2011 Horatio Alger Award Winner
"The most critical element of success is to find your passion."
Born in 1958 in Springfield, Missouri, Byron Trott moved when he was two years old with his parents and three older sisters to the much smaller town of Union, Missouri. His father, a World War II Army veteran, earned two Purple Hearts from his active deployment in the Battle of the Bulge, and also served as an honor guard at General Patton’s funeral. After the war, his father worked for a small company digging water wells and later as a line repairman for Southwestern Bell Telephone Company. “My dad was a great role model,” says Byron. “He coached me in sports and taught me the values of integrity, honesty, and hard work.”
Byron describes his mother as loving and entrepreneurial. During Byron’s childhood she sold Avon products door-to-door. When he entered high school, she opened a small dress shop and Byron often helped out there. “My mother was a believer in the power of positive thinking and treating others the way you want to be treated,” he says. “She always said, ‘Anything is possible if you set your mind to it.’ She also made sure we went to church several times a week. All of those things had a big influence on me.”
As a boy, Byron was focused and hard working. He was an excellent student and took his school work seriously. “My sisters were smart and did well in school,” he says. “I felt that as the youngest and only boy I also had to do well. My parents encouraged me to attend the best college, regardless of the cost so that I could have more opportunities than they did. We didn’t have a lot of money, but we were always viewed as a good and close-knit family and my parents believed education and hard work were the key differentiators.”
In elementary school, Byron suffered from acute bronchitis and had to visit doctors regularly for treatment. He vividly remembers his third-grade teacher, who was teaching him accelerated math at the time, used him as an example of a chubby boy. “That’s when I decided it was time to balance my academics with a bit more athletics,” he says. “My dad practiced sports with me starting at an early age and I eventually became quite competitive in baseball, basketball, and football.” By the time Byron was a senior at Union High School, he was selected as the St. Louis Post-Dispatch Scholar Athlete. He graduated in the top 5 percent of his senior class in 1977.
Like his mother, Byron had an entrepreneurial spirit. When he was 13, he talked his mother into buying him a lawn mower, and he earned money mowing lawns until he was 16. That’s when he and his father agreed that there was a bigger business opportunity in their small town. Byron and his classmates had to drive to St. Louis to buy trendier, name-brand jeans. “We decided our town needed a teen clothing store, and my parents both encouraged the idea,” he says. “My dad helped me get a $10,000 loan at the bank, and my mother taught me how to buy for a store. We opened it the summer I was 17, and I worked there each summer and on weekends. My dad often went there after he was finished for the day at the telephone company to count money and look over finances. I loved the challenge of having to determine what to buy, how much to pay for it, how to price it, and what it took to earn a profit. People who know me today have a hard time believing this, but the biggest challenge I had was to overcome my shyness. Early on, I was nervous when I had to interact with customers. But there was no place to hide in such a small store, and I was forced to come out of my shell because I wanted my business to succeed.”
Byron attended the University of Chicago, where he majored in economics. Along with his parents’ financial contributions, his education was paid for through loans, scholarships, and his work in the library through the school’s work study program. Byron was admitted to the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business after his junior year in college and he earned his undergraduate degree and MBA in five years. While at the University of Chicago, he was a four-year varsity letterman who started in both baseball and football. He served as captain of the varsity baseball team and was awarded the J. Kyle Anderson Award for the most valuable senior baseball player. He also received the Amos Alonzo Stagg Medal as the senior male athlete with the best all-around record for athletics, scholarship, and character. In addition, Byron won the Abram L. Harris Achievement Prize for academic achievement, the Morton-Murphy Award for outstanding student contribution to campus life, and the Lowell J. Meyer Award for scholastic excellence and leadership. By the time he graduated with his MBA in 1982, he had accumulated over $50,000 in student loan debt.
While in college, Byron spent his first summer working at his store in Union and then spent subsequent summers working in business internships at Boise Cascade Corporation in St. Louis and Continental Bank in Chicago. “Those summer internships taught me as much about what I wasn’t interested in as what I wanted to do,” he says. “I went to a career day session at Goldman Sachs’ Chicago office and became interested in private wealth management and investment banking.”
In 1982, Byron joined Goldman Sachs and worked in Securities Sales in New York. He spent the next six years working in private wealth management in St. Louis and Chicago. In 1989, he transferred to the Investment Banking Division in New York.
"I enjoyed managing money for families, but when I combined the investing skills that I had learned in my first six years with investment banking, corporate finance, mergers and acquisitions, and capital markets capabilities, I found that it was a unique and valuable combination. I loved bringing the investing and investment banking disciplines together and soon realized the value added that I could provide, especially to entrepreneurs and the leaders of family-owned companies. It didn't take long to realize that I had found my passion.”
Five years later, Byron was made a partner and head of the Midwest Banking Group. In 1996, he became co-head of the Chicago office and managing director of Goldman Sachs. He continued to advance at the firm, becoming vice chairman of the Investment Banking Division in 2005. During that time, Byron was involved in and the architect of many significant deals and transactions with some of the most respected closely held companies in the country, including Alberto Culver, Berkshire Hathaway, Cox Enterprises, Enterprise Rent-A-Car Company, First Solar, Hyatt Hotels, Mars, Marmon Holdings, Pulitzer, Wal-Mart Stores, and the Wm. Wrigley Jr. Company. In April 2009, Byron ended his 27-year career with Goldman Sachs to found BDT Capital Partners, LLC, his own family-controlled private partnership that invests in and advises family-controlled and entrepreneurially led companies.
When asked how he defines success, Byron says, “I think it is being the very best in everything you do. In my profession, it means putting your clients’ interests first and finding solutions that help them meet their long-term objectives. On a personal level, it means being the best husband, son, father, brother and friend I can be.”
Byron believes much of his success is due to the many great mentors he has had throughout his life. “My parents were guiding lights for me,” he says. “In college, the dean of students and athletic director, Jeff Metcalf, was instrumental in getting me summer internships that set me up for my investment banking career. At Goldman Sachs, I was mentored by Hank Paulson and was also fortunate to have a number of clients as mentors, including Warren Buffett, who has had a very meaningful impact on me over the last 10 years. I’ve benefited greatly from the input of mentors, and I’ve worked hard to be a mentor for others at Goldman Sachs and now for the people who work at my firm.”
Byron’s advice to today’s young people harkens back to his upbringing and the influence of his parents. “It’s important to establish and keep your moral compass,” he says. “Act with integrity and honesty, work hard, and understand that nothing comes easily. Be the best you can be in whatever you do, and, most important of all, find your passion. That’s the most critical element of success. If you find your passion, you will do very well.”
Byron established and supports both the Jeff Metcalf Fellows Program, which he named for his mentor at The University of Chicago, and the College Careers in Business program at the University of Chicago. These programs supplement undergraduates’ academic training with graduate school business courses and “real world” work experience before graduating from the college. In 2010 alone, more than 300 college students benefited through partnerships in one or both of these programs. “Jeff Metcalf was an important influence in my life and he made a big difference in my career path. After he died, I wanted to make sure a large number of students at the University of Chicago would have the same opportunities I had, which is why this program means so much to me.”
In addition to these academic programs, the Trott Family Foundation contributes to education, conservation, and the arts. “Much of my giving has to do with education,” says Mr. Trott. “Getting a good education is so important. It is the basis for all that I have accomplished in life.”
Mr. Trott also serves on the boards of Hyatt Hotels Corporation, Enterprise Rent-A-Car, Pilot Flying J, and the Weber-Stephen Products Company. Civically, he serves on the boards of The University of Chicago, the Art Institute of Chicago, and Conservation International.