Speyer advocates ‘nimble thinking’

Though Jerry Speyer holds the title of 1955 New York State Yo-Yo Champion, his belief in adaptability has never dipped.

Speyer, co-CEO and co-founder of Tishman Speyer, a real estate firm whose portfolio includes such iconic buildings as the Chrysler Building and Rockefeller Center, gave a talk titled “Nimble Thinking: No Matter What the Challenge” on Thursday evening in the Loria Center to an audience of about 300. Speyer shared his experience and insight in the world of business, emphasizing the importance of embracing change and being creative in order to be successful.

Speyer, who is also chairman of the Museum of Modern Art, strung together stories from history, philosophy and his own personal experiences to illustrate the point that thinking “nimbly” depends on the ability to confront and adapt to changing circumstances.

“The way you deal with change makes the difference between success and failure,” Speyer said. “Students understand the concept of change and that no one is stuck in their ways.”

To depict the importance of being creative and facing adversity head-on, Speyer related an amusing anecdote about his first attempt to find a job. When he graduated from Columbia University Graduate School of Business, the economy was down and jobs were scarce — not so different from today, Speyer said. In an effort to stand out from the thousands of unemployed business school grads, he handwrote 19 letters and personally delivered them to various CEOs.

“Not a single CEO contacted me back,” Speyer recalled, chuckling. “But the important thing is that it gave me the confidence in myself to know that if I was really diligent, I would find another opportunity.”

Speyer said that thinking nimbly requires always looking toward the future. One of the biggest problems with American companies, he said, is their inability to think outside of a quarter-to-quarter mentality. Short-term thinking has to change, Speyer said.

In 1998, again at a time when the economy had taken a plunge with the collapse of the Russian ruble and the Mexican peso, Speyer’s company took a daring risk and acquired the Chrysler Building, he explained. Though everyone at the time saw this as a dangerous enterprise, Tishman Speyer renovated the property and made it a profitable asset, he said.

During the question-and-answer session following his speech, one student wanted to know which companies Speyer believed demonstrated nimble thinking.

Without hesitation, Speyer said his favorite company at the moment is Apple, which he said has the courage to do things that others don’t or can’t do, and that is the reason they are unmatched today.

“It’s going to take other companies a while to catch up with Apple,” Speyer said.

The audience members ranged from young to old, and students interviewed said they found Speyer to be a fresh, inspiring speaker.

Paul Cohen ’13, CEO of Web design company Trinston Diversified, LCC, said Speyer’s belief in the importance of taking one’s future into one’s own hands is encouraging.

“[His speech] demonstrates that education takes you to a certain point in life and it’s up to you to shape your future,” Cohen said. He added that he appreciated Speyer’s interdisciplinary approach.

“Speyer spoke about the French Revolution and brought in Goethe and classical writers and related it back to business,” he said. “That kind of thinking is what is needed to succeed in business.”

Aaron Voloj LAW ’11 said it was refreshing to hear a visionary business leader advise people to follow their gut.

Speyer’s other board affiliations include Columbia University, the Economic Club of New York and Yankee Global Enterprises.

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