An Interview with J. Christopher Burch
Self made billionaire, J. Christopher Burch, takes us on a fascinating ride describing himself as a wild gorilla, a tornado, and a quadruple octagon, like only he can. He gives our viewers a real life look at the ups and downs of true entrepreneurship, and the driving forces behind achieving your own personal success.
J. Christopher Burch is the founder and CEO of Burch Creative Capital, a firm based in New York City that manages venture investments and brand development, and co-founder of leading women's fashion brand, Tory Burch. He was officially listed as a Forbes billionaire in 2012.
Kyle Widrick: I'm Kyle Widrick. This is the Creator Series. Today we have Chris Burch, co-founder of Tory Burch, co-founder of Eagle's Eye, sold successfully, owner of the number one rated hotel in the world, [inaudible 00:00:14]. Thank you, Chris, for being here.
Just a few questions. We got in touch with a lot of people, had a lot of excitement around learning more about your life. Just getting right into it. For you, what do you believe is the most important trait that has allowed you to succeed?
Chris Burch: Loneliness.
Kyle Widrick: Loneliness?
Chris Burch: Fear, desperation, my [inaudible 00:00:41] loneliness. It's the need for me to actually prove to whoever, like, people who have been around me as a kid, whether it's Mrs. Bodfish, my fifth grade teacher, who never thought I would go anywhere; Mr. [Mergatroy 00:00:55], my second grade teacher.
Those moments ... or whether I sat in my closet every night and called talk radio with Barry. Listened to voice ... Those loneliness, those moments of desperation, those were the things that drive me and actually excite me and have given me a lot of [inaudible 00:01:17].
Kyle Widrick: Is it all from childhood?
Chris Burch: Everything is from childhood.
Kyle Widrick: What drives you in life? Is it money, is it success, is it ... ?
Chris Burch: It is curiosity. So, to me, people are really successful [inaudible 00:01:28] people have more curiosity so I rarely ...
Kyle Widrick: When did you know that you had ... ?
Chris Burch: It was a very interesting, you know ... I was so screwed up when I was like 16 or 17. I walked in to a hospital where a young girl was dying of a disease - was a friend of ours - and I realized then that by making fun of myself, self-deprecating, and making the nurses laugh and all this stuff due to charisma and kind of accepting this dysfunctionality, you know. That was when people started to laugh, and I said, "People can laugh, then they actually like me," so that was one of the first things that happened in my life.
Kyle Widrick: Did your parents have a significant impact?
Chris Burch: My dad and mom didn't know what the fuck hit them when I came out. It was like a hurricane. I was the first child. I redefined colic. I redefined being [inaudible 00:02:24]. There was nothing they could do. It was like finding a wild gorilla and releasing it in a stage where everything was formulaic, so there wasn't a day in which my parents, until I was like 19, weren't pulling their hair out, okay, because they didn't know what hit them.
Kyle Widrick: So [inaudible 00:02:45] you were also abnormal?
Chris Burch: Oh yeah, my brother was considered the smart one. One time they said, "Hey, the principal came over and he goes, 'We got some good news and some bad news. We're going to move Chris, keep him back in second grade and your brother Bob, your other son Bob, who is in first, we're going to leap frog him into third grade.'" So my parents like ... I wouldn't call that the greatest self-esteem in the world, so that led me to say, "I will prove to you, I will show all of you that there's a way I can succeed."
Kyle Widrick: And having accomplished across the different brands, for you, what's left? What are you looking [crosstalk 00:03:24].
Chris Burch: You know, I think we sit here and you say, "Oh Tory Burch," or you say, "C. Wonder," or you say, "[inaudible 00:03:33] or Jawbone and Jambox, Faena Hotel." Right now we have a great group in Blink, and my most exciting thing now is Ellen DeGeneres, that we are building a global brand with ED. She is an amazing partner, and that's just happening. The thing that makes me really the happiest is actually other people's success, so I just invented in a thing called The Void, and we are about to sign a very large deal. It is an amazing, very small investment, amazing ... But I love the CEO so that gives me the joy, so for the rest of my life, other people's success, other people's happiness, exploring, adventure, doing stuff that is very off the charts and people consider dangerous. And danger, I mean, like investing in an island off the coast of Bali - 600,000 people - and building a luxury hotel.
Kyle Widrick: It sounds like still the curiosity is what attracts you. So you were listed on the Forbes Billionaires List. Is that something that you ever thought personally that you would achieve?
Chris Burch: You know, when I was a kid, I used to see that list, and I'd be like, "wow, wouldn't that be great? Some day, I'll do it." I remember that I took a loan out of college for my Eagle's Eye business, and it was a banker, and they gave me a $2500 loan. I wrote him a personal letter that said, "Thank you so much for this loan but someday I hope we will be on the Forbes list."
Kyle Widrick: Wow. Do you think that you are different than most people?
Chris Burch: Look, I'm one of the weirdest people you'll ever meet. I am layered by thousands of different layers, so if a human is a ball, I am a quadruple octagon. I have a few skills that allow me to succeed, and those skills were born in me and experienced through my childhood. One is a deep sense of curiosity, which is transferred to even walking around town; I am curious about everything; the ability to take risk; and then I think, finally the ability to see in others star quality - like I met you, pal. Kyle actually was a young associate of mine and was one of the best I've ever had. He worked seven years and to have him now interviewing me is quite some honor, young man, quite some honor.
Kyle Widrick: Thank you. So you have a lot to be proud of with your business. You also have 6 kids. At this point in your life, what are you most proud of - for yourself, for them, for the companies? If you were to look at one thing ...
Chris Burch: Obviously, there is nothing I care about more or am more proud of than my children. I am by far the most proud that I haven't died and that I'm alive because I was devastatingly sick through a neck operation, which almost killed me; morphine withdrawal, when they put me in the hospital [inaudible 00:06:38] and so I've had so many things, and it just hit me at the same time: My mom's death, my dad's death, this deep illness - all of this hit me at the same time. I would lay in bed and crawl to work with pain from here to here, thinking, I may not live, and people around me didn't think I'd live. So, to me, it is the survival of the darkness, of like, I didn't know if I'd be able to physically, emotionally, or mentally come back, and that has given me even more a level of octagonal [inaudible 00:07:18].
Kyle Widrick: Got it. You mentioned the issues you see when you're making mistakes. Is there anything in your personal life, if you could go back, that you would change?
Chris Burch: Every moment. Every interaction. I would change that, because of my straightforwardness and my honesty, sometimes I hurt people's feelings, not intentional, but I would change that.
Kyle Widrick: Do you feel like you are misunderstood? Do you think people have the wrong [crosstalk 00:07:45]?
Chris Burch: No. By the way, I don't think that is a fair word. I think it is beyond misunderstood. On the good side, I'm misunderstood. On the bad side, I'm misunderstood. On every side, I'm misunderstood.
Kyle Widrick: How do you relax? Where do you go and what do you do?
Chris Burch: I take massages. I'm now doing a little bit of spinning. I go to my favorite place in the world, Nihiwatu, and I hang out with local people; they are 500 years back in time.
Kyle Widrick: Talk to us about Nihiwatu. Why did you pick a place so remote?
Chris Burch: So, I was in Bali, and I love that Asian culture. A friend of mine said, "You gotta go here, you gotta go here," so because my kids are surfers, I went, and it was a little surf village, it was like four houses, very back in time, not very impressive, and I was able to hire my partner, James McBride, and we just made the decision that we could bring luxury to this great island and give it all back. That's what we do. It is one of my prouder things. One, I go there, and I see how our guests just go crazy and more importantly, what we do for the people is hard to even believe emotionally. So, Nihiwatu is a surprise. I mean, my partner just got Hotelier of the Year Award, and we just won the best hotel in the country, but that place is really special.
Kyle Widrick: Congratulations.
Chris Burch: Thanks. That means a lot to me.
Kyle Widrick: A lot of young entrepreneurs try to balance work and personal life. Do you have a balance? How do you deal with that?
Chris Burch: So, first of all, to young entrepreneurs: I really think you've got a big problem in your age group, Kyle. I think that there is so much conditioning, talking, yakking, "I'm going to be the next Facebook," "I'm going to do this, I'm going to do that." Let me give you some advice. Entrepreneurs of today need to focus on one and only one thing: What does the customer need and how to work 24 hours a day. There is no balance in life to be successful. There is no balance. If you're a young entrepreneur and you want to succeed, the only balance you have is to actually eat your salad on the road.
Kyle Widrick: It sounds like you really have to like what you do and spend a lot of time in it.
Chris Burch: [crosstalk 00:09:53] mistake people make. You should like what you do, but I have people pitch me every day, all sorts of people pitch me, but it's worth saying, everyone pitches something that they like for themselves, yet we have a senior's market that's wide open. Nobody your age group has come to me and said, "Extended living," this kind of thing. One thing I think is important: Look at the marketplace, look where it is dysfunctional, figure out how to win, don't always look for what you want but look for what the world needs.
Kyle Widrick: If you were a normal human in a normal job, 9 to 5, what would that look like? Have you ever thought about that? Because you really haven't had a job since ... What was your first job? Did you work a [crosstalk 00:10:41]?
Chris Burch: I worked construction. I was terrible.
Kyle Widrick: What age?
Chris Burch: Started at twelve. My dad put me working construction at Philadelphia International Airport. He said I was a big kid. I was like 5'2", weighed 105 pounds soaking wet. I was terrible at it. All I wanted to do was tell everyone how we could do it faster and of course, [inaudible 00:11:01] just don't like that. I worked at a deli, almost cut my fingers off, and I also delivered wine when I was over 21. It taught me what I don't want to do; physical labor and me, we just don't get along.
Kyle Widrick: Lots of people don't know you as well as I do and haven't worked with you. You consume an insane amount of theater; you're always reading newspapers, magazines, articles, probably that is driven by your curiosity. Are there any other traits that you've taken on and habits that have helped you get to the next level?
Chris Burch: So, you asked me a good question before, you go, "When did you realize ..." and I think, that's when I got this theory that there is a little person on my shoulder, and I believe that for everybody. There's a little person on their shoulder. Many times, when I'm speaking to someone, asking questions, trying to be intuitive, I'm actually speaking to the little person on the shoulder. So, I have this little voice. It takes all the information I read, I see, I whatever; it's always there, and it's working all day long to put them in little things. So, I think the beauty of the way I think is ... I'm now sixty-three, I've got millions of pieces of information, which are now filed away in my brain, and that file comes up when I meet someone that may remind of something, it may be a file of beautiful things that I saw, a beautiful house in Turkey and that house would be ... That the interior of the house I loved, and I thought, why don't I do that on a sweater. So, for creatively, that filing system is critical to move from one idea to the next.
Kyle Widrick: What do you think be should taught in school [inaudible 00:12:48]? [crosstalk 00:12:50]
Chris Burch: Everything. Everything to me is [inaudible 00:12:54](valuable?). I think the world is going to be very simple. It's going to be the engineers.
Kyle Widrick: Can you teach EQ or is it [inaudible 00:12:59]?
Chris Burch: I think so. I think it's gotta be like a course, like you gotta bring people outside and try to say, "What are people thinking?" Obviously, someone like you, you have very high EQ skills. I think I have some good EQ skills, but it is really, really important that everyone learns what other people are about and how to communicate, and that's what's gonna drive education, and there is almost none of it.
Kyle Widrick: We've always talked about that being in venture capital, you're meeting people all day, understanding them personally and their ambitions and what they're about is, I guess, equally as important as the idea.
Chris Burch: Well, we've talked about this, that the key thing for everybody is to literally meet and literally talk about their childhood: What were they like? How did they grow up? What kind of parents did they have? Where is their pain? How do they use that pain? Who are you? What are you? When are you?
Kyle Widrick: It sounds similar to a machine learning where you create layers of identity for that person.
Chris Burch: Right, and by the way, what I do, in a very teeny way, not that well, machines in two years will do it all. So, there'll be so much data on, "What is Kyle doing? Why is he so charismatic?" It will teach people to be like, "I'll be just like Kyle." So, I think it's all going to go to machine learning, even personality.
Kyle Widrick: Are there any down sides to being a billionaire? Do you feel you've lost your privacy? Do you feel like people look at you differently? Are there negatives that people don't realize?
Chris Burch: Actually, I don't really think about it.
Kyle Widrick: [inaudible 00:14:33] [crosstalk 00:14:36]
Chris Burch: Look, I think of myself like a storm, and there's moments when I come back here wherever I am and I just want to relax and be quiet and read, and that's why I spend so much time in the air. The rest of the time, I like to think of myself as a freaking tornado. I want to sop up as much, I want as much energy as possible.
Kyle Widrick: Last question now: Very serious. Can I have some money?
Chris Burch: Money?
Kyle Widrick: Yeah. Could you give me some money?
Chris Burch: Do you want me to tell the story about ... I was out to lunch. I said, "Kyle, can I borrow five bucks?" But Kyle stops for a second, listens, and he hands me a hundred dollar bill. Kyle thought he could lose the five bucks because I would never pay him back, but one hundred? He could ask for it back. And as I said to Kyle, "Don't play a game like that if you know that your opponent already knows." So, Kyle, I hope you [inaudible 00:15:32] to see that in other people, and I miss working with you.
Kyle Widrick: Thank you so much, Chris.
Chris Burch: Your welcome.