Standing before 1,000 people, Paul Levy ’69 was unabashedly frank when he revealed the source of his success.
“I have no idea,” he said. “None. My career has been nonlinear and totally unpredictable.”
Levy, the founder and managing partner of JLL Partners, a mid-cap private equity investment firm in New York, was the guest speaker on Oct. 15 at the fifth annual Donald M. Gruhn ’49 Distinguished Finance Speaker Series.
He spoke to a full house in Baker Hall of the Zoellner Arts Center on the choices he’s made in his career and on the state of private equity.
His advice to students was not to have well-articulated career goals.
“Play in traffic,” he said, “and find a way to make things happen.”
From Lehigh to law school
After completing a bachelor’s in history with highest honors, Levy earned a J.D. from the University of Pennsylvania’s law school—even though he knew he didn’t want to practice law his entire career.
“I always knew I wanted to be in the deal business,” he said.
Early in his career, when he was general counsel for a home healthcare company, Levy answered an ad seeking a CEO who was a lawyer and could speak French. Having studied the language for eight years and spent his junior year in France, he told his wife he was going to get the job. The company was Yves Saint Laurent, and at 32, Levy became head of its North American fashion licensing arm for three years.
His colleagues were astounded at this career choice. Levy likened his decision to a “fork in the road well-taken.” He said his liberal arts education made him open to trying new opportunities and experiences.
“At YSL, my independent entrepreneurial spirit was given full reign,” he said.
Take time for literature
In conversations with students and with Lehigh President Alice P. Gast, Levy described his undergraduate education as cross-disciplinary and responsive to his needs. He echoed Gast’s assertion that Lehigh, in order to prepare future leaders, must tailor courses and independent projects to students’ personal interests.
“I have had any number of business [students] ask me how to prepare for a job in private equity,” he said.
“I tell them, ‘Go take a class in literature. Go take a class in history.’”
Levy changed careers in 1983 when he joined Drexel Burham Lambert. Knowing nothing about investment banking, he said he was hired because of his experiences in bankruptcy restructuring as a lawyer, and negotiating licenses at YSL.
“I was really in the deal business now,” he said.
At Drexel, Levy’s group dominated restructuring efforts on Wall Street. Wanting to get into private equity, he left the firm in 1988 and founded JLL Partners.
“No one else would hire me,” he said. “I not only took the fork in the road, I leapt.”
Levy said JLL Partners purchases distressed companies and tries to transform and sell them within five years. With about $4 billion in assets currently under management, the firm works with companies in the healthcare, financial services, education and building products industries.
Honesty is a must
One student asked Levy a question that was on the mind of many: “How do I succeed in this business?”
“There are any number of things that you have to do, which are the homespun homilies. You have to work hard, be focused, be honest, reliable. You have to take risks,” he said.
Paul Brown, dean of the College of Business and Economics, thanked Gruhn for his “tremendous guidance, input and friendship” and for making it possible for students to hear successful leaders share their experiences.
“The education in Lehigh’s business college is superb,” said Gruhn, a 40-year veteran of the financial services industry. “Being able to listen to experienced voices and professionals such as Levy cannot be topped. Students are getting an extra, added impetus to their knowledge.”
Levy said “the economic environment is certainly not frothy, to say the least,” and gave students one last bit of homespun advice while they make career decisions:
“Take risks, make choices, go with your gut, be grounded, build your inner self, be passionate, and follow a star.”
Photos by Christa Neu