Omar Asali: the road to yes
March 6, 2018
One of the most useful lessons Omar Asali (ACCT ’92) says he has learned in his 25-year career in finance and investing is that “the road to ‘yes’ is paved with a thousand ‘no’s.’”
“When you start appreciating the effort that it takes, you understand that you can’t give up early,” Asali says of deal making and goal reaching. “There are going to be setbacks, but you have to keep knocking on that door.”
But persistence alone, he says, is not enough: “make sure you have something to offer. It cannot just be what you want. Your chances for success are much higher when you come to the table with something compelling to offer.”
Asali has served in senior leadership roles at Goldman Sachs Hedge Fund Strategies, private hedge fund Harbinger Capital, and most recently, holding company HRG Group (Spectrum Brands, Fidelity and Guaranty Life), where he was president and CEO.
Last spring, he left HRG after six years there to focus on running his own, newly launched investment firm, One Madison Group.
Asali had originally set his sights on a career in public accounting. “After leaving school and doing the work for some time, I realized that that field was not necessarily for me.”
He moved to a boutique investment firm, “got a taste of investing, business building, deal making, and mergers and acquisitions, and that ended up being my calling.”
The human element
What particularly excites him about financial wheeling and dealing is the “human element,” he says.
“Whether you’re investing or negotiating a transaction, it’s about your counterpart and understanding their psychology, their motivations, their interests, what drives them. That behavioral aspect is very intriguing to me.”
Human relationships are more art than science, Asali says, and working in finance has given him plenty of practical schooling in the psychology of human behavior.
“Business building and deal making can be very dynamic. That fluidity and dynamism is very interesting to me. Every situation is different, and every situation requires a different tool kit.”
An accounting advantage
And though he abandoned accounting, it continues to serve as the nuts-and-bolts of his tool kit. “My accounting education is the foundation of my skills set and has ended up being a big asset.”
It has given him a competitive advantage in investing and deal making, says Asali, who also has an MBA from Columbia Business School. “Given my accounting background, I understand the numbers; I understand financial statements and the interplay between those and the fundamental drivers of the business.”
As his investing experience grew, Asali also adopted an investing style that favored owning businesses for the long term.
While helping to execute that long-term investing strategy at HRG, he was increasingly taken with the notion of doing that for an enterprise of his own. He made his move in April 2017.
“I have always worked for others,” he says, but it was the right time to use his experience, skills, and network of relationships to “pursue my vision and build something that is my own.”
Having worked for a large, global company like Goldman Sachs and a smaller firm like HRG, Asali says the appeal of entrepreneurship lay in its distinctive challenges and rewards.
“You don’t have the resources a big firm offers you, but you also have the full impact of your effort and its rewards.” The potential returns are not just financial, he says, but include the psychological fulfillment of having built something from the ground up.
Giving back to Pamplin
Also at this stage in his life, Asali would like to give back to Pamplin and Virginia Tech. He returned to campus last fall for the first time since graduating to give the Wells Fargo Distinguished Lecture. He enjoyed his visit greatly and plans not to make it his last. “I would like to have more interactions with students, help advise and guide those interested in a finance career.”
Though many things can contribute to career success, Asali thinks that passion may count the most. “If you are passionate and really interested in something, there’s a high likelihood that you are going to be putting in a bigger effort, you’re going to be working harder, and the outcome will take care of itself. Follow what truly intrigues you, and the rest will fall in place.”
Life in the U.S. 101
Originally from Jordan, Omar Asali came to America on his own at 17 to pursue a college degree. He had visited other countries, but it was his first time in the U.S.
“I remember walking downtown when I arrived in Blacksburg, and then thinking ‘where was the rest of the town?’” said Asali, who grew up in the capital city of Amman.
“My experience in Blacksburg was truly my introductory course to life in the United States,” he recalls.
The absence of a large international community in the area, he believes, turned out to be a blessing: it helped him gain an understanding of U.S. culture and adapt quickly to life at a big university and in a small town.
“It was not, ‘come here, and live with the international community’; it was, ‘come here and really learn the American system and American way of life.’”
- Founder, chairman, and CEO, One Madison Group LLC
- President and CEO, HRG
- Managing director and head of global strategy, Harbinger Capital
- Co-head, Goldman Sachs Hedge Fund Strategies; co-chair, investment committee
- Associate, Goldman Sachs (investment banking division)
- Controller, Capital Guidance (boutique private equity firm)