Suns News

Sarver Offers Advice, Inspiration to University of Arizona Graduates

(Back) Student Regent Ben Graff, Regent Fred Boice, Honorary degree recipient Sir Peter North, Regent Jack Jewett
(Front) University of Arizona President Dr. Peter Likins, honorary degree recipient Daniel Cracchiolo, Alumni Achievement Award Recipient Naomi Karp, morning commencement speaker and Suns managing partner Robert Sarver

Posted: May 18, 2005

Phoenix Suns Vice Chairman and Managing Partner Robert Sarver returned home to Tucson last weekend, where he delivered the commencement speech during graduation ceremonies at the University of Arizona. A 1982 graduate of UA, Sarver shared some stories from his years with the Wildcats, as well as advice on everything from goal setting to choosing the right spouse.

The following is a transcript of Sarver's speech, courtesy of

What's up, Wildcats?!

Hey, some of you guys looked a little banged up this morning when I walked in.

Did anybody party last night?

I figured that. Is Dirt Bags still selling those watermelon shots I used to drink when I was there?

Okay, listen, you got the bad draw.

If you'd had the afternoon session, you'd have had John McCain, war hero, U.S. senator, and probably the next president of the United States. Things don't always work your way. Senator McCain is a real stud.

This morning you got the wanna-be stud, but I got some good stuff to share with you so stick with me for 15 minutes. And if you have any of those tortillas, I don't like salsa but I do like guacamole.

Thank you, President Likins, for allowing me to speak today. This is really a big honor. I'm very excited, and I really appreciate it.

You know, it was only 22 years ago that I was sitting in your seat. I was one of those at the bottom half of the class that make it possible for those of you in the upper half of the class to graduate there.

My mom, who is here today, is probably more surprised than me that I'm actually up here, which she remembers when I was down there. But that is what it really cool about this system you guys are getting ready to join, because you don't have to be a rocket scientist to succeed.

In fact, before I started my first bank, I applied to two graduate programs and got denied, didn't get into either one of 'em -- living proof that heart and passion can make up for a lot of ground in talent and smarts. It's kinda funny, but my life really still revolves around the U of A. I continue to be a huge Wildcat fan, and really all my businesses have evolved with this University and the relationships I made here.

My first bank I started at 23. The guy who helped me get it started was my finance professor, Robert Wallace. He became our first chairman of the board, helped me get the bank going. The C.E.O. of my bank right now in Arizona, Jim Lundy, went to law school here at the U of A. I got in business with a buddy of mine from college nine years ago. His name is Steve Hilton.

He started a small home building business called Meritage Corp. They were building homes in Phoenix. Today, nine years later, the company is one of the 20 largest home building companies in the country.

They'll do 2.5 billion in revenue this year, and the company was ranked this year the number one performing New York Stock Exchange company in the United States for the last five years in shareholder return. I got the privilege of riding his stock from $1.60 a share to $70 a share. My stockbroker for 20 years, another buddy of mine from the U of A, Andy Robinson, and my partners in Southwest Value Partners, Mark Schlausberg and Scott Douglas, we went to school together here, too. We started a little company, 15 years ago in Phoenix. We expanded, and over the last 15 years we've bought and sold over a billion dollars of real estate.

And last year, the world's number one basketball coach, Lute Olson -- he hooked Steve Kerr and I up together, and we bought the Phoenix Suns. Now don't get me wrong. I don't just hire U of A grads.

In fact, Mark, Scott, Steve, Jim and I work together with many Stanford, Cal and Ivy Leaguers in our companies. We let them do some of the complex problem solving, but the Wildcats run the show!

Okay. Okay, listen up, I got some good pointers for you, things that have helped me along the way. I got five values that run my business world.

One is you gotta have a passion for what you do. Make your sacrifices early financially, but pick a profession and pick a job that you have a strong passion for. And if you're lucky, too, try to pick a city to do it in that you really like living in. You see, the happier you are with what you do, the better you're going to be at it.

I always can tell where that passion is for me with one simple test, and I've been fortunate for 20 of the 22 years that I've been working, I passed that test.

That test is pretty simple. When Sunday comes along, I am ready for the weekend to be over if I really love my job. I'm ready for Monday morning; I am ready to get it on! If Sunday rolls around and I still want the weekend to stick around, I know I just don't have the passion. So I hope for you, you pick a career and you pick a job that gives you that passion.

Number two, spend as much time as you can around smart people. There's nothing I do and nothing I have done that I created or invented myself. I copied it all from smart people.

Your new teachers going forward are going to be the people you work with and work for. Try to pick a job that puts you around the best. That's how I continue to learn. In fact, one of the reasons I bought an N.B.A. franchise is it gives me a chance to get together with my 29 other partners that own teams.

We make up a partnership called "the National Basketball Association." In that group of 30, I'm the youngest and the poorest. And for me, that means nothing but upside.

Number three, honesty and integrity. In the future you're going to be faced with opportunities where, if you sacrifice your ethics, you can gain some kind of reward. Don't do it!

Make a contract with yourself today to never do it!

There is no amount of money --

There is no amount of money in the world that would ever make me do anything dishonest or unethical.

Always be able to look yourself in the mirror and like what you see. If at the end of the day, the only thing you got going for you is your reputation.

Number four, and one of my favorites, don't be afraid to swing the bat. You can't hit the ball unless you swing. If I didn't take chances in life, I never would have started a bank when I was 23 years old. I never would have bought a bunch of high-rise real estate buildings in downtown San Diego when they were at the bottom of a recession, and I never would have bought the Phoenix suns last year when everybody was telling me, you're crazy, they're a terrible team, and you overpaid, and you don't know what you're doing.

I hear more people in business that always have an excuse as to why they can't do anything.

Oh, I need to go to school and get more education.

Oh, I need to work longer.

I need more experience.

Well, what if I fail? What do I do?

If you don't try, you don't know.

Never look up -- look back on your life thinking, what if. I've made a lot of decisions and tried a lot of business initiatives over the last 22 years of my career. They did not all work. But most of them did, so that's cool.

Don't be afraid to fail.

Swing the bat!

Another one of my favorites, and the fifth, is celebrate success. When you have good things that you do at work, reward yourself. I started doing this early when I was young 22 years ago. I would do something good at work and I would go out and get a nice dinner. And then maybe I'd go and buy myself a nice suit. Later on I started taking trips for the weekend. And now when I close a big deal, I go get a new car or buy my wife nice jewelry, make a big charitable donation, or maybe even get a bigger jet.

In our work, it's part of our culture.

We always celebrate success and promotions. I don't care whether it's picnics, dinners, taking the management team bowling, whatever. And it's a part of mixing fun with work that is crucial to my life and my success.

I want to talk about a few differences between college and work.

Number one, college is an individual game. You've spent the last four years -- or some five -- focusing on your own results, your own tests, your own studies, your own grades, your own date, et cetera.

Working is a team game.

You'll only go so far in the workplace unless you're motivated to make the people around you better, your co-workers. No one has illustrated this better than this jersey I'm wearing, No. 13, Steve Nash.

This season's N.B.A. most valuable player.

Most valuable players don't go to short skinny kids that grew up in Canada where the top three sports are hockey, hockey, and hockey. I bought the team at the end of last season on June 30. On July 1, Amare Stoudamire, our management team, and I flew to Dallas with one goal, one mission, and that was to assign Steve Nash to be our point guard. Last season we won 29 of 53 games and finished near the bottom of the league. This season we had the N.B.A.'s number one record, 62-20.

The big difference?

Steve Nash.

He didn't lead the team in scoring.

In fact, not only did he not lead the league or the team, he was number three in scoring for just our team. He led the team in assists. His main focus was to make all other players around him better, not just by unselfishly passing the ball, but by coming to practice early every day, by setting and leading by example, by being the hardest worker on the court, and by constantly praising and pumping up his teammates. He elevated everyone else's game by doing so and accomplished more than this year than Iverson, Le Bron and Kobe, all of which had higher individual statistics but were not able to elevate their teams the way Steve did.

This is also a lesson on the kind of impact that one person can have on a whole organization. Make the commitment today, as you go forward, to make other people around you better. You will never be the MVP of your organization or business, or even your family, if you don't make that commitment to make other people around you better at what they do.

By the way, another motivating factor.

You know, Steve Nash was only offered one college scholarship to play basketball.

Another difference between work and college. All of us divide our time between two things: things we like to do and things we should do. In college, we can spend more of our time doing things we like to do, but when you get out in the workforce, going forward, you need to focus more of your time on things you should do.

The way I do that is I try to stay super-organized and I constantly revisit my priorities at home and at work.

Every Sunday night I take a sheet of paper out and I write down five things that I gotta get done that week. And that list changes every single week. Those five things for this week were to conduct my quarterly business review with the CEO of our bank in Arizona, to finalize the purchase of a block of property I bought next to America West arena in downtown Phoenix, to close two big banking deals I've been working on for six months in San Diego, to make sure I don't screw up this speech, and to kick the Mavericks' butt.

And we did that last night.

And that list of five, I probably didn't give it to you in the right order.

Number three -- you got to trust me on this one.

In the classroom you go farther by studying and putting in emphasis on the things you're not good at. In the business workplace, you're going to create more value for yourself by exploiting your strengths. And, finally, in school you can keep hitting that snooze button in the morning.

I did it.

Sometimes I'd skip school because I was tired.

Sometimes I was hung over.

Sometimes I drove around and I just couldn't get a good parking space.

My roommate sometimes didn't go to school because he didn't like the way his hair looked. But the only person that hurt was me. Going forward you gotta remember that team concept we talked about.

People are going to be depending upon you.

You need to not only be a good performer but a consistent performer.

If your boss can't rely upon you, you're going nowhere fast. I got two final messages for you, two things that I think are important.

One is I want you to get involved with one charity. Part of life is helping other people that are less fortunate than you. I promise it will make you feel good. One of the most rewarding things my wife and I do is our work with the University of Arizona Heart Center. Charities will take either your money or your time. When I was young, I gave a bunch of my time because I didn't have the money. My first job I made $42,000 a year and spent all of it.

Now that I make more money and I got a big family, I give my money because I don't have as much time. But they'll take your time. Get involved with a charity. Make other people feel better; it will make you feel better.

Second thing, the biggest decision you're going to make, if you choose to do so, is to pick your spouse or your partner. In college you may have sought out the most handsome, the gal with the best body, the person that partied the most, the athlete, what have you. Those are still good qualities, believe me.

But for me there's three that I'm recommending you take a hard look at before you pick the person you're going to spend your life with.

Number one, find a person with truly a good heart.

Number two, find someone who is crazy about you and is going to support you in good times and in bad times.

And number three, if you want to have kids, make sure you pick a spouse that you know is going to be a great parent. Take your time -- Take your time; make the right choice. The choice is just the first part of it. The second part is you gotta really work at it. This is an area that is easier said than done.

My buddies and I sit around sometimes and say if we spent 10 percent of the energy and effort we do at work on our wives, they'd be the happiest women in the world. Don't lose thought of that thought.

Okay, listen, I said I'd be short.

It's been a thrill for me today to talk to you guys.

Congratulations on your degree! Just because you're done with studying doesn't mean you have to quit reading.

I know you're in a hurry to kinda throw those books away. You don't want to look at them any more. But I'm going to ask you one thing. I want you to read 30 minutes a day any kind of publication that has something to do with what you do in the workplace. Thirty minutes, that's all.

Be educated, be knowledgeable. For me it's the "Wall Street Journal". I gotta know what's going on in the world.

You have a great foundation to build upon. Have fun tonight and remember to celebrate success, but don't get crazy. Don't get too loaded. Accidents happen on nights like tonight, and I don't want to read about anything happening to anybody that came to this ceremony.

Don't forget Steve Nash.
Don't forget making people around you better.
Don't forget about being a team player.
Don't be afraid to swing the bat.

Find the passion that you have in your heart to do what you want to do and do it best. Never compromise your integrity, and be a good person. It is no more difficult to go through life being a good person than being a bad person. Good things happen to good people.

Bear down!
I'm out!