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How I Made It: Walter L. Schindler, clean-tech investment manager

The managing partner and founder of Sail Venture Partners in Costa Mesa says he always expects to succeed and has 'a knack for being in the right place at the right time.'

December 05, 2010|By Tiffany Hsu, Los Angeles Times

The gig: Walter L. Schindler is a managing partner and founder of Sail Venture Partners, one of the nation's leading clean-tech investment firms, with headquarters in Costa Mesa and branches in New York and Washington. Clients include clean-power company FlexEnergy and water purification firm WaterHealth International Inc., both of Irvine.

Personal: Schindler, 59, has a 22-year-old daughter and lives in Newport Coast with his second wife. An avid art collector, he has also published a book of poetry and a volume about the English poet John Milton.

Close-knit childhood: A New Orleans native, Schindler said he grew up in an extremely close-knit family. His mother walked him the three blocks to his Catholic school every day until fifth grade. Then his father began driving him to his altar boy duties, where he became fluent in Latin while learning the Mass. Schindler's father was an accountant and a World War II veteran; his mother worked for the Organized Crime Strike Force division of the IRS.

Super student: He was recruited to the first coed class at Yale University. He spent a year in Italy on a Fulbright Scholarship, then returned to Yale to earn a doctorate in English in two years. At Harvard Law School, Watergate prosecutor Archibald Cox was his mentor. "The best investments I've ever made are in myself," Schindler said. "Every time I've bet on myself, I've won."

One for the ladies: From 1996 to 1999, he was managing partner at law firm Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher's Orange County branch. At a time when most firms were avoiding hiring stay-at-home mothers, Schindler employed more than 20 as lawyers. The women, he said, were eager to prove themselves while working from home, which also helped the office cut back on rent expenses. The branch's profit rose by $26 million during his tenure, he said.

New direction: In 1999, after his parents and younger brother died of degenerative diseases all within three years, Schindler left behind his law career and divorced his wife. Looking for "something new and potentially world-changing," Schindler launched Sail in 2001. He originally called it Odyssey but switched the name when not enough people understood the Homeric reference.

Cliffhangers: At first, capital was difficult to obtain. The firm once had 30 days to find $4 million or risk losing a key deal. Schindler forced one of the partners to visit his family's financial planner in Beverly Hills who had Hollywood connections, and the firm landed a group of movie stars as investors on the last day. But Schindler said he anticipated success from the get-go. "When I set my mind to doing something, the thought doesn't occur to me that I'm going to fail," he said.

Strokes of luck: Schindler, whom friends call Mr. Serendipity, says he has "a knack for being in the right place at the right time." He once flew back to New Orleans to celebrate his birthday and ran into a fire department official who later helped him land a big pension-fund account. He landed another account after wearing a tie that — unknown to him at the time — was designed by the future client's sister. He attributes his luck to karma that comes with treating people well in an industry where most players are plotting how best to take advantage of the situation. "Normally what I do is listen," he said. "For people to invest money with you, they have to feel you really understand what they value and that you care."

Advice: Pay attention to clients' needs. Schindler said many venture capital firms are so focused on making money that they don't take the time to actually know their clients and their projects. "So many people are afflicted with ADD today that it interferes with investment," he said. "We shouldn't think about whether the deal is sexy, because sometimes it's better if it's not."

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