suggested that the graduates remain open to the idea of working in the public or non-profit sector, noting that serving as president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation from 1980 to 1984 was, in many ways, his most satisfying job.
Ainslie, right, witnessed firsthand the expansion of the global market place. When he arrived at Sotheby's, the sales volume was $500 million. Five years later that figure had exploded to $3 billion, largely driven by the emergence of new customers from parts of the world that had never been major players in the international art market. They came from Japan, Korea, Sweden, Taiwan and other emerging economies.
"To get business, you have to be there," he explained. "We would have missed out on the explosion in the wealth and liquidity in the Pacific Rim and elsewhere in the world had we not been present with staff, communications, marketing materials, and relationships with wealthy individuals and their advisers."
The Vanderbilt alumnus warned of the risks that exist in global business. Because current graduates have had the good fortune to grow up in a remarkable era of global expansion, relative peace, and an unparalleled stock market boom, risk is just a theoretical concept to them, Ainslie said.
"I mentioned that Sotheby's shot from $500 million to $3 billion largely due to Japanese and other international buyers entering the market," Ainslie said.
"Well, the rest of the story is that, between 1989 and 1991, those same sales collapsed from $3 billion back to $1 billion in a market crash of remarkable proportions like the art world had never seen. We learned about risk the hard way and in a hurry. We were able to bring down our costs and reduce our sales schedule and remain marginally profitable through the trough of the early nineties."
Ainslie resigned from Sotheby's four years ago at age 51 to plot a new course in his life. He is an investor in both a bicycle touring company and the leading provider of audio tours in 400 museums around the world. Ainslie also owns an interest in a leader in privatizing government services in urban neighborhoods. The company has played a major role in revitalizing the Grand Central Station area in New York and is now taking the lessons learned there to other cities.
Posted 5/18/98 at 10:00 a.m.