By Frances Schultz Dittmer
It is a bit unconventional, not to mention nepotistic, for me to be interviewing my husband, Tom Dittmer, about his book, Talkin’ Big–How an Iowa Farm Boy Beat the Odds to Found and Lead One of the World’s Largest Brokerage Firms.
But here we go.
Frances: Throughout your career you were famously press-shy, why tell your story now?
Tom: My wife bullied me.
I did not.
Okay maybe a little. But How about you how you wanted your children and grandchildren to know your stories?
Yes, we were going to print seven copies. One for each of the kids and grandkids, and one for us. And then you had bigger ideas, and now there is a publisher and a book tour and God knows what else, dear.
You’re making that face again.
But I have to say the fun part was looking back and remembering what a great time I had and how grateful I am. We don’t think about those things every day. And I think that’s probably a good exercise for everyone as they get older. It’s not all good memories of course, but it seems mostly good as I look at it now.
You wrote movingly about your childhood on the Iowa farm, about your mother, and in particular about a red cowboy suit.
My mother was about tough love, and because she was a single parent she wanted to know where I was 24/7. I had to clean the house every afternoon so she knew I was there, and then she would check it when she got home. I had to be home by 9 o’clock, because she said nothing good happens after 9 o’clock. I didn’t like it, but looking back, it was smart on her part.
And the red cowboy suit?
Marlin, my biological father, and my mother divorced about a year after I was born, and I didn’t see him much, like never. But one of the few times I did see him–I was 4 or 5 years old – and he promised me a red cowboy suit. Oh boy, I thought, and I asked my mother every day if it had come. I drove her crazy, until finally, one day it came. At the time I didn’t know it, but my mother had bought it, and we could barely afford rent, let alone a red cowboy suit. But she didn’t tell me it was she, not then anyway. That’s when I began to understand that when you tell someone that you are going to do something, you do it.
Profound challenges shaped your youth: a severe learning disability and a chronic speech impediment. You eventually overcame both, but how did you cope? Did they make you stronger?
True, I couldn’t read and I could barely talk. Was dyslexia even a word back then? And the stuttering, it’s frustrating. It’s there every day of your life, seven days a week, all the time that you’re awake. And therefore you try harder, which is one of the great things in life.
You try harder to…?
To communicate, to get along. Just to get along. But no I did not do well in school. I wasn’t bottom of the class, but I was second from the bottom, and I think that shaped me because I thought I had an inferior education so once again I needed to try harder. And I thought if I was willing to put in more time than everybody else, then I’d probably win in the end.
How did you decide being a salesman was the best thing to do? So many people want to be anything but.
It seemed more logical than opening a store and selling pumpkins and waiting for somebody to walk in and buy a pumpkin. In outside sales you could work seven days a week if you wanted, from 6 a.m. to midnight. With commodities, you weren’t selling a car, or a widget, you were selling an idea, and ideas change. Therefore you always have something new to sell. I thought it was fun to talk somebody into something.
I’ve noticed you still feel this way, ahem.
Before the commodities business and Refco, you had a pretty sweet gig in the Army, having been asked to join the ultra-elite Third Infantry, also known as The Old Guard, in Washington, D.C., which gave you keys to the Arlington Cemetery, among other things. You even appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show! And on top of that, you were also asked to be a White House social aide. You downplay all this in the book, like I’m not sure even you realized at the time how cool it was.
Well I did. Of the several companies in the 3rd Infantry, everybody wanted to get to Honor Guard Company. And then to be 1st platoon leader was as high as you could go as a lieutenant. With 1st platoon you are assigned the Kennedy gravesite, the Tomb of the Unknowns, and the U.S. Army Drill Team. Those were all my responsibilities, and that’s why it’s the best job.
And that’s why you were on The Ed Sullivan Show!
Yes the drill team performed. He was a sweetheart. Invited us to his apartment after the show, but we couldn’t go.
A couple of years later you walked onto a very different stage. Having been turned down by IBM and bitterly disappointed by that, your “Pop”, your stepfather Ray Friedman, helped you get a job as a runner on the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, with a salary of 82 bucks a week.
The first time I walked out there I knew it was where I belonged. The exchange doesn’t ask your age or your pedigree or where your family is from. If you’re right the market, they pay you; and if you’re wrong you lose. Pure and simple. And it was exciting! I mean you could stand there and literally feel the energy start to change. You didn’t know which way the market was going, but it was going and it would erupt! That happened three or four times a week. And in 1966, it was like the Wild West. The only rule book was the Commodity Exchange Act written by Herbert Hoover in the 1930s to control speculating in wartime. By the ‘60s people had figured out they could play fast and loose because there were so few regulations.
Including you and your pop?
Pop and I started Refco together in 1969. Commodities regulations changed substantially in the 1980s, but by then the commodities business had exploded, and Refco took off. We expanded from commodities into all sorts of other areas, and I got into the cattle feedlot business with Paul Engler. Eventually we had fourteen offices around the world and at one point were the biggest commodities clearing house in the world, second only to the exchanges themselves. And our cattle business was the biggest feedlot operation in the world.
Talkin’ big! Speaking of, you and your first wife Frannie gave some swell parties, and always with your dear friend and beloved Chicagoan Bruce Southworth.
I think the first was Independence Day in 1973. We had lions, tigers, snakes, circus performers, and the comedienne Elaine May who made fun of people and made us all laugh. Everyone wore red, white, and blue, and an elephant was walking around with a tray of champagne balanced on its trunk. The elephant could have used a little more practice.
And Bruce had such a good time doing parties and became so good at it, that with a little help from you, he eventually left his day at Sears and became party planner to the stars.
At Bruce’s funeral a few years ago, where there was standing room only, the priest said I can’t believe there are so many people here! Bruce gave parties for all of you and took so much of your money! That brought down the house.
Your children and some former employees also wrote chapters in the book. Were there surprises in what they wrote?
Well I didn’t know about my secretary hiding from me under her desk. Some of the things she mentioned like me banging on the ladies’ room door yelling for her–I do remember that–unfortunately.
In spite of that, people seem actually to like you, and you have known amazing people everywhere–John Denver, Milton Friedman, Henry Crown, Oprah, Castro–and you have seen potential in young people, including at least one very persistent student from the University of Chicago who became your protégé. What draws you to people?
Intelligence and passion. Meeting Freidman, Jerry Gould, Arthur Laffer and others is what kindled my interest in economics. It wasn’t until I met those guys that I knew how behind the curve I was in economics and policy, and I studied the books they told me to study.
You and I speak often about the importance of understanding economics and history when it comes to making policy, and how this is a failing of our leadership today in both parties. If you could wave a magic wand, what three books would you have every political and economic leader read and study today?
The Road to Serfdom by Friedrich Hayek, Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville, and Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom. Also American history is phenomenal. I’m not sure any other country in the world had the kind of founding fathers we had, and it’s important to know about that.
Speaking of history, you gave a historic tap dancing performance at the Gorton Center on the occasion of your 50th birthday. Were you nervous?
Scared to death.
Why don’t you tap anymore? You’re a really good dancer.
According to whom?
According to me! Dear.
If there were just one or two motivators in your life that have led you throughout, what would they be?
I was always motivated. What drives me, though, came mostly from my mother and the values and importance of character she instilled in me. Then when I was 18 and my mother married Pop, I’d see him sitting in his office at home, reading the ticker tape. I thought gosh this is good. He makes his own hours, he’s got no overhead, and he’s got leverage. He had taught me about leverage. So you do it yourself, and you talk to people. I thought that was great.
Through your philanthropy and leadership at Providence St. Mel, you changed lives. What endures in your memory from those days?
We have to put this in perspective. Paul Adams and Jeanette Butala are the leaders. They’re the ones that make the difference. When you give money, you’re just giving them time to pull it all together.
Okay you are being modest, because you didn’t just write a check and call it a day. You lead the board of trustees, and you were also directly involved with the students.
But that was selfish. Taking them down the Grand Canyon or kayaking on the Green River, you get to sit around the campfire at night and hear the kids talk about the day. I was tickled all the time. That wasn’t me doing good; that was me having fun.
Most of those kids had probably never been out of Chicago, let alone been on an airplane.
They’d say stuff like wow there is so much dirt here. And I’d say well some people say the city’s a pretty dirty place, too. And they’d say yeah but that’s a different kind of dirt. They cracked me up all the time.
You took them to the wilderness, and you also took them uptown, specifically to black tie dinners at the exclusive Economic Club of Chicago, to mingle with the highest echelons of the city’s leadership and wealth.
The Economic Club is a wonderful thing for the city of Chicago and especially for these kids. We rented them black tie, and taught them table manners, and how to introduce themselves and look people in the eye when they shook hands. They got to hear people like Alan Greenspan and Bill Clinton, and the kids’ expectations changed. In a sense it’s like travel, when they’d go to summer school at Andover, for example, or to study abroad.
A travel/study program you instituted at PSM by the way, that still exists today.
The students saw a different world. It was like me being in the White House. I mean I couldn’t believe I was there. I’d never experienced it before. Same thing for them.
And it’s not just “Look at the rich people and what they have,” but look at these people and the possibilities…
…to do whatever you want to do.
For all your perseverance and success, you’ve had your knocks. Your constant battles with the CFTC, the heartbreaking demise of Refco, your first wife Frannie’s sudden and tragic death.
Listen, for a kid who thought he would be lucky if ended up driving the Coke truck in Sioux City, I am blessed to be where I am now. I have a beautiful wife and family.
Why thank you, dear.
And a beautiful home in California with you. As for Frannie, we had 30 years of marriage and she was a wonderful partner and mother to our children Jason and Alexis. My mother always told me to marry someone smarter than I and who could take me where I wanted to go. Frannie did that. We had a great run and an amicable divorce. I loved her and I miss her every day.
I miss her too. I liked our being F-1 and F-2.
Your friendship was such a great thing for our family, except when you and F-1 would gang up on me…
Yeah, that was fun…You’re making that face again.
So are you happy with the way Talkin’ Big turned out?
All my friends say it’s better than Ambien.
Talkin’ Big is available anywhere books are sold. For personalized, signed copies, visit www.TomDittmer.com.
Frances Schultz is a career journalist and author, and the wife of Tom, in case you missed that. Her next book is California Cooking and Southern Style, out in summer 2019.
Frances portrait by Tiffany Evitts