'A kid from the streets of Pittsburgh' now buying the Panthers shares life lessons

'A kid from the streets of Pittsburgh' now buying the Panthers shares life lessons
(AP Photo/Mel Evans)

CHARLOTTE, NC (Katherine Peralta/The Charlotte Observer) - In his own words, it's been a hell of a week for David Tepper.

Last Tuesday, the hedge fund manager agreed to buy the Carolina Panthers for $2.275 billion, a record for an NFL franchise. On Sunday, the billionaire received an honorary doctorate degree and delivered the commencement address at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

But Tepper wasn't born with a silver spoon in his mouth. In a speech that was emotional at times, Tepper shared stories from his past and life lessons that he said helped pave his path to success.

A middle child, Tepper was raised in a working class neighborhood in Pittsburgh and played tackle football in the nearby cemetery as a kid. ("We tried not to hit the gravestones," he quipped.) His dad worked 60 hours a week to make ends meet. In high school, Tepper was a short-order cook at a deli, sold knives door to door and worked at a bakery.

"A kid from the streets of Pittsburgh who had to work his way through college at Pitt and grad school at CMU just got an honorary doctorate and is giving a commencement speech at this university," Tepper said in his speech, which he promised would be more honest than polite.

"A kid who couldn't afford to go to an NFL game until well into his 20s is on the verge of getting NFL's approval to buy the Carolina Panthers. Not too shabby."

Tepper, 60, said his greatest accomplishment hasn't been heading Appaloosa Management, his Miami-based hedge fund with an estimated $17 billion under management. It hasn't been his philanthropy, or his NFL ownership, either. Rather, it's being a better father to his three kids than his physically abusive father was to him.

"In my young life, there was nothing more terrifying. There was no greater adversity but I prayed to God I would never be the same to my children," Tepper said, fighting back tears. "And I'm proud to say that what I view as the greatest accomplishment of my life. I broke that cycle."

Tepper shared with the graduates a few lessons that have shaped his leadership style.

The first came in the form of a rhetorical question, with a subtle political jab.

"Who do you treat better: The president or the garbage man?" Tepper posited. "I'm talking generally, not relating to any specific president, by the way ... But the answer is you treat them both the same. Both men and woman deserve to be treated equally and with respect."

In discussing lessons from early on in his career, Tepper described a time at Goldman Sachs when he was on the path to partnership. He was asked by a partner to invest in a bankrupt company. It was a deal that Tepper feared would be ethically questionable.

It didn't seem right, Tepper said, so he refused. He wasn't fired, but he was passed up for partner. That's why he quit and started his own firm, Appaloosa, in 1993.

"In life, do what's right. Really. It won't hurt you. Just keep your priorities straight," Tepper said.

Tepper received his MBA from Carnegie Mellon in 1982 and has donated a total of about $125 million to the private research university since then. Carnegie Mellon's business school now bears Tepper's name, thanks to a $55 million gift from the billionaire in 2004.

This week in Atlanta, NFL owners are expected to vote on and approve Tepper as the new owner of the Panthers.

"I've had an incredible life, from humble beginnings. I've raised three great kids and have a woman I love. I've had a successful business career and incredible philanthropic endeavors. And now I am speaking to you as a newly named doctorate on the verge of being named an NFL owner," Tepper said.