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Koch’s massive tech bet: ‘Do it or we’ll end up in the dumpster’

Tom Maloney
Bloomberg News

It’s not quite what you’d expect from a Koch. Certainly not before the gray-haired Rotary Club in Wichita, Kansas.

But there was Chase Koch, scion of one of America’s mightiest private industrial dynasties – a family revered by the political right, reviled by the left and feared by just about everyone – joking about his knock-about years down in Texas.

It was back in the early 2000s, Chase said, after he graduated with a marketing degree from the proudly anti-Ivy League Texas A&M (David and Charles studied engineering at MIT, just like their father, Fred). Reluctant to tap the Koch network for a job, he was hunting for work, banging out Led Zeppelin covers with his band and, as he put it, “screwing around in Austin.”

Times change – and, with time, the Kochs do, too. Chase, 42, now sits on the board of Koch Industries and is president of Koch Disruptive Technologies, the conglomerate’s venture-capital arm. He’s at the sharp edge of efforts to prepare for a knowledge-based future where cheap computers, data and artificial intelligence might threaten the firm’s dominance.

He’s also positioned to control one of the world’s most powerful closely held companies, and represents the future of the conservative political network that has put the Kochs among the country’s most influential families.

Few people are aware of just how big Koch is, or the industries it inhabits. Much as Warren Buffett grew Berkshire Hathaway Inc. from its textile-mill roots, Koch keeps about 90% of its profit and pumps the money back into its businesses or buys new ones. It’s now a sprawling network of subsidiaries reporting back to headquarters in Wichita. They include forestry products (Georgia Pacific), fertilizer (Koch Ag & Energy Solutions), fabrics (Invista), commodities trading (Koch Supply & Trading) and ranching (Matador Cattle).

The brothers invested well. The $21 million company that Charles joined in 1961 is now worth about $139 billion, a 662,000% return, or roughly 16% annually over almost six decades. Charles and David own about 84% of the company (Elaine Marshall owns most of the rest, gaining control of the stake after the 2006 death of her husband, E. Pierce Marshall).

Historically, these investments were in industrial assets – refineries, chemical plants, sawmills.

But over the past few years, they’ve been more futuristic, especially in the venture-capital arm led by Chase Koch. The conglomerate has invested billions of dollars in software, network technology, big data, AI, medical technology and 3D printing.

“It’s actually really smart for them to do this,” said Hans Swildens, chief executive officer of Industry Ventures, which manages more than $3.4 billion of institutional capital. “If you owned a large number of industrial businesses, and you were looking at all the new technologies that were coming out and how they would affect your business, the best thing that you can do is embrace those.”

Jim Hannan, an executive vice president who oversees about half of Koch’s subsidiaries, said tech “has led to a much more common set of issues and opportunities across all our businesses.”

At the same time, big industrials are struggling to grow.

“We are rapidly moving to a digital economy,” said Nick Heymann of William Blair & Co. “Most of the net worth in the last 20 years in this country has been created outside tangible manufacturing businesses.”

For Charles Koch, it was a question of survival. At a 2017 leadership meeting, he pushed his managers to embrace technology and prepare for a knowledge-based future. His message: “Do it or we’ll end up in the dumpster.”

Falling technology costs are generating new threats to established industries.

There’s “a level of competition that these players did not face,” said Sanjay Agarwal of Boston-based venture-capital fund F-Prime Capital. “Now you can have startups out of a garage building an autonomous vehicle. That was just not possible earlier.”