Reading Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged” in 2006 gave Ken Moelis the “motivation and backbone” to quit running the investment bank at UBS AG and found his own firm.
Moelis, chief executive officer of investment bank Moelis & Co., gave an account of his history with the book as featured speaker last night at the Ayn Rand Institute dinner in the penthouse of the St. Regis Hotel.
He said he first tackled the 1,100-page novel in high school, perhaps not fully grasping Rand’s Objectivist philosophy (his brother had told him he could skip the big speech at the end).
The second time was in his 20s, when he was sleeping under his desk at Drexel Burnham Lambert and leaving birthday parties to go back to work at midnight.
Reading the book reminded him, “This is the point of life, to succeed. I recommitted to being the best I can be at this job.”
He also decided to explore Rand’s passions, seeking out the paintings of Vermeer, reading Victor Hugo -- he loves the heroism of Jean Valjean in “Les Miserables” -- and trying Aristotle.
The third time he read the book, Moelis was on vacation.
At the point in the book when Dagny Taggart takes control of building her own railroad line, as he recalled, he got on the phone with his superiors at UBS to discuss a complex deal.
He was having a great year, but when the call ended, “I looked at my wife and said, ‘I’m quitting as soon as I can,’” Moelis said. His firm today has 600 employees.
“The main thing is, reality is what it is, ’a’ is ’a’. There is no such thing as a contradiction. If you find that, check your premises. One of them is wrong. Your brain is what you got, it’s your way out of things.”
Moelis is now reading the book a fourth time as part of a firm-wide book club.
Also attending the dinner were David Sokol, CEO of Teton Capital LLC, who left Berkshire Hathaway Inc. amid allegations he broke insider-trading rules, and Cliff Asness, co-founder of AQR Capital Management LLC.
“To me the book is an IQ test for people,” Sokol said.
“I don’t tend to believe in required reading, but I do believe everyone should read it,” Asness said. “It’s a wonderful philosophy of life.”
“At the end of the day, sometimes in life you just get excited by odd things,” said Miles Young, chairman and CEO of Ogilvy & Mather LLC, in a telephone interview yesterday.
Young was talking about why he got involved in the reconstruction of Hermione, the ship that carried Lafayette to the U.S. in 1780 with French troops and supplies that helped force Cornwallis’s surrender during the Revolutionary War. The new frigate will sail from Rochefort, France, in 2015 to retrace the journey.
“For me, the thing really is the story of Lafayette, because it’s so utterly incredible and amazing that a boy at the age of 19 could come here, befriend George Washington, become a general, and then come back having persuaded the French government to come off the fence,” Young said.
Young is president of the American Friends of Lafayette-Hermione, which had a reception Wednesday at the French Consulate. The group seeks to raise $2 million to $3 million for the project. Moet Hennessy has signed on as a “grand benefactor.” The year of the voyage will coincide with the cognac maker’s 250th anniversary.
“Lafayette’s motto was ’Cur non?’ or ‘Why not?’ That’s what attracted me to this,” Young said.
(Amanda Gordon is a writer and photographer for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Any opinions expressed are her own.)
Muse highlights include Lewis Lapham’s podcast and Jeremy Gerard on theater.