The President of the Turtle Creek Club talks with the Opportunist’s Managing Editor Leslie Stone about his career, how he matches entrepreneurs with investors and what he thinks about the U.S. economy.
Ben Doherty is the president of the Turtle Creek Club, a national angel group of up to 200 accredited investors that meets quarterly to review and invest in early-stage companies. All of the members are accredited investors, men and women who have accumulated wealth by hard work, paying their taxes and playing by the rules. Collectively, the members invest anywhere from $500,000 to $2 million in deals that interest them, although the members invest as individuals.
Opportunist: Please tell us your background.
Ben: I grew up in the Highland Park area of Dallas and went “off” to college at Southern Methodist University, which was almost within walking distance from my home. [Laughs] In 1963, I received an unlikely degree in philosophy.
I had aspirations to go on to graduate school in the same subject—and possibly teach—but in those days you were expected to go to work. I remember walking out of Moody Coliseum after graduation and my father putting his arm around me and asking, “Well now, my lettered son, what do you plan to do with your life?” He was stunned when I told him I had a job. I had gone my entire senior year not having the courage to tell him that a job opportunity at Lloyd’s of London had presented itself.
Opportunist: Did you move to London?
Ben: Yes, I became an apprentice broker at Lloyd’s of London and studied economics at City of London College at night. It was an interesting two years. England was a fascinating place in the 1960s—with the Beatles and seeing the British economy racing away from capitalism into what you might label European Socialism. I could’ve stayed on, but I chose to return to the states and start interviewing in the property and casualty industry.
Opportunist: Where did that take you?
Ben: I went through a series of interviews with top management at AIU before it was AIG. My very last interview was the shortest I’d ever had in my life and was with a fellow by the name of Maurice Greenberg who was so charismatic and visionary that I went to work for them. That fellow, of course, would be Maurice “Hank” Greenberg, who later built AIG to the powerhouse it was. I worked in the top tier of insurance companies as an executive for 30 years and found it very enjoyable.
Opportunist: How did you get into the business of matching entrepreneurs with investors?
Ben: When I retired from insurance I was wondering what I was going to do. I had several friends, not the least of which was an icon in Dallas by the name of Jim Ling. He formed, built and then retired from Ling-Temco-Vought (LTV), which was, in terms of its size and operations, the Microsoft of its day. He was an absolute genius at finance and financing. We had lunch one day and he asked what I was planning to do next. When I told him I didn’t really know he asked, “What do you do best?” I had to think about it for a few minutes and then I said, “I think I tell a pretty good story.” He said, “Well Ben, I know a new publicly traded company and their story needs to get out. Would you tell their story to Wall Street?” So, I started telling the story about a company that was in a growth curve and that had a famous chairman and president.
Opportunist: You were essentially doing investor relations?
Ben: I was doing what I thought was best—telling a story—and before I knew it I had a little clientele of about six companies that I never dreamed of. Things proceeded along. I was having a good time, and then we had 9/11 and everybody stopped having a good time. It changed our way of life. After that, my life sort of evolved into participating in small private investor clubs.
Opportunist: What clubs were those?
Ben: The Supper Club was one of the first. It was a handful of highly accredited men and women back east, who liked getting together about four times a year to hear about opportunities. That club evolved into another club that evolved into the Fat Cat Club. I was a member there, and we all enjoyed getting together. Time went on and the club was about to, shall we say, wither away because there seemed to be no energy whatsoever. I decided to rejuvenate it and take control. They had a big staff and quarterly meetings that dues would support, and I carved it back to hardly any staff and increased their events. And so, the former members of Supper Club and Fat Cat Club continued to attend meetings and I increased the venues and it became a totally different business and angel investor group. Turtle Creek Club is really the evolution of everything that I have done in the past.
Opportunist: Tell us about the Turtle Creek Club.
Ben: We host and organize member-business angel investor events around the country. Our angel investors are paneled guests hoping to meet entrepreneurs who are looking to raise capital. Members with a common interest sometimes come together to form an investment group.
Opportunist: How many members do you have?
Ben: We have more than 1,200 member business angels and principals of capital funders. We have seasoned members and chapters of so-called leaders, unofficially, who work hard to make introductions between entrepreneurs and angel business investors every single day. They have been doing this every day for the past eight years.
Opportunist: Tell us about your events.
Ben: We do between 40 and 50 events a year, in 21 cities across the country. They are luncheon venues that start at noon and are typically over at 2 p.m., except for California, which runs from 1 to 3 p.m. Generally speaking, we have our events in upscale restaurants such as Magiannos, Flemming’s or Lowery’s . We allow time for networking prior and after. Typically, we have six or seven presenters, a keynote speaker and a social hour cocktail party afterward. Presentations take place during the luncheon rather than in a conference type atmosphere. If we have four presenters, for example, the first one starts just before the salad or the soup is served, and the last one finishes up just as you’ve had your dessert and coffee.
We also have an all-day event, which is more than a luncheon event.
Opportunist: Where are they held?
Ben: We will do Miami, Boca Raton and Palm Beach in one tour. Beverly Hills, Newport Beach, Irvine and La Jolla and San Diego are featured in another tour. And, of course, Philadelphia, Manhattan and Boston are all on one tour. We also have some great chapters in Chicago, Atlanta, Orlando and San Francisco. They are all different.
Opportunist: Do you have any upcoming events?
Ben: In December we have a tour that takes place in Southern California. We name each of our tours at the beginning of the year. As we speak, there’s one going on called the Turtle Creek Club Money Talks Tour. We will be traveling to Southern California on the 6th, 7th, and 8th of December, and we will wind up the year in South Florida.
Opportunist: What is your formula for putting together a successful event?
Ben: The secret is dedication and, quite honestly, hard work. But it’s enjoyable and fulfilling—at least for me. I believe that if we don’t continue to network and to evolve, then clubs like this really lose their usefulness in matching friends and members and investors and entrepreneurs together.
Opportunist: What are some of the challenges you have faced?
Ben: The biggest challenge has been finding the right types of opportunities within the right types of companies. Being from Dallas, we see a lot of energy, oil and gas companies. When I first started investing many of the presenters who came were in the technology sector and the dot com bubble had not burst yet. The caution is that it takes a while for the management to get traction, to get their feet on the ground and get the money they need to get to the next level. We bet on the jockey and not the horse per se. Most certainly, the jockey has to be world class and the horse has to be a thoroughbred. Who’s running the show, whose riding the horse and I’m not an analyst but applying practical business sense, they get an invitation to present to us.
Opportunist: Can you share some of your success stories?
Ben: Extreme Oil & Gas is one of our successes. Since June 2008, we’ve written checks in excess of $3 million. They have about 200 shareholders. We aren’t a destination funder by any stretch of the imagination, but our sophisticated and seasoned membership knows what to look for.
Integrated Freight Corp. and Reef Securities are other winners that we actually feature on our website. We have a social marketing website, www.theturtlecreekclub.com, with hundreds of equity capital and business angel investor members and hundreds of companies. Interested parties can sign up and it’s free to join.
Opportunist: Where do you find opportunities?
Ben: We see new opportunities through member referrals. If somebody in Philadelphia, for example, says they know of somebody we need to present at our group we will consider them. Some people will come and present their own deal to the membership. Sometimes we see a deal that comes to us from our own membership.
Opportunist: You have said that Turtle Creek Club members empower entrepreneurs to create. How so?
Ben: By investing a little corner of our available cash into an entrepreneurial endeavor or project company, we believe we are empowering entrepreneurs to create jobs and move the company in the way we are all hoping it will move.
I feel positive that the economy is moving toward the more prosperous years we have seen in the past. If the government will get out of the way, this country will get back to work. The Turtle Creek Club has a wonderful grass roots touch and feel because, yes, I’ve been to Wall Street and I understand Wall Street, but the Wall Street bankers have pretty much let us down. The real bricks and mortar banks are on Main Street; therefore, the new bankers are the private investors who are reaching into their pockets and financing these small companies to launch them into the next level.
That’s our place in this so-called universe of conferences and events for capital formation. The banks—whether we’re talking about Bank of America or Chase or Wells Fargo—aren’t in the banking business anymore. They must stop this business of nickeling and diming the consumer in order to make the numbers. The banking system works when depositors make deposits and the banks loan a portion of it back into the community. In a healthy economy people aren’t afraid to reach in and write a check to an entrepreneur. In an unhealthy economy it takes some stomach to do that.
Opportunist: Do you have any advice for others who want to pursue what you have accomplished?
Ben: Nobody can say they haven’t made mistakes. Lord knows, I have made plenty. But I truly feel that we learn from each and every one of those mistakes. You make mistakes, you pull yourself up and you say I am not going to make that mistake again…it will be a different one. [Laughs]
God willing, I hope to continue to do this for some time to come. You need the right foot at the right step at the right time. If you do that, you’re probably going to have a good life.
Visit Turtle Creek Club Online at: www.theturtlecreekclub.com
Leslie Stone is an award-winning writer/editor with more than two decades of experience covering business, finance and lifestyle issues for newspapers, magazines and online publications. Originally from Virginia, she currently resides in the Orlando area.