The Cup: Iced something or another for Peter, which he was already drinking when I got there. I had a cup of French press coffee, black.
Background: 25th Cup, Cooper Veazey, excitedly told me about Peter, explaining he’d earned the title of “Most Connected Man in America” somewhere along the way. Cooper met Peter fairly recently and was eager to connect the two of us. The excitement Cooper felt was contagious and I immediately looked forward to meeting Mr. Strople.
I got my chance when he invited me to attend a Saturday meeting at the local Panera restaurant. I showed up and was met with an enthusiastic welcome from the dozen or so people sitting and visiting. Peter stood up and told the group, “You are all in for a treat. This is Melissa and she is amazing! Melissa, tell them about your project.”
Wow, with that introduction, I didn’t quite know how to begin. Amazing? Uh, hardly. If you asked my mom, dad or husband – sure, they’d say I’m pretty amazing. But this man had a 10 minute phone call with me to set up our meeting and then spent a little time reading my blog. I doubted there was any way he actually thought I was amazing. Interesting, maybe. Peculiar, most definitely. But amazing? No way, dude!
So there I stood, all eyes on me, ready to hear something incredible shoot out of my amazing mouth. Silence. I had nothing for them. I bought some time with, “Well…”, as I tried to figure out a way to make my story just a little more interesting. Maybe tell them about the time I took a nine month sabbatical to sail around the world and had the experience cut short when I met with a band of pirates who held me for 2 months until I eventually convinced them to let me go. Or I could talk about the non-profit I started in Costa Rica where American high school seniors come and spend 60 days of service – teaching orphans, building schools and helping preserve the native rain forrest. No, I should tell them about that crazy time I rescued three baby penguins from a lion off the coast of Antigua. Unfortunately, as amazing as each of those stories are, none are true. The only thing worse than not being as amazing as someone says you are, is being a liar.
I finally just blurted out the project details. “I started a blog when I moved to Austin eight months ago. I have a cup of coffee every week with a complete stranger and then I write about it. Peter is my next “stranger” and I’m here to interview him.” Ta da! I looked the group over before I sat down and hoped they saw, in my eyes, the message I was trying to telepathically convey. “I know, not really that amazing. I’m sorry. But if you recall, it was Peter that used the adjective, not me.” And then I sat.
People welcomed me and uttered things like, “Oh, that’s cool!” and then went about the conversations they were having with one another when I walked up. The man sitting closest to me asked a few questions about the project and eventually, I was able to turn the spotlight off of myself and began getting to know some of the folks around me. The group was very diverse. In age, profession, backgrounds, etc. What they all shared, was a friendship with Peter. In fact, I later learned this Saturday meeting has a name and soon, a book with the same title will be available, Friends of Peter.
I’d have to wait a few days for time one on one with this mysterious man. I stayed for over two hours as more and more people showed up. By the time I left I think there must have been close to 30 there. Peter and I agreed to meet for coffee in two days and that’s where I’d learn the story of how this all came to be. But first, a few interesting tidbits.
- How did you make your first buck? Washing dishes in a nursing home.
- What is your guilty pleasure? Sleeping.
- What was your best vacation? Our Hawaiian honeymoon with my wife Kelly.
- What is the last thing you fixed? Nothing. I can’t fix anything, so I pick up the phone.
- What was your favorite TV show as a kid? The Ed Sullivan Show
- What is your three song playlist? 1) If – Bread, 2) Rainy Day and Mondays – The Carpenters, 3) I Am…I Said – Neil Diamond
- What is the last book you read? I don’t really read. But I listened to Tony Dungy’s book (Quiet Strength) recently and like it.
- What will you regret not doing if you don’t do it? Saying thank you for being in my life. (Which is something he makes sure to do in every interaction after nearly dying of a massive heart attack in 2003.)
Peter and his twin sister were born in Canada to a mother from Hungary who was not ready to be a mother. She gave Peter and his sister up, and at 3 1/2 they were adopted. Peter’s adoptive mother died when the twins were 6 and when his father remarried, their previously difficult lives were made miserable. One story Peter shares with me from his childhood is of how he had to protect his sister. Their bedrooms were next to each other and their beds were against the common wall. If his sister knocked three times, it meant I love you. If she knocked twice, it meant she had to use the bathroom. If their stepmother caught them out of bed in the night, that was cause for a beating. So when the knock, knock came, Peter would get up, walk to his sister’s door and she’d walk out behind him. Slowly they crept down the hall, holding their breath, careful to avoid squeaky boards. If they made it, he’d wait as his sister used the bathroom (no flushing) and then followed her back to her room to make sure she made it back ok. He’d wake the next morning, before everyone else, to flush the toilet. Some nights they weren’t successful, which is why Peter was there. He’d take the beating so his sister could scurry back to her room and avoid punishment.
My heart breaks a little at Peter’s telling of this story. I think how lucky his sister is to have a brother who loved her so much and who looked out for her. As Peter’s story unfolds, I learn that his sister’s life has gone in a much different direction than his own and a key differentiator, which Peter has identified, is the basis for everything Peter’s does today, including the Friends of Peter movement. More on that in a bit.
Peter barely finished high school. He played hockey and was often helped and taken in by the parents of his friends. In fact, if it weren’t for hockey, Peter thinks his life would have wound up much different. Peter had dreams of playing professionally, but when a skate nearly went entirely through his thumb, his hockey dreams were forced in a different direction.
Peter went from player to scout. He scouted for a junior hockey league in Calgary and eventually for the NHL team, the New Jersey Devils. It was in this experience that he was able to learn the business side of hockey. It was also during this time that he travelled extensively and met some of the legends of hockey – the men who were his idols growing up. People would ask him to get an autographed photo of Wayne Gretsky – “Sure, no problem.” He’d travel to a new city where he was scouting and invite a friend along for the game. They’d see famous guys walking through the press box where they sat, watching the game and their mouths would drop. This was old hat for Peter, but for his friends, it was a once in a lifetime moment. Or as Peter calls them, “can’t-buy moments”. Peter learned the thing that made him the most happy, was creating these moments for people he cared about.
One of those people called one day to ask Peter to join him as an intern for the summer. This friend was an executive at IBM and thought that between the connections Peter had through his dad’s time as an oil executive, and the time Peter spent as a scout, he might be able to open a few doors. And open doors he did. Some of the doors he opened were for himself. His time at IBM opened a door for him at GRiD and when they sold that company, a door opened up for him at Dell, in Austin.
Peter and I didn’t get into any specific financial discussions. But he was there in the mid-90s and based on that knowledge alone, a person could draw some fairly safe assumptions about how an executive was compensated then and in the years ahead with stock options and so forth.
What Peter does share about that time in his life is what he learned about people and business, through observation. Particularly, some lessons on what not to do. He saw, firsthand, the destructive power of money. “I saw a lot of ego. I saw people change before my eyes. Every time the stock split, people became millionaires. And they changed.” Marriages fell apart, families were destroyed and Peter had had enough. He left in 1996 when he was recruited to run a Canadian company. After being being let go a few months in, Peter decided it was time to take the lessons he’d learned in business over the years and use his ideas and connections to help other businesses.
Among myriad other projects, the business of helping businesses is something he continues to do today. His specialty is businesses in crisis, and he tells me that if I knew his list of clients, I would be shocked. Part of what they pay for when Peter is referred in to them is his discretion, and this trust is a critical piece to his business model. So if you were hoping, like I secretly was, for some juicy, surprising nugget about someone famous, I’m sorry to say, you won’t find it here. Really, I’m happy he maintains this high level of integrity. We’ve got TMZ, Twitter and Oprah for shocking, celebrity revelations. That’s plenty.
So how does Peter help the businesses and people he meets? He is quick to tell me that he is never the smartest person in the room, and he knows this. What he’s good at, is listening to the problem, finding the truth in all of it, cutting to the chase and then figuring out who, in his vast network of people, is the best person to seek advice from. He makes the introduction and from there, things get moving again.
Peter talks about investors and how people think that writing a check is going to fix something. It won’t. Peter says, “Money doesn’t solve the issues. It only prolongs them. If you really want to help someone, you need to go beyond just writing a check and you need to be willing to open your Rolodex and start making phone calls and introductions. You can really make a difference for someone with your relationships.”
Relationships are the key. This is the lesson that Peter learned as a young boy. And he believes it is the difference between where his life went and where his sister’s has gone. Peter says, “Wherever I was, I always had a friend who took me in and said, ‘here’s the way’, and that has been the difference for me.”
Peter’s twin sister lives in a run-down trailer. She wears on her face the abuse she’s endured at the hands of many, over the years. Through drug use and physical abuse, she’s lost most of her teeth and though there’s not much, these days, for her to smile about, she tries to avoid doing so because she’s ashamed. Peter showed me a picture of her on his phone, and I saw her crooked, embarrassed smile and a familiar light in her eyes. He tells me that he’s determined this year to get her teeth fixed. I can tell this is probably the person he’d most like to “fix”, and maybe the most difficult.
Peter is a seriously connected guy. But he’s also a man on a mission. A mission to help people in any way he can. He looks for any chance to make a connection for someone that will make a difference. Peter sees the best in people and he believes that everyone is amazing.
You see, that’s what I didn’t understand when I stood in Panera, in front of the Friends of Peter, last Saturday morning. I believed “amazing” was an adjective that you had to earn. To Peter, it’s how you were born. And he can’t wait to meet you and introduce you to his friends.