Home Depot co-founder Ken Langone wears capitalism on his sleeve

Published August 26, 2018
New York: Kenneth Langone, 82, poses for a portrait in his office.—Bloomberg/The Washington Post Service
New York: Kenneth Langone, 82, poses for a portrait in his office.—Bloomberg/The Washington Post Service

Ken Langone lopes down a hallway and slides his 6-foot-2-inch frame into a chair in the conference room at his Midtown Manhattan investment headquarters.

We are 22 floors above Park Avenue, surrounded by memorabilia that Langone collected on the way to becoming — well — Ken Langone, billionaire, the co-founder of Home Depot and the philanthropist whose latest $100 million splurge will make New York University Medical School forever tuition-free.

The rangy financier wears a blue shirt with white collar and cuffs and a green print tie. KGL is embroidered across the pocketless breast of the shirt.

He has served on the boards of General Electric, the New York Stock Exchange, Yum Brands and Home Depot.

He has beaten the New York state attorney general’s office in court. And he turned down a last-ditch ask for $500 million from con man Bernie Madoff.

“He is a go-to-guy in New York, not just for me but for anybody,” said Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the Catholic archbishop of New York. “The word is out if you need truth, a helping hand, need a guy to level with you and a guy who has come through for a project, a tough one, then you go to Ken.”

Langone, 82, is a devout Catholic, so he’s heard about the virtues of the meek and the poor. He’s just not one of them.

This is the man, after all, who penned the autobiography — paean to success — aptly titled “I Love Capitalism!”

Capitalism seems to love Langone, too.

We are splitting a $20 corned-beef sandwich and slurping chicken soup from the 2nd Ave Deli. Langone takes his half of the sandwich. He removes the meat and carefully rebuilds it into a full sandwich with the extra rye bread supplied by his 26-years-and-counting chief troubleshooter and executive assistant, Pam Goldman.

He takes mustard. I like Russian.

A line of model planes — representing the history of Langone’s personal air fleet, with the spacious, long-range Bombardier Global Express jet in the point position — fills the top shelf of a cabinet.

“You know one of the reasons I’m very successful? Because I’m supersensitive. Very, very sensitive,” he says, fingering the corned beef as if he were gluing together one of those model planes.

He arcs his thumb and forefinger as if showing you the size of the bone-in rib-eye steak he prefers at Gallagher’s, his favorite New York steakhouse. “My skin’s that thick.”

He made billions selling home improvement to the masses and has four grand homes, from Palm Beach to Long Island’s North Shore, but he seems to have some ambivalence about the riches.

“I’ve got all this [bleep] wealth. I watch the [bleep] money accumulate,” the former construction worker says.

The Langone conference room, in the iconic Seagram Building, is a world away from his childhood in Roslyn Heights, on Long Island.

“There was never much money,” he writes in the book. “My father was an excellent plumber, though not a financially successful one; we lived from paycheck to paycheck. But I didn’t realised that I was poor, and I had a wonderful childhood.”

What keeps him up at night now?: “My deals. Losing money. My family, friends. Home Depot. You know what worries me the most? Staying humble. I worry about losing touch.”

He keeps others humble, too.

Langone tells this story about when he went to work on Wall Street: “When I got my job, a guy on Wall Street said, ‘You’re going to be a big success.’ And I said, ‘Why?’

“He said, ‘Because you know when to back off. You’re sensitive.’ I know when to go in for the kill. I know when to back away.”

Like when he pitched Texas mogul Ross Perot on taking Perot’s company, Electronic Data Systems, public back in the 1960s. It’s the deal that made him a player. He would eventually parlay his newfound stature into creating Home Depot.

The book project started, in a roundabout way, four years ago at the Allen & Co. conference in Sun Valley, Idaho, where an A+++ list of business, philanthropic, sports, media, cultural and political figures gather to exchange ideas and make deals.

“A guy comes up to me,” Langone says. It was Michael Ovitz, former Hollywood superagent, a founder of Creative Artists Agency and a former executive at Walt Disney Co. “He says, ‘You ought to write a book.’

“I said, ‘I’m not going to write a book.’ I was adamant.”

But in January 2016, “I’m watching TV. I’m watching Bernie Sanders, and here’s all these kids around Bernie Sanders,” the US senator from Vermont and self-described democratic socialist who was then running for president.

“I said: ‘Oh, my God. These are kids listening to this [bleep]. This is scary. If these kids are giving up on what made this country great before they start, we don’t have a future.”

Langone had found his inspiration.

“I said, ‘If we can put together a book that, in part, embraces my fervent belief in capitalism — and you want to put some stories in to make it fun — that’s fine. I want kids to know you don’t need to be born with a silver spoon in your mouth to win.”

Millennials grew up in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, which nearly took down the world economy. “Their memory of capitalism is not pretty,” Langone says.

Bloomberg/The Washington Post Service

Published in Dawn, August 26th, 2018

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