WASHINGTON -- On Sunday morning we lost a big-hearted prodigy: Teddy Forstmann, financier, political player, philanthropist (especially for the young and those in education) and a bit of an adventurer. I know -- I accompanied him on some and feared for my life. He was a member of the Board of Directors of The American Spectator in the 1980s and early 1990s.
Teddy died of brain cancer, and we shall miss him.
He was from a prosperous family, but his fortune he made on his own. He relished "the deal," and sports, and gambling. He also had an interest in the ladies: Princess Diana, Elizabeth Hurley and recently a television personality, Padma Lakshmi. But he never married.
Teddy put himself through Columbia Law School in part through high-stakes gambling. He was a prosecutor, as I recall, who then flew around the country just managing to get together enough money to buy a company. He was down to his last nickel and last call, but he got the company, turned it around, and walked off with $300,000. He knew the game of the leveraged buyout (LBO) was for him. In 1978, he created Forstmann, Little and Company, an early LBO firm.
Teddy was on his way, buying up Dr. Pepper, Topps Co., General Instrument Corp. and Gulfstream Aerospace, among others. He began to build a fortune estimated at $1.6 billion. He was among the first to buy companies with subordinated debt, rebuild them and sell them for hundreds of millions -- occasionally billions -- of dollars. He bought Gulfstream, for instance, in 1990 for $825 million and sold it in 1999 for $5.3 billion. Forstmann-Little had average returns of 50 percent in its first two decades.
Teddy would not use junk bonds. That was, he would say, "funny money. It's wampum." Over lunch, he would try to explain it to me. He was famous for coining the phrase "barbarians at the gate." It served as the title for Bryan Burrough and John Helyar's best-seller about the $25 billion deal for RJR Nabisco, which Forstmann bid on but lost to private equity firm Kohlberg Kravis Roberts.
Teddy had an eye for "the deal" but was also extremely well-read, athletic and civilized. He was a conservative too. He donated millions to the Republican Party, though his real interest was in education and the young. He teamed up with John T. Walton, son of Walmart founder Sam Walton, and donated millions to the Children's Scholarship Fund. He was an advocate of voucher programs and charter schools.