Watch video interview with our founder, Pierre Lassonde.
The Lassonde Difference
Pierre Lassonde has come a long way since attending the University of Utah in 1971 to pursue an MBA degree while his late wife Claudette MacKay-Lassonde studied nuclear engineering. The Canadian native has since become a millionaire, one of the most famous gold investors in the world, and one of the biggest donors to the U and the David Eccles School of Business. As of spring 2014, he has donated $25 million to the U to create what is now called the Lassonde Entrepreneur Institute.
One of Lassonde’s secrets to success is an ability to create his own luck by bringing together preparation and opportunity. “Do your 10,000 hours to get that preparation, then get on as many roads as you can, get naked on the freeway, and opportunity will come,” Lassonde said, citing the book “Outliers” by Malcom Gladwell. “Be seen and be in the way of opportunity.”
Path to Success
Lassonde started building his fortune in 1983, when he launched the Franco-Nevada Mining Corporation. He and partner Seymour Schulich started out by focusing on mine exploration, but they quickly got the idea to buy mine royalties, a practice that was popular for oil and gas but unheard of for mining. The idea paid off big.
In 1985, Lassonde found a small advertisement in the Reno Gazette newspaper for a mine royalty. He pounced on the opportunity, and it became the best investment he has ever made. The $2 million investment, which wiped out their bank account, has already produced $800 million in revenue and is expected to make $1.2 billion in total profits – “talk about luck,” Lassonde said.
Franco-Nevada continued the same level of success for the following decades. “We grew the company at 36 percent compounded for 19 years in a row,” Lassonde said. “Even Warren Buffet doesn’t have a record of 36 percent per year compounded. It’s an incredible record.” The company is now worth about $6 billion, after Lassonde sold it in 2001 and bought it back a few years later.
As of fall 2013, Lassonde was still on the board of three companies in addition to his philanthropic efforts, which include donations to several universities and serving as the chairman of the Quebec National Art Museum. When he’s not working, Lassonde can be found traveling the world – he visited his hundredth country in 2014 – reading, skiing, playing golf, driving his Ferrari, or spending time with his second wife, Janelle Lassonde, and three children.
Lassonde said his wife describes him best: “I say I’m retired, she says I’m rewired. I say I’m a human being, she says I’m a human doing.”
Attending the U
Years ago, it wasn’t clear what Lassonde would make of his life. He was born in 1947 and grew up in the small French-speaking town of Saint-Hyacinthe, Quebec. His father was an entrepreneur, first selling Hoover vacuums and eventually expanding to nails, cutlery and plastics. So Lassonde got the spark for entrepreneurship at an early age, but he had no idea where it would take him.
After being rejected by architecture schools, Lassonde received a degree in electrical engineering from Ecole Polytechnique in Montréal in 1971. Then, after marrying his first wife, they decided to attend graduate school together. Lassonde explained how he was barely admitted to the U, while Claudette MacKay-Lassonde was easily accepted – “I don’t know what they did in the admissions office. They must have screwed up or something because they also accepted me.”
They enrolled at the U in 1971. They came to Salt Lake City with only enough money to last a few months and a big language barrier. “The first year was rough because neither of us spoke any English,” Lassonde said. “The very first class that I went to was business law, and it was taught by a Texan, and I sat there in class and I didn’t understand one word he said – not a word. He had the worst accent possible.”
With help from the U staff and faculty, Lassonde and his wife graduated – “the key degree that I have received in life is my MBA,” he said – and they moved to San Francisco to start their lives. He started his career by working at Bechtel, an engineering firm where his wife got a job before him. Lassonde first worked in their construction division and then the mining division. He then did his “10,000 hours” at Rio Algom, a mining company, before starting Franco-Nevada.
Building an Institute
After building Franco-Nevada into what it is today, Lassonde returned to the U in 2001 to show his gratitude and to honor Claudette MacKay-Lassonde, who had recently passed away. His support started with a $30,000 donation to create the Lassonde New Venture Development Center, which pairs faculty inventors with business, engineering and science students who write business plans for them. “When you don’t know what you are doing, do it small and do it short term, and that applies to anything in life,” Lassonde said.
When the center became more established, Lassonde increased his commitment to $13 million in 2006. Since then, what is now called the Lassonde Entrepreneur Institute has grown to reach more than 5,000 students every year. It has also helped the U become one of the leading institutions in the country for technology commercialization and a top-ranked school for entrepreneurship.
Lassonde increased his commitment again in 2014 by donating an additional $12 million – for $25 million total – to help the center to become an institute and build a new home for student entrepreneurs at the U. The building is called the Lassonde Studios. The $45 million, 160,000-square-foot facility will merge 412 unique residences with a 20,000-square-foot “garage” for student entrepreneurs. “It’s going to be the first of its kind in the United States, in the world, and it will truly distinguish the U in terms of entrepreneurship,” Lassonde said.
Lassonde’s vision for the Lassonde Entrepreneur Institute is to provide students with hands-on experiences that will define their educations and lives. Creating startup companies and driving economic development are important, but not as important as changing students’ lives and helping them achieve success. “It is all about the student experience,” Lassonde said. “It’s to give hands-on experience to become an entrepreneur.”
In other words, Lassonde has been successful by creating his own luck, and now he is helping students at the U do the same thing. Through the Lassonde Entrepreneur Institute, he is helping students be as prepared as they can be when they find the right opportunity – “that’s how you are going to be successful.”