Journey to the East
Businessman John Kuhns turned his winding career path into a novel.
John Kuhns, MFA’75, who studied sculpture at UChicago, has had long, parallel careers in investment banking and energy. He is chair and CEO of three companies: China Hydroelectric Corporation, investment bank Kuhns Brothers, and the private-equity organization China Hand Fund.
In 1984, Kuhns was the first American to gamble on purchasing hydroelectric generating equipment from China. The purchase powered his company, Catalyst Energy, to its successful IPO and listing on the New York Stock Exchange.
The highs of Kuhns’s career have been matched with lows, which he recounts in the semiautobiographical novel China Fortunes: A Tale of Business in the New World (John Wiley and Sons, 2011). At one point, Kuhns’s alter ego, Jack Davis, finds himself in the grocery store with maxed-out credit cards and no cash, unable to buy food for his wife and family.
In a recent interview, adapted below, Kuhns, whose second novel “South of the Clouds” is forthcoming, discussed his real and fictional lives.
In college, I was absolutely sure I was going to play football in the NFL. I played for Georgetown, where I graduated with a degree in fine arts and sociology. I had tryouts with the Cowboys and the Redskins and I wasn’t good enough. I was extremely disappointed, as you can imagine.
At the U of C I studied sculpture with Virginio Ferrari, who was artist in residence. The University had piles of unused Indiana limestone—just stacks of it, right outside of Taft Studios. They had built the buildings and had a bunch left over. So we were able to just use that.
I was also Virginio’s graduate teaching assistant. I taught undergrads drawing and sculpture, and I worked for him in the summers. But I didn’t really imagine a career as an artist. Other than playing professional football, I hadn’t thought about a career at all.
I was the arts and culture critic for the Maroon. One Friday afternoon I was looking at the galleys and this little two-inch ad caught my eye: “Harvard MBA?” For some reason I was intrigued. The next day, I went to the admissions event, still in my overalls from the studio. I applied and got in.
I’ve been an entrepreneur all my life. At 12, my twin brother and I had 50 to 75 lawns at $2 a pop. We installed tennis courts and so forth. My senior year of college, I managed a restaurant while going to school and playing football. So I had some basic business knowledge. I knew sales were important.
When I first got to Harvard, I was thinking I might run an art gallery or something like that. Then one day it dawned on me: my diploma is the same one everyone else is getting. I didn’t have to make sense of the fact that I got here. And I found myself drawn to Wall Street.
When I decided to write my first novel, I had a regime. I would sit down at 7 a.m. and would not answer the phone or have any appointments until 10. That way I could do 1,000 words a day, like Jack London says. It took me two years to write it.
Everything in the book is true, except for the girlfriends. The women are actual characters, but Wiley [his publisher] and my agents said it didn’t have enough sizzle. So the girlfriend part is apocryphal. Luckily, I had the first manuscript to show my wife the evidence.
Somebody with a humanities or liberal arts background is going to do a lot better in business than somebody who doesn’t have it, especially these days. I read recently that the average person has seven jobs in three different industries during their career. The idea that you would get out of school with a practical education and have a job for life is gone with the wind.
Love or money
Pursue a career in something that you’re good at, and never make a career decision based on the money. So many artists teach, but don’t become a teacher if you don’t like teaching. If you do something you’re good at, the money will come.