2012 Horatio Alger Award Winner
"Perfectionism abhors error; tries to eradicate it and destroy it. Excellence embraces error, builds on it and transforms it."
Foster Friess was born in 1940 in Rice Lake, Wisconsin. His father, who had a high school education, worked as a cattle dealer. “During the week,” says Foster, “my father drove around northern Wisconsin buying cattle from farmers. On the weekends, he would collect the cattle he bought and take them to St. Paul to sell. He was a hard worker and had a zest for life I admired. He also believed in the American dream and served as an inspiration to me. He never achieved much success for himself, but he instilled in me a belief that if you worked hard, you could accomplish anything.”
Foster’s mother came from a large farming family. She was forced to leave school in the eighth grade to help her single mother and eight siblings pick cotton to save their family farm in Texas. “My mother was incredibly cheerful,” says Foster. “She would be working in the kitchen and whistling as she did her chores. She was self-conscious about her lack of education, and she never realized what an incredible person she was. Because of that, I have become more of an encourager to others to believe in themselves.”
Foster’s mother also taught him to be charitable to others in need. His family home was near the railroad tracks, and it became known to homeless men drifting through town that they could get a free meal from “Mom Friess” in return for stacking firewood, washing windows, or performing other household chores. When Foster’s grandfather became ill, his parents cleared out the furniture in the living room to make space for a hospital bed. Foster’s mother nursed her father-in-law until his death several months later. “That made a big impact on me,” says Foster. “My parents taught me what it means to be committed to family.”
Foster hardly remembers a time when he didn’t do chores or work at a paying job. As a child, he had a paper route. He also worked to harvest beans and strawberries. In high school he managed a Dairy Queen. He also helped his father with the cattle. Each October he helped to round up the cattle from the fields. Once corralled, it became Foster’s job to treat the steers that had pink eye and hoof rot. “I loved that work,” he says. “It was like being a cowboy.”
Foster also loved school and sports. He was a leader in his school and served as class president as well as student council president. In sports he was also recognized for his leadership. He served as captain of the basketball, track, golf, and baseball teams. As class valedictorian, he earned a scholarship to the University of Wisconsin in 1958, where he eventually served as president of his fraternity and also joined ROTC. Between his junior and senior years, he won a scholarship to study international economics for six weeks in Oslo, Norway. He earned a degree in business administration and was selected to the Iron Cross Society as one of the university’s ten most outstanding senior men.
Following his college graduation in 1962, Foster entered active duty in the Army. He trained to be an infantry platoon leader and served as the intelligence officer for the First Guided Missile Brigade at Ft. Bliss in Texas.
Upon his release from the service, Foster launched his investment career when he joined the family-owned firm of Brittingham, Inc., eventually serving as their director of research. Ten years later, in 1974, he started his own investment management firm. The first year’s revenues were barely enough to feed and clothe his family. It was also that year when his infant son, Michael, contracted spinal meningitis. Gravely ill, Michael survived the illness but lost his hearing. “This was one of the more challenging moments in my life,” says Foster. “My father and grandfather had always told me if I worked hard, I could control my destiny. Well, my son’s illness taught me there is no control. But Michael has been such an inspiration to us. He never let his impairment stop him. He is an FAA-certified helicopter pilot. He has given us rich insight to the nonhearing community that we wouldn’t have known without him.”
Foster Friess admits that in the early years of his investment firm, he worked long hours to make his business a success. His drive made him a workaholic and a perfectionist. During this time, he essentially became estranged from his wife and children. “I was on the brink of divorce,” he says. “That’s when I invited Jesus Christ to become ‘Chairman of the Board’ of my life. It completely changed how I viewed the world. I learned that the difference between excellence and perfection is this: perfectionism abhors error and tries to eradicate and destroy it, but excellence embraces error and builds on it, transforms it. We grow as people by the rough times we experience.”
Foster’s approach to business changed as a result of his religious studies. “I learned to be a positive thinker,” he says. “I also learned to embrace adversity-crisis is a terrible thing to waste. I came to believe that anger is a choice. I taught my staff to treat their subordinates not as people who report to them, but as individuals for whose success they are responsible. I began to give custodians a place of honor at company banquets, and part-time drivers attended company trips with our top performers. As a result of the changes I made in my approach to life, I not only restored my relationships with my wife and children, but my firm began to grow steadily.”
As the firm grew to $17 billion in assets under management, Foster Friess was dubbed by CNBC’s Ron Insana as “one of the century’s great investors.” Business Week called him the “longest surviving successful growth stock picker.” In addition, Foster Friess was noted as one of the earliest money managers to harness the Internet for communications. He is further heralded in Merrill Oster’s The Entrepreneur’s Creed: The Principles and Passions of 20 Successful Entrepreneurs for his investment philosophy. In 1992 Mr. Friess turned over the reins of his firm to his successor so that he could spend more time directing The Lynn and Foster Friess Family Foundation and working with public policy advocacy.
When asked about his business success, Mr. Friess points out that becoming an “encourager” is largely responsible for his accomplishments in the business world. “I learned how to lead others at an early age,” he says. “It’s important when you are in a leadership position to be an encourager. It isn’t productive to try to correct a person’s weakness. Instead, I believe you should build on his or her strengths and find someone else to make up for that person’s weakness.”
Mentors have greatly influenced Foster’s life. He fondly remembers a basketball coach who taught him the importance of learning fundamentals as opposed to strategies before going beyond the basics. His Boy Scout leader showed commitment to youth, and Foster greatly appreciated all the time he took to spend with him and his peers. He also credits his wife, Lynn, for teaching him dedication to family and the importance of being positive. “I would not be where I am today if it weren’t for her advice and counsel over our near 50 years together.”
But Foster often says that his number-one mentor is Jesus. “He was the greatest role model of all,” he says. “His treatment of people, his forgiveness, and his universal love are inspirational. Jesus spoke about the importance of reaching out to the poor. His words taught me that our money, our health, our family-they aren’t ours but his. We are not the owners, we are the stewards.”
Mr. Friess advises young people starting out in life to find what they love to do. He adds, “I also think it’s important to never compare ourselves to anybody else lest we become vain or bitter. For me, success is having maximized the best of our abilities and skills. And don’t be afraid to fail. Failure and a willingness to take risks is the next step to your next success. Most of all, I encourage others to understand why the Christian values are so important-even if you are a nonbeliever.”
Humbled by his Horatio Alger Award, Foster says, “What excites me a great deal about the Horatio Alger Association is that it demonstrates what is possible in America. It is the manifestation of the American dream as exemplified by the Members’ lives. Few of us would have achieved the same heights of success had we grown up in a less nurturing culture or environment. America is good.”
Foster Friess’s Activities and Honors
Today, Foster Friess spends much of his time directing the philanthropies of The Lynn and Foster Friess Family Foundation, which has dispensed $20 million in the past two years, and working with public policy advocacy. His philanthropic activities come as a response to real-world problems. These donations include water purification units in Sri Lanka, Malawi, and Haiti. The foundation also funds Mobile Medical Vans, which serve thousands of underserved patients in indigent areas of the United States. After the 2004 tsunami, Mr. Friess traveled to Sri Lanka to deliver sewing machines, carpentry tools, and a medical van. He also funded businesses for widows. He launched the Haiti Renewal Fund following that country’s tragic earthquake. After Hurricane Katrina, he gave millions to help citizens recover from the devastation. He met one woman in a Louisiana shelter who said to him, “I have lost everything I had but my joy.” He continues to feel inspiration from those words in his current relief work.
His Private Sector Solutions Advocacy Fund encourages private sector solutions to America’s problems. He also invested $3 million to launch an Internet-based news site, The Daily Caller.
Mr. Friess is the recipient of many awards, including an honorary degree in law from Pepperdine University, the Muhammad Ali Humanitarian Award and the Humanitarian of the Year Award in Washington, D.C., following in the footsteps of Coretta Scott King, Lady Bird Johnson, and Bob Hope. He also received the David R. Jones Award for Leadership in Philanthropy.
Mr. Friess served one year as president of the Council for National Policy, which networks leaders of organizations committed to strong national defense, economic freedom, and traditional family values.