March 8, 2012
WASHINGTON - Georgetown football Hall of Famer John Kuhns (C' 72) has shown that a creative mind and focus provides the ability to overcome any form of rejection to find fulfillment, a theme seen throughout the life of the successful investment banker and private equity investor. From early aspirations of playing professional football, to his college hopes of being an artist and sculptor, Kuhns has used his knack for creativity to find his niche in the business world.
While traveling many paths since his days captaining the Georgetown football squad, Kuhns found himself on Wall Street where he has worked in countless international markets. Though it has been his 25 plus years of experience in China has provided Kuhns the opportunity to explore his newest creative outlet as a writer, having his first novel, China Fortunes: A Tale of Business in the New World, published in January 2011.
"I was always thinking about some type of alternative creative outlet," Kuhns explained. "What happened was my business more and more started to center around China and people are fascinated by China. Wherever you are, whether it's dinner at a friend's house or a cocktail party, people want to hear stories about China. After a while, I decided it might be a good idea to write these stories down - about three years ago, I decided I would write a novel about a character loosely patterned after myself doing business in China."
The writing process took Kuhns close to two years to properly tell the story of 'Jack Davis', an American financier drawn to the promise of business in a foreign land and his financial and emotional roller-coaster ride in dealing with the failures and successes in his life. The editing and publishing process took another year, as he was rejected by nearly a half dozen publishing houses. While his writing style was accepted by nearly all, he received feedback ranging from, "this would be better if it was a non-fiction story," or "the manuscript is too long and should be two books," before ultimately being accepted by John Wiley and Sons, a large publishing house, coincidentally known more for their non-fiction selections.
"What my agent told me is getting a first novel published is akin to finding a needle in a haystack or winning the lottery," Kuhns said. "Publishers are very business-like people, especially when people buy fiction, they tend to go by the authors with a reputation like a John Grisham or Stephen King."
In John Wiley and Sons, Kuhns found a publisher who was willing to take a chance on the first time author.
"What I liked about Wiley was they basically changed very little," Kuhns said. "In other words they said, we really like this, we like your writing style and we like the story, betting that people would be interested in reading a novel for an English-reading audience about contemporary China. There aren't many of those."
... For Kuhns, the publishing of his first book last January was another triumph having overcome disappointment.
As a teen, Kuhns remembers only wanting to play professional football. A strong talent in high school, Kuhns originally accepted a scholarship offer to play at the University of Virginia. He was redshirted his freshman year, after the coach who had recruited him had been fired. Late in his freshman season he sustained an injury and could not shake the disappointment of the situation he had walked into.
Kuhn's Mother was the Dean at-then Mount Vernon College in Washington, D.C., and helped her son transfer close to home to Georgetown. John, who balked at going to college on the Hilltop due to what he perceived as a lack of football team out of high school, would begin classes at GU, while living at home. While it may not have seemed promising, Kuhn's football career was far from done.
"I started going to classes and one day, the head coach, a wonderful man by the name of (Maurice) Mush Dubofsky was waiting for me outside the classroom in the afternoon," Kuhns remembered. "He said to me, "Hey, somebody told me you played football at University of Virginia,?"
Kuhns replied, "that's right." While Kuhns, at the time, had all but given up on playing football again, Dubofsky began asking the young man questions, including "what are you doing with your life," before eventually asking Kuhns to come out for the team.
"So I went out for the team and it was just a lot of fun," Kuhns said. "The thing that made it fun, was we had some excellent players that were there simply because they wanted to play. Nobody was recruited...The best thing really was the coaches. Every single coach had played professional football. My linebackers coach Tommy Foliard, Scotty Glacken, etc."
Under the experienced coaching staff, Kuhns excelled being named a captain of the squad and two decades later being inducted in the Georgetown Athletic Hall of Fame. Again his dream of playing football professionally became a reality, as he earned tryouts with the Dallas Cowboys and Washington Redskins. Kuhns was cut from both squads and would have to rethink his life plans.
Meanwhile, a long-time Georgetown professor named Leonard Cave, had unbeknownst to Kuhns, submitted his art portfolio to University of Chicago. Kuhns learned of this when he was accepted to Chicago in the fine arts master's program.
Kuhns headed to Chicago, where he became an art student and a teaching assistant for undergraduates, while also working his way up to become the art and culture editor for The Maroon, the student newspaper at University of Chicago. It was his role at the paper where Kuhns story began to unfold.
"One day I was submitting a story," Kuhns remembers. "We had a five o'clock Friday deadline, and I'm setting my story into the press and there was an advertisement on the page to go to a Harvard MBA coffee hour. Later I called my mother and asked her, "Mom, what's a Harvard MBA?"
"My Mom explained to me, that the Harvard Business School was a place where you went to study business, so I decided I'd go listen to the guy the next day," Kuhns recalled. "One thing I did know was just like I wasn't going to make it with the Redskins, I wasn't ever going to be the next Picasso, so I was there thinking, "what am I going to do?"
As Kuhns tells the story, he arrived at the coffee hour in overalls straight from the studio where he was working as a stone carver. While other University of Chicago students talked to the speaker about their test scores and academic accolades, Kuhns got the attention of the recruiter based on his size and looking out of place in the crowd. After striking up a conversation with the recruiter, the two realized they shared a common bond, having both played football at their respective schools.
"He really encouraged me to apply and I got in as a `token poet'," Kuhns laughed. "Once I got in there I felt like I should be telling people that I wanted to learn business so I could manage a museum, but I figured I was going to get the same degree as everyone else, so I started thinking about what I really wanted to do, and once I graduated I went to Wall Street and never looked back."
Kuhns started at Salomon Brothers in the mid-1970's, the beginning of a lucrative, fulfilling career where his inventiveness has helped develop business ventures around the world. In 1984, Kuhns founded Catalyst Energy Corporation, becoming the first American to acquire commercial hydroelectric generating equipment from China, while helping it to become the fastest growing public company in the U.S. from 1982-1987. Along the way Kuhns has closed IPO's for five companies including some of the world's leading alternative energy businesses.
"People that I went to school with that were in business used to say, "A degree in art? What are you going to do with that?" Kuhns said. "Now that I'm a venture capitalist and a private equity investor, I can tell you that being a somewhat innovative and creative person has its pluses in business, just like someone who knows how to put together a financial model."
Though the main advice Kuhns gives is for today's college students to take advantage of their youth.
"I would urge people to enjoy being young and to not worry so much about having some kind of a programmed life," Kuhns said. "Number one, you're never going to be young again - Try some things out, because people do best at things they're good at. You have to find out what you're good at, you can't just decide I'm going to be this. You might be good moreover at something that may seem less lucrative."