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Influencers with Andy Serwer: Thomas Tull

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In this episode of Influencers, Andy is joined by Tulco Chairman & CEO, Thomas Tull, as they discuss his experience in the movie business, his ownership stake in the Pittsburgh Steelers, and the one piece of advice that Warren Buffett once shared about investing.

Video Transcript

ANDY SERWER: How does one go from running a chain of laundromats to becoming one of the top producers in Hollywood? Just ask Thomas Tull, founder of Legendary Entertainment and financier behind many of the biggest blockbusters of the last two decades. After a long string of big budget successes like "The Dark Knight" and "Jurassic World," Tull chose to walk away from the bright lights in search of his next venture.

Now he's got his eyes on the future, using his deep pockets and vast network to invest in areas like next-gen technology and artificial intelligence. In this episode of "Influencers," I speak with Thomas Tull, founder and CEO of Tulco, as we discuss his experience in the movie business, his ownership stake in the Pittsburgh Steelers, and the one piece of advice that Warren Buffett once shared about investing.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Hello, everyone, and welcome to "Influencers." I'm Andy Serwer, and welcome to our guest, Thomas Tull, who is the founder and CEO of holding company Tulco and a member of the ownership group of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Thomas, great to see you.

THOMAS TULL: You too, Andy. Nice to be here.

ANDY SERWER: So why don't we start off by telling us what Tulco is all about.

THOMAS TULL: Well, it's a holding company structure. And the idea was to find companies that are in spaces that are large but traditionally have not had a lot of technical innovation. And then inside the holding company, we had a group, the tech group that we call Labs, and be able to bring that group's wherewithal and skill sets into these companies to not only provide the capital but the expertise to hopefully transform the businesses to make them much more efficient.

ANDY SERWER: You've had this incredible career arc. You went from laundromats, to taxes, to Legendary Entertainment, and now this. And we're going to get in all that stuff, but what's sort of the common thread here, Thomas?

THOMAS TULL: Extreme luck, I guess. But, you know, part of it I think is I'm not-- I wouldn't be good at sort of inventing a new thing that never existed before. If I have any skills, I think it's to look at a company, a sector, an ecosystem, and maybe to be able to find ways to make it more efficient hopefully to have some level of pattern recognition to say, well, these are some methodologies or financial, technical, et cetera, that may work to make this more valuable, and then to do your homework and then go into the space and hopefully to come out successfully.

ANDY SERWER: Let's drill down into Tulco a little bit more. What are the companies that you've been looking at, investing in, and what are the areas that you think are most productive for you guys to venture into?

THOMAS TULL: Well, we're in a number of sectors. We're in insurance with Acrisure. They're one of the largest brokers in the world, and the idea was to use our artificial intelligence algorithms that we've developed over the past couple of years and to apply that to their entire platform. So we're very excited about that. It's obviously a large sector and something that we think has some room to grow in terms of the way we look at it and what the broker of the future is going to look like.

We are in a company called FIGS, which is a health care workwear company run by two brilliant women who've done an amazing job of growing that company. And, obviously, over this past year, I think all of us have taken a moment to think about how incredibly important the healthcare sector is and the workers that are on the front line each and every day. So that's a company we're really proud of.

We're an investor in a company called RoadRunner, which is in the waste management business and recycling that uses a very interesting business model. We're in the security business with Edgeworth who uses artificial intelligence to do anomaly detection through camera systems, and a few others. So, it's diverse, but it's worked well for us.

ANDY SERWER: Is it kind of like Berkshire Hathaway?

THOMAS TULL: Oh my goodness. Well, you just named-- I mean, in structure, and Marty Willhite, who's the vice chairman who was formerly at Munger Tolles and worked with that group, certainly, I would never put anything in the same paragraph with Mr. Munger and Mr. Buffett. But just to me, what I like about it is it's not a fund. It's permanent capital. It allows us maximum flexibility on what to do with the companies, make sure they have the capital that they need, certainly providing, hopefully, some business acumen and then the tech side, but it just allows us a lot of flexibility.

We don't have pressures on vintage year funds or anything like that and let them grow at the pace they need to grow at.

ANDY SERWER: Yeah, right. So I can see that it's not private equity, per se, or venture or anything like that. You have permanent capital. I get it. Have you talked to Warren or Charlie about a business at all ever, Thomas?

THOMAS TULL: Yeah. I had the privilege of sitting with Warren for almost two hours in his office in Omaha, which was beyond a privilege. It's something I'll treasure for the rest of my life, and there was a moment-- I don't think he'd mind me sharing this-- where I was describing and talking through the business model and how I thought about something. And I said, what we're trying to do is to be smart about, and he stopped me. And he goes, I got to be honest, for years Charlie and I have always asked, what's the dumb thing we could do here?

And I kind of laughed. And he said, no. I'm dead serious. We always ask. We don't want to be in the clever pile. What could we do here that would be the dumb thing, and how do we avoid it? Honestly, it actually has had a fair amount of impact on the way that I assess and think about situations, and, you know, he's incredibly sharp, and it's something, again, that time I'll treasure forever.

ANDY SERWER: That is a great nugget. I love that, just to avoid the dumb thing is more important than finding this absolute incredibly smart thing, right?

THOMAS TULL: Yeah. Absolutely.

ANDY SERWER: So getting back to your insurance operation for a minute, Thomas, I notice that Russell Wilson and his wife, Sierra, have joined in that endeavor somehow, correct?

THOMAS TULL: Yeah. It's a joint venture with Acrisure on a separate company. It's part of the Acrisure universe, and they're wonderful people. I've been friends with them socially for years, and just absolute stand up people. And I think making sure that this company not only is profitable but is targeted in a way that allows folks to be included in everything that we want to do. And Russell and Sierra great ambassadors for that, and I think it's very important.

ANDY SERWER: Talk to us a little bit about AI. You mentioned how important that is. This is an expertise that's core to your business, and how important do you think this is to the economy going forward?

THOMAS TULL: Well, I think every corner of our economy over the next decade is going to be touched by artificial intelligence and machine learning. And I think that, done well, it's the human machine interface that makes us more efficient, more thoughtful, and allows us to be not wasteful and, again, to find patterns and find ways that we can be smarter about the way that we approach things, or less dumb if you want to use Warren's axiom.

And so I think that if you're applying it in ways that make sense-- because I think there's a lot of, certainly, in talk about big data and how you use big data. That's great, but it has to be actionable. It has to be measurable, and you have to be able to point to it and say, look, we applied artificial intelligence. We applied data science, and here are the results that we got. It's not magic.

It's just, I think, at the confluence of what situations are appropriate and right to apply it. What can be automated? And then from a jobs perspective, how do we make people free up their time, and how do we do things better, and what other jobs can that open up in the economy?

ANDY SERWER: You've gone from sort of these high profile business in Legendary into sort of more of a nuts and bolts part of the economy. Do you miss the glam of Hollywood?

THOMAS TULL: I don't. Look, it was a wonderful experience. I met some amazing people. I enjoyed the storytelling aspect, and now I'm enjoying the chapter I'm in now. So, again, it was a privilege to be a part of and something that I'm proud of, but I am really enjoying what I'm doing right now.

ANDY SERWER: When you think about these businesses that you're in right now, Thomas, do you talk about or think about how they compete with what's going on with similar kinds of businesses in China, and what do you think the United States' policy should be with regard to China?

THOMAS TULL: Well, that's a very big question. I think that it's important to recognize where we can have common ground, and I think it's also important to recognize where I think we have to take a tough stance on what's fair. And I think the time has certainly come on intellectual property and on technology and practices that don't put us on equal footing to really kind of demand that we reach an accord in agreement.

And I'm hopeful that that can happen because I think it's obviously in everybody's best interest, but when you're talking about being competitive globally, I think it's naive and Pollyanna to not think about the ways in which, if you're competing with Chinese companies, they do have some distinct advantages. And so I think you have to take that into account and just recognize that that's the way it is. Like, you can try to wish it away, but that that's not going to help very much.

ANDY SERWER: I mean, you were owned by-- when you were at Legendary, you were owned by a Chinese company, Wanda, in the later history of Legendary. What was that like?

THOMAS TULL: Well, after we sold the company to them, I was there for a short amount of time to sort of transition it over. And look, you know, they had plans and goals, and they also owned AMC. So there was some thought process that went into that, definitely different but, you know, they were a big-- are a big company and certainly had theme parks and theaters and things of that nature. So it was definitely a different pivot, but I was only there for a short amount of time after the transaction.

ANDY SERWER: Talk to us, though, about building Legendary Entertainment because, boy, that's a pretty unusual thing because most of the studios, obviously, are decades and decades old. So to build a new company from scratch must be an incredible accomplishment or feel like an incredible accomplishment for you.

THOMAS TULL: Well, I think that when I first went out to raise capital and put it together, I think that there were a lot of folks that I met with that thought it was straight up crazy. I had zero experience in movies and television in that arena, and my thought process was at the time it was a $30 billion industry, give or take. Just the film side it was, I believe, the country's second biggest export. And yet, there was no institutional capital around the business, which was highly unusual for a business of that size.

There were a lot of-- you know, they do German tax funds and sort of these unusual structures. And so I thought if I could build a company that was adjacent to that ecosystem, use their global distribution that, after studying the financials, there was a way through if you made great content. I was very fortunate to have partnered with Warner Brothers. They were great to me. Alan Horn, who was running at the time and is now at Disney, was an incredible mentor and still a dear friend.

And, you know, sometimes you just get lucky. We met a young director named Chris Nolan who turned out was pretty darn good. And, you know, but it was definitely different in terms of business and understanding how things worked and why they worked and et cetera. But, you know, it was definitely an interesting journey.

ANDY SERWER: I have to ask you about Christopher Nolan. I mean, he really is some kind of genius. What was it like to work with him?

THOMAS TULL: You know, I was used to saying I wasn't joking. I'd just say, can we get your catering order right? Like, how do we-- you know, film is a collaborative process. And, you know, you make a movie or you're about to make a movie, and the studio gives their notes. The producer gives their notes. We certainly give our notes. And with Chris, I'm not kidding, we would just say, thank you so much. We're very glad that we're financing your movie, and we'll see you at the premiere. I mean, he really, I think, is one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, and it was evident very early. "Batman Begins" was our first movie, and he's just incredibly talented and continues to go on and make amazing things.

ANDY SERWER: Have you thought about the business much since. I mean, you look, the business has gotten completely turned upside down with COVID, and maybe there's some inefficiencies ripe for innovation.

THOMAS TULL: You know, so a couple of things. I think COVID has impacted all of us in so many ways. I think it's accelerated what was already happening. You know, one of the reasons that I thought it was the right time, at least for me, to exit the business is when you look at the theatrical exhibition business, and you look at the way making a movie, putting it out, getting your theatrical run, then getting paid in secondary windows and so forth, all of a sudden when you have the streaming services whose multiples and market caps are completely different, right-- they're based on completely different metrics than a media companies-- is able with almost unlimited resources to make movies.

And I would hear some people in the business say, yeah, but the biggest, most talented actors and directors aren't going to go work for-- oh, I guess they did, right? Because the size and scope of some of the things that are being made is jaw dropping. I mean, you look at "Game of Thrones", or you look at some of the big series that Netflix is doing or Amazon, they're compelling, right?

They're big cinematic experiences. Now, as someone that, as a fan, loves movies, there are certain films going and sitting in a cinema in that sort of venue and scope, I think, is important. I loved doing that growing up, and I don't pretend to know exactly what's going to happen, but I think people are also getting so used to watching, listening, experiencing things on demand when they want to watch and experience them that things by appointment are harder and harder to pull off because it's a fundamentally different experience.

ANDY SERWER: Yeah. And of course, the home entertainment gets better and better and better, and movie theaters didn't really keep pace. I mean, there is IMAX and some of them try to have better seats and stuff. But on the whole, the advances in your living room accelerated much faster than the advances in the movie theaters.

THOMAS TULL: Yeah, and it's tough. Look, when you talk about completely changing, you know, thousands of venues, right, what that coordination, what that bill, what that looks like, it was tough on them. So I have every sympathy for theater owners and especially now in what they're going through. I just think that change is inevitable, and we're just seeing the acceleration of that change through this period of time.

ANDY SERWER: You made blockbusters like "Godzilla" and "Jurassic World." Are blockbusters a thing of the past?

THOMAS TULL: I don't think so. I mean, look. The thing that to me is compelling and amazing is used to be something was a two-ish hour movie or a 13 series-- 13 episode series on television and some small variations. Now you can do almost anything. The duration of the story is not contained within one of those boxes, but no. I think there is still something special about collectively going and seeing something that is bigger than imagination, and sort of everyone in the world is buzzing and talking about it.

I was always in awe when we would put something out that would capture the imagination for a moment. It was kind of surreal. So I hope that that doesn't happen. I mean, you have filmmakers like, besides Chris Nolan, you have Jim Cameron, Steven Spielberg, all these incredible storytellers. And I think at the heart of this that it's part of our cultural fabric, and we're going to continue to see great storytellers come to the forefront. It's just, I think, going to be viewed and experienced slightly differently.

ANDY SERWER: Let me switch over and ask you about football a little bit, Thomas. How would you assess the recently completed NFL season? One for the ages, no doubt.

THOMAS TULL: I think the league actually did a phenomenal job. If you stop and think about every game was played under less than ideal circumstances, and we had playoffs. We had a Super Bowl. I thought it was a powerful moment when those 7,500 front line health care workers were at the Super Bowl. I thought that was incredibly powerful. You know, the crazy thing about this period of time, and you think about what teachers are going through, you know? Certainly health care workers, normal people trying to figure out and navigate their way through this.

There's no playbook for any of this. So, you know, on one hand, you want to constantly be thinking about what is best, and you have to put the players and the fans and everybody's personal safety must be the guiding light. And at the same time, so many fans, I mean, just personally and then for the league saying, please. Don't take away-- you know, football is important, and that sort of escapism certainly nowhere near as important-- I don't want to be mistaken for saying that football is something that had to go on, but just to provide some level of entertainment and normalcy I thought was important.

And I think the league did a really nice job getting through this, certainly we'll remember it forever, and I really hope we don't have to do it again, and we can return to some level of normalcy. But, you know, I'm glad that we played. Obviously, the end didn't turn out too well for our team, but just to see the games played and see it through I thought was an accomplishment.

ANDY SERWER: Let me pick up on that one point you just made there about next season, though. What do you think the chances are of it being a normal season next fall?

THOMAS TULL: Well, depending on what normal's definition is. Do I think there will be fans? Is it going to be full? I have no idea, but do I think fans will regularly attend? I'm personally optimistic, right? Do I think that perhaps checkpoints and masks might be a part of that equation somewhere? That's not hard to envision. Do I think testing is going to be a part of it, player safety, all those things? Certainly, I do.

I'm rooting for our entire country on the vaccine front to try to get things distributed as quickly as we can, especially to people that need it the most. And, you know, hopefully we can all get back to living. And I think about everything from small business owners who, you know, are trying to make it to the other side of this, which is really the backbone of this country. And, you know, on the other hand, I think what some of the scientists have pulled off in terms of these vaccines, I really think we're going to look back in time and realize what a monumental achievement it is.

I mean, I'm not fluent in biomed, but friends that are that are into deep research who just said, you have no idea what an accomplishment it is at this speed and velocity to pull this off. And so hopefully that gets rolled out, and we can move ahead.

ANDY SERWER: And what about the Steelers, Thomas? How are they looking for next year in your quarterback situation?

THOMAS TULL: Well, look. It's all complicated certainly by the fact we just found out what the cap number is going to be. You know, Ben has been-- he's somebody I'm close to, but he's also one of the greatest Steelers of all time. He's won a couple of Super Bowls, and hopefully everything can be worked out. But at the same time, I think that just this whole year just had a lot of uniqueness to it, but I'm hopeful that it can work out.

He certainly is going to go down on the Mount Rushmore of Steeler players, and so I know that they're talking-- Mr. Rooney, our principal owner, and Kevin Colbert and Coach Tomlin and, you know, they always do a good job. So we'll see what happens.

ANDY SERWER: Speaking of Coach Tomlin, the NFL only has three black coaches. What's wrong here, and how do you fix that?

THOMAS TULL: Well, look. I had the privilege of being close to Mr. Rooney, Mr. Dan Rooney, who the Rooney Rule is named for. I cannot express what a fine human being he was. I miss him dearly. And recently, his wife had passed away, just the classiest people you ever want to know, and it was so important to him. And I think that we have to-- it's great that we have an interview process, but I think we have to be able to do more.

And I think part of that is what sort of other support can we provide, and I know we have some amazing coaches. There are candidates I'd certainly like to see have head coach, maybe not in our division because they're incredibly talented, but I think it's something that you have to constantly weigh and measure and not just say, hey, we put a rule in place. You know, you're doing the best that you can.

Well, if it's not working, what else can we do to keep progressing forward and make sure that we're doing that? I mean, one of the most profound experiences of my life, to go back to the movie thing, but I had the absolute pleasure of-- we made the movie "42" about Jackie Robinson. And certainly, that experience frames a lot of my thinking. And, you know, the opportunity that we all get a real shot, right? And, you know, are weighed on the merits, but that we have justice, and we're treated the same before the law, and that we have an opportunity.

If we have the skills, then we should be able to fill those spots. And I think we have a lot of work to go because we're not there yet. So I think we just have to constantly ask ourselves, what's working, what isn't working, and what can we tweak to make sure that this is dynamic and is ever changing to rise to the challenge?

ANDY SERWER: Let me go from football to baseball. Curt Schilling asked to be removed from the ballot for the Hall of Fame. You sit on the Hall of Fame board and will make the decision on it. Should he stay on the ballot or be removed, Thomas?

THOMAS TULL: You know, these are just incredibly unique times. I know that we're going to be briefed on the situation. You know, I'd love to know really what the thinking is, but look, on the other hand, if a player says, I don't want to be associated or considered with the Hall of Fame, which I think is a privilege, then I'm not sure that player should be considered.

I mean, you have to take each individual case, and I certainly want to learn more. But to me, what would be ideal is to have the Hall of Fame be sort of away from politics and away from things of that nature and just say, hey, it's here to celebrate the game of baseball and certainly the right conduct and all those other things, but you just hate to see things get twisted up is all.

ANDY SERWER: You know, it's interesting. I was just thinking about whether anyone had ever turned down an induction. People have turned down Oscars before.

THOMAS TULL: Mm-hm.

ANDY SERWER: Right? Just putting that out there. It's interesting.

THOMAS TULL: Sure.

ANDY SERWER: It's part of the thinking.

THOMAS TULL: Well, look. That's one of the things just overall that I think is great about this country and the freedom it affords is that I don't have to agree with everything that you say, and hopefully we're able in a civil way to exchange ideas and not be afraid to exchange ideas in a civil tone. And, you know, hopefully we can progress to that place.

ANDY SERWER: You grew up in a low income family raised by a single mom in upstate New York, earned an athletic scholarship to a NESCAC school-- got to get a NESCAC pitch in there-- Hamilton College.

THOMAS TULL: Yup.

ANDY SERWER: I'm a NESCAC guy, too. Launched laundromats, as I mentioned, after graduation. So how did that early life experience shape you, Thomas?

THOMAS TULL: Well, I think knowing what it feels like to truly-- you know, there's not another euphemism. We were poor. I mean, if you know what it's like to go to bed hungry or have the lights turned off, you know, it has an impact. And I also looked at my mother who's a dental hygienist and she worked two jobs, and I watched her do that and do whatever was necessary, and just day after day.

And that's, I think thematically for me, that there are heroes that do amazing things in the moment they're called upon. I'm also always impressed with people that answer the bell every day, right, that are doing things when no one's looking and there's no extra credit, right? It's not on Instagram. It's just, hey, I'm getting up and I'm doing what I need to do, and I think that's heroic in itself. You know, my grandmother, her mother was a hospital cleaning lady, which is one of the toughest jobs that I can think of.

And so I just think, from a young age, understanding that you better have resiliency and that, whether you like it or not, whatever the circumstances are, that's what you have to deal with. So, you know, any of that certainly comes from them and from the experiences I had. And then the other side of it, anybody who gets anywhere, I think, has to make peace with the fact that there is absolutely luck involved because things could go inch to the left, inch to the right, and your life is completely different.

And I try to really keep that in mind that if you start to think, jeez, I'm in a different place and pretty special, you better keep that thinking at bay because I think that it's not correct, and it's dangerous thinking.

ANDY SERWER: And finally, Thomas, have you thought about what you'd like your legacy to be?

THOMAS TULL: Look, I feel like every single day I get to live a life that I couldn't even imagine. So I think, hopefully, my number one thing is I've got two 11-year-old twin boys that are at the center of my world, and being a good father is a very big deal to me. And I'd also say just that, you know, doing the things that I have the reach or impact to be able to do to help because I think, in our country citizenship, is something that you have to work at it. You have an obligation to be informed.

And if you have the opportunity through philanthropically or some way to help to be impactful in your community, you have to do those things. And so I just hope that-- you have to earn that every single day. And so I think a lot about that and, you know, but I'm in a place that I'm still trying to earn that rather than thinking about what it is. So hopefully we can keep it going.

ANDY SERWER: Sounds good. Thomas Tull, founder and CEO of Tulco. Thank you so much for your time.

THOMAS TULL: Thank you, Andy.

ANDY SERWER: You've been watching "Influencers." I'm Andy Serwer. We'll see you next time.