Co-founder & Partner, Assembly Ventures
In episode sixteen, we stop in Detroit. Dhani Jones speaks with the co-founder of Assembly Ventures and member of the Board of Directors at Metropolis, Chris Thomas about the future of mobility and the importance of genuine connection in business.
But I think for me in that moment, that was one of literally thousands of moments. And success is not linear. I think to your point, there's sometimes this belief that you do these things and they lead to the next thing and the next thing. For me, in my experience anyway, that one yes led to maybe 100 no's. And then I'd get another yes and 100 more no's and then I'd get 100 yeses. But it was the ability just to say, what do you have to lose?Chris Thomas, Co-founder & Partner, Assembly Ventures
Chris is a Co-Founder and Partner at Assembly Ventures. Detroit, Berlin and Silicon Valley. He is a board member at Metropolis and a board observer at ONE (Our Next Energy) and Sortera. Prior to Assembly Ventures, he co-founded the Detroit Mobility Lab and the Michigan Mobility Institute and acted as a senior advisor to mobility start-ups around the globe. Previous to this, Chris co-founded Fontinalis Partners and for over a decade worked to build it into one of the premier investment firms in next-generation mobility.
Success is not linear
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Welcome to the Pathfinders, the modern dealmaker series, brought to you by Ansarada. Now here's your host, Dhani Jones.
Welcome back everybody to the Pathfinders, presented by Ansarada. I'm your host, former NFL player, investor, and entrepreneur, Dhani Jones. Today, I'm joined by the co-founder and partner at Assembly Ventures, Chris Thomas. Chris is a pioneer and an innovator in the world of mobility and is in the vanguard of those pushing the industry into the future. Prior to Assembly Ventures, he co-founded the Detroit Mobility Lab and the Michigan Mobility Institute and has acted as a senior advisor to mobility startups all around the globe. Chris has also previously served as a chairman of Read to a Child, a national children's literacy and mentoring nonprofit, and is a veteran of the US Army, serving tours in Iraq. Chris joins me today to talk about the future of mobility and the importance of connected communities, and investing in both terrestrial and extra terrestrial transportation technologies. Welcome Chris.
Thank you. Dhani. Pleasure to be here.
I know you from Detroit and you grew up not so far outside of the city. Talk a little bit about the influences that growing up so close to the heart of American Automotive and that industry had on your life and career because you spoke so much in your intro about mobility. How did it influence your world around mobility?
That's an interesting question. I think for me, I was probably one of the few kids in my neighborhood in the region whose dad wasn't working for the auto industry. So my dad came up working in prosthetics, so he made artificial limbs and braces and was very involved with helping individuals both mentally and physically handicapped within his career. My mom was working as a secretary for a lot of folks with differentiated suppliers around the auto industry. But I think the biggest impact for me, and this is an interesting question because it's not one I'm usually asked, was you see the men and women who are working on the line who are working within these different parts of the automotive ecosystem and they are remarkable people.
They're hard working men and women who every day are going to work and believe strongly that industry, their livelihood, and their families depend on that industry. So I saw a lot of my friends and our neighbors and family that the lifeblood of everything they were doing were dependent upon the strength of what was happening at that time and really just domestic automotive. So it was something that was very focused in terms of something I was dealing with every day as a young man. I also was just a big gearhead and loved fast cars as a good young Detroiter. So that was always fun.
Was there a particular car that you had admired since the time you grew up?
Yes. '61 Ford Falcon, which I love. It's not on the top of many lists, I don't think, but it's one that I just really have always aspired to acquire. Maybe someday when I grow up, we'll see.
Maybe one day - and I can actually picture a Falcon because I have a friend that owned one for a short bit of time. Being a little bit, I won't say that I'm a gearhead because if all of a sudden the transmission dropped, I couldn't put it back together. Now oil and tires, I can change - things like that. But let's not go too far. I'm not going to be your wrench so to speak. But while you were growing up, it's interesting in terms of where your family was and how the proximity kind of brought you to this area. Were there any key moments? We always talk about on Pathfinders, sometimes there's this transitional moment where whether your childhood or another time that really influences that direction, right? Because sometimes it's the proximity, but sometimes it's also the quick moment that makes all the difference in the world.
Yeah. So I did my undergraduate at Michigan State, that's the best university of the state of Michigan, we can talk about that later.
Pause, I have to interject. I know you're my guest. But at this moment, I must say go blue. We will just remain at odds for the rest of the discussion. But I had to interject my commitment to the greatest university in the world. So we'll just agree to disagree. Please continue.
I lost you there for the last five seconds, but let me keep going. I worked a lot of odd jobs coming up, very working-class upbringing. So I was doing fire, demo, I was a janitor, I was stocking bookshelves. But one of the jobs I had is I worked as a senate page for the Michigan Senate in Lansing. So I took the Cat Bus from East Lansing to Lansing. I wore a very luxurious polyester suit and vest and maroon tie, and I got to deliver papers and soups to state senators. And while I was there as a young man, I saw at the time our governor John Engler walk through the chamber. And I had it in my mind, at that moment, I wanted to meet him. So I literally dropped, and this is no embellishment, I put down the bowl of soup I was holding and kind of dropped it too hard and then ran out the Senate chamber door.
And at the time, there's a big stairwell going into the Michigan State Capitol, and at the time that was still open. And I saw the governor and the state aid who was with him walk down and I ran out after him and I was like, Mr. Governor. And I ran down there and I see the aid kind of look at me, like ‘who's this kid and what does he want?’ And I'm like, "My name's Chris Thomas, I wanted to introduce myself. It's really a pleasure to meet you." And he could tell by this luxurious outfit I was wearing, and he's like, "Well, you're a senate page." I'm like, "Yeah." And he goes, "Well, where do you go to school?" I'm like, "Well, I'm at Michigan State, I'm at James Madison," which is where he went to school as well. And he's like, "Well, where are you doing your international experience?"
And I was like, "I've been writing to the ambassador to France, but she just passed away in a freak pool accident. And I'm not sure what I'm going to do." And he's like, "Well, you know what? I think we have an office in France. Would you like to go there for the summer?" And I was like, "Yes I would." And he's like, "Call this number. Tell her we had this conversation." Complete crazy serendipity. So I called this woman up. And she didn't believe me. She's like, "Give me your name, give me your number, I'll call you back tomorrow."
She needed to confirm.
Yeah. She's like, this sounds nonsensical.
And mind you, this is probably before the world of just texting and checking.
Oh no, I had a phone hanging on the wall that I was calling from. And she calls me back the next day and she's like, I spoke to the governor. Sure enough, this conversation did happen. We do not have an office in France, we have an office in Brussels. I've been instructed (she was not happy about this), I've been instructed to offer you a non-paid internship and you have to say yes or no right now. And I said yes. And I had no idea how I was going to pay for it. I had no idea exactly what that would be. But that decision in that moment to literally run after something I wanted and take a chance, it turned into an internship there, which turned into my ability to apply and work for a couple years on Wall Street in the sell side banking division, which turned into the rest of my career. And so that was one of those really unique moments in time where I just said yes, and it turned, and I've had a lot more that turned that didn't go so well. But that was one.
But how did you make the decision in that split second? Because I think a lot of people, while they're on their path, you do have to mind your speed and sometimes you're going really, really quick and you’ve got to get off on that exit. Because you believe that that's the direction. But some people, they're too far in the left hand lane and they can't cross all of the traffic in order to get to the exit because it just doesn't time up very well. But I feel like you saw that almost coming. I don't know if it was the maroon tie or if it was the polyester.
It was the polyester. But I think for me in that moment, that was one of literally thousands of moments. And success is not linear. I think to your point, there's sometimes this belief that you do these things and they lead to the next thing and the next thing. For me, in my experience anyway, that one yes led to maybe 100 no's. And then I'd get another yes and 100 more no's and then I'd get 100 yeses. But it was the ability just to say, what do you have to lose? And this is something I've talked about for a long time. Coming from a working-class background, coming from a place where I literally had nothing to lose, why not go and ask? Not in a way that's in any way rude or you're putting yourself out there for the wrong reasons, but in a genuine way where you're respectful, where you're asking a question, you're asking for a chance.
And when I've done that, I've got these amazing doors that have opened and the worst thing that's happened to me is someone said no. And the only thing that affects is my ego. So if you don't worry about those no's and you just let them go and you just keep asking, doors are going to open and then chances you get, if you do your best, there's going to be more chances. And so that was my path.
Wow. I always say the breeze of opportunity can come from any direction. You just have to be sensitive enough in order to go through it or to be able to feel it and be able to notice it. My grandfather, Robert McCrery, would always say to me, "The worst thing that someone can say to you is no." Right? And I think that a lot of times people look at the world and they don't even ask the question to even actually get to the point where someone could actually say yes or no. And I think maybe there's this place in which we live now where everything that we ask will ultimately get a decision and it's a robotic decision because we're always asking Siri something or we're asking Alexa something so they're automatically going to give it to us. But when we talk to people and we think about opportunity and we think about chance, then in that lies the unique part of life.
I totally agree. And I think your granddad was spot on, but what I would put to you and to anyone who's thinking about these yeses and no's, it's not the yes and the no that matter the most. It's what you do with them. Do you wallow in a no or do you take the lesson that you got from it and then work toward that next yes? Do you take a yes and start to work really hard or are you full of errors and you're like, oh, of course I got the yes? What you do with them is going to define what happens next.
I wish more people understood that. And as people are listening to us talk, I hope they're writing that down - jotting that down because that's an important note. Because I'm sure as you made that trip to Brussels and then came back to investment banking that had to influence or sort of act in some prophetic way that allowed you to go into the military. And we've known each other for a little bit of time and I didn't even know that you enlisted in the military. I know you went to the military, but I didn't know that you made a choice like that to be able to serve our country. And thank you so much.
No, it's my pleasure. It's one of the best decisions I've ever made.
What was it that brought you to sign your name on that piece of paper that said, I'm going to commit myself to protecting our country?
It was in March of 2003 and we had just invaded Iraq and I was working in San Francisco. I had worked for a couple of internships in the east coast in energy, and I was working in the tech group for UBS. And I got a call about 10 at night Pacific, so it was one in the morning in Kalamazoo, Michigan where my youngest brother was. And he said, "Brother, war is on. This is our generation's war. I just dropped out of school, I enlisted, I'm going to be an artilleryman." And I was like, "I'm proud of you, I love you, the nation needs leaders." And I hung up the phone and I sat there, I was working on something in Excel, and I sat there for 10 minutes and just stared at my screen and I called him back and said, "I'm going to do this with you." And the next day, suit and tie, I went down to the recruiting station and I spoke to every branch and I enlisted in the army.
And it changed my life in tremendous ways in terms of not only my path today, but who I am and why I am and what I believe and all different aspects of a person as way leads onto way. But I owe my brother a great debt of gratitude and I tell him this all the time. Would I have made that decision without him? I don't know. I'd like to think that I would and I knew I couldn't be an officer or serve with him, but I thought maybe I could serve with people like him and hopefully people would be looking up for my brother as well. So five months later, I was in basic training at Fort Knox. I was at officer school, the infantry school at Fort Benning, at OCS.
I was commissioned Signal, so I went to the officer basic course at Fort Gordon in Augusta. And then I went right to the war, did one year in country north of Baghdad, in a place called Elfa, finished up on the east coast near NSA at Fort Mead, Maryland and had a really wonderful experience. I'm very lucky to have had the chance to serve in that way.
Was there sort of something that went through your mind as you made that decision? I mean, I know that your brother had an incredible influence and you stared at the screen and I'm sure you sort of processed a lot. But even in that transitionary moment between the time that you stared quizzically at the screen and signed your name and then went into basic training, there had to be a couple different moments where maybe you questioned or maybe you just were ultimately looking for that yes and that acknowledgement, this is what I want to do. And how did that ultimately set up some of the next directions in your life from approaching problems and finding solutions?
I think as I was going through the process, you always think a lot about, is this the right choice? And you think about, I think at any critical decision point in life, if you're really thoughtful, you're either, you know it to be completely true and you're all in, or at the moment of that decision, it's very close and you're trying to be truly strategic and thoughtful around why you're making the decision you're making. I think for me, it was really, in this instance when I made the decision, it was very much the former. I knew it was something I wanted to do. I had people who I trusted and respected who were desperately trying to talk me out of it. I had people that I trusted and respected who told me this was exactly the right thing for someone to do. But the one thing that I was really, the pleasant surprise, I guess, is that you always hear that the military is kind of the last refuge of scoundrels.
It's a place where people go when there's nowhere else to go. It could not be further from the truth. My officer candidate school class in my company, I had men and women from all walks of life, people that were sergeants in the army who were maneuvering to become an officer. I had guys joining who were Yale undergrad, Harvard Law, just graduated Harvard, William and Mary, UCLA School of Government working on the hill for McCain, amazing men and women who at that moment in time in our country's history said, this is the right thing for me to do. And so being able to serve with men and women like that and then have the opportunity to serve on behalf of men and women who were there for a variety of different reasons was truly one of the best decisions I've ever made. It was one of the most important experiences in my life.
So I think that idea around service, how can I do well, but also do good? That definitely influenced where I applied to grad school. So I got my MBA after the military at the Yale School of Management whose mantra is educating leaders for business in society. And it's very much focused on building great businesses that are putting forth the things you care about if you want to internalize it as an entrepreneur. But it's also about the second and third order effects of having a positive impact. And so that idea of service definitely translated into the desire to do something. And I knew that I wanted to come to Detroit. And I found out very quickly that Ivy League schools on the coast are unaware that the middle of the North American continent exists.
You should teach that class at Yale. Look, we understand-
It's a big continent.
Yeah, we're on the east coast, but yes, there is a whole middle. Okay?
And look below when you're on your way to California.
Yeah, it's the best people, it's the hardest workers, it's the best pizza right here in the hinterland. So after I realized there wasn't a lot of opportunity that they could send me to, I started applying on my own. And I applied for a number of jobs and I was accepted at Ford Motor Company, the Ford Treasury Excellence Program for the summer of 2008, which I was super excited about until I arrived and the US auto industry was imploding. And I was told I'd be working on collateralized debt obligations and that's not what I signed up for. So my second day on the job, I reached out to every C-level executive at the firm and I said the same thing, "Hey, I'd love a half an hour of your time to talk about why you're here, where is this company going, what questions should I be asking, because I don't know what to ask. I arrived yesterday."
But because I was the state school military Yale kid, they're like, "Sure, let's have coffee, let's have lunch." And one of the people I reached out to was Bill Ford. And long story short, in a half an hour meeting with him a couple weeks later, I convinced him to put me on something more interesting. I spent the summer looking at the future of transportation in mega cities, over 10 million around the world. I asked for the chance to focus on the next year at graduate school building business plans in mobility. I built really bad business plans for about six months. And then we came up with the idea, let's create the first firm in the world uniquely investing in mobility. And then Bill and I and three others co-founded a firm called Fontinalis. And I had the ability over the next decade to sit on the board, lead, facilitate the sale, and source some of the most prolific exits in the history of the mobility space to date.
And I’m incredibly proud of that. 40 deals, air, land, sea and space, and to do it from Detroit. And so I think going back to these things, why do we make the decisions we make and what are your motivations? I knew I wanted to be here. I knew I wanted to build something that I believed could leverage the best of what we were, but really focused on building the best of what we could be. And not being rooted just in the history, but in building the future of where we were going to move in the space. And so that was an amazing experience. And then in 2018, I made the decision to step away from that firm because I wanted to build something that was truly global; that was made up of some of the finest operators in global mobility. And that was Swiss, could represent all differentiated aspects of automotive technology and others that wanted to be a part of this opportunity. And we launched Assembly Ventures in March of 2020, which is auspicious timing.
I want to cut you off real quick because I want to get into Assembly Ventures, but there's a theme here, right? There's a theme around curiosity. There's a theme around okay with being told no. There's a theme of service. There's a theme ultimately of taking chances. And if I were to look at, okay, you take a chance and you got this job, you make these phone calls, you sit down, you have these opportunities… What brings you to that place where you feel comfortable enough to just, in a lot of respects, open up the door and not know what's on the other side?
I think it's a lot of different motivations, to be honest with you. I think it's ambition and a desire to really have an impact with the very small amount of time we're all on this earth. I think it's a fear of wasting time and wasting potential. I think it's a desire to do great things on the merits and to be a part of something that you have a chance to build or build alongside others that represent your ideals. But I think it's a lot of different motivations. I know for me, I've always been - I'm no wallflower. I've always been kind of out front, unlike the heights you achieved. I always loved athletics. I always loved being engaged in that team environment. I always loved supporting my teammates in different ways. But when I could and where I could, I wanted to go out and I wanted to be the best and win.
So one thing I talk a lot about is I'm really good at a handful of things. (If you ask my wife, she'd say a couple less, probably.) I'm really bad at everything else. So I want to build a team of people that are good at what I'm not and that let me be good at what I know I am. And I think that has been something that's been a major driver in my life in terms of who I've surrounded myself with and always wanting to make sure that I could be additive to a process to whatever I was working on at the moment.
And a part of that team, Bill Ford, and you set up Fontinalis. What was the first question that you asked Bill when you walked into his office, or maybe he came into your office, that allowed him to understand that there was a unique partnership and a pathway to be forged and an opportunity to be capitalized on between the two of you?
So when I met Bill, I remember waiting in his office at Ford Motor Company. And he came out and he didn't know me from Adam. He's like, "Chris, great to meet. Appreciate your pluck. Tell me how much you love your internship." And he shook my hand and I'm like, "Mr. Ford, I hate my internship." And I think that's the first moment when he realized that there's something a little different.
“Excuse me, sir, thank you so much for meeting with me. I hate my internship.”
I'm not a fan. And I gave him an earful for a minute and he laughed at me. He's like, "Well, we have 29 more minutes. Let's have a nice enough conversation." We had a nice enough conversation. And at the end of which he was like, "Nice to meet you son. Have a great summer." And he shook my hand and he said, "Let me know if there's anything I can do for you." And I held his handshake and I said, "Well Mr. Ford, there is. You can put me on the most interesting project of the company right now." And he looked at me and he's like, "What's that?" And I'm like, "I've absolutely no idea, sir, but you do." And then he laughed at me again, he's like, "Have a nice weekend."
And that was the bookend of our first conversation. But very much to Bill's credit, he's a remarkable guy. He gave me a great gift in letting me kind of become the face and the voice of one of the earliest investors in a space that at the time didn't exist. This was prior to Uber, this was prior to Lyft, to Waze. And when I stepped away, I made a point of telling him, you gave me a great gift and it's certainly appreciated. But that's how we started in a unique way.
He was like, "Thank you so much, good to meet you, have a great weekend. I'll talk to you later."
He's expecting me to get out of his office.
And you're like, "You will remember me. You will remember me. We will find a way to work together." And you did. I mean, in our conversations we've had, the way that I describe some of the investments that you've made, it's just like that is the very fabric of what mobility is today was manifested by the investments and some of the relationships and some of the discussions that you've had since that handshake.
Oh, I've been incredibly lucky. And to be clear, all of those were created by those amazing entrepreneurs and those companies. And I think investors can, investors don't necessarily make a company successful. They can ruin a company, that's for sure. But having the chance to work hand in gloves, side by side with some of these remarkable men and women who have changed the way the world moves over the last 12, 13, 14 years, it's been unbelievable.
And do you think that, obviously, it's about the entrepreneurs, it's about the teams, it's about the people, it's about the companies as well. We talk all the time on the podcast about having that dealmaking mindset, right? What do you think are some of the key features in operating in this type of frame of mind?
I mean, I think it's interesting that you say that. Because I think there's, people and I talk a lot about, do we have a real relationship or do we have a transactional relationship? And what I mean by that is, if we have a real relationship, anyone that I am a friend with or a close acquaintance with in which maybe we do business, maybe we don't, we are talking and engaging to help each other every day with no expectation of quid pro quo. I'm doing this because you're my friend, or you're someone I respect, or you're someone who I'm working with in this space, or you're working on something that I care about. I think the deal mindset is one in which the first and foremost point of any relationship is not to do a deal. The first point of any relationship is to be genuine and to engage with people, to advance ideas and advance things that matter.
And both you and I, I mean, all the time, and folks I'm sure that have been on this podcast and will be on this podcast, they're approached for selfish reasons. And selfish reasons aren't necessarily bad. If you believe passionately in something and you want to move something forward, you're going to talk about it. You're going to try to bring people around to what you believe. But you also need to make sure that you're not just talking to someone because of what you want. You should be talking to someone with an idea of what can we build together? And so the deal mindset for me has always been, I want the city of Detroit and the state of Michigan and the United States and the western world to be as strong and prosperous and dynamic and engaging as possible.
So how do we do that? We do it and we all have little ways that we do it and we work with people that are advancing in different ways. But if we approach it from that perspective, it's not like you and I are here to do a deal and then we're done. We are here to actually have a relationship, which over the course of our life can be incredibly meaningful and incredibly impactful.
So how do you maintain that state of mind? How do you maintain that level of focus and that level of passion to stay the course, so to speak?
It's kind of a trite answer, but I think it's gratitude. I think it's being grateful for the things you have and understanding that we all are here for a short amount of time and we have the ability to improve the lives and lots of those people that we're working alongside. I'm a Catholic. I have two young boys, so I'm a parent and I get to see the just remarkable way in which they're growing every day. I have a wonderful wife who tolerates me and whom I love very much. I think if you focus on those things that are most important to you, and it's not the deal you're doing, it's not the firm you're building, it's the reason you're doing all that work. If you are immersing yourself within that every day, it can't help but affect everything you do and the mindset you're taking to these things.
There's certainly deals that need to be done. People are building amazing businesses or amazing entrepreneurial kinds of exercises, whatever. That takes a lot of work and focus and there's going to be transactions that are a part of it. But I think you have to approach it more holistically. And you can't always, to your point. Sometimes you're negotiating a revolver at the best terms you can get and you want to make sure you're financing operations and things along those lines. But even then I would offer, you want to have genuine relationships that aren't just based on, that aren't only based on dollars and cents.
And I'd imagine that I've done deals where they don't necessarily go the way that I want them to go. I've done other deals where they've gone swimmingly, right? Yeah. But I think that you're right, as long as you stay the course and find your moral ground or grounding of which is the reason why you do things. I mean, my coach, I talk about this all the time, Lloyd Carr would always say, "It's not about you, it's about something greater than yourself." You can aspirationally put something out there that you're reaching, you're striving for, and along the pathway you're doing these different things that ultimately can allow you to get there. So along this narrative, are there any particular deals that had a major impact on you that might have pushed you potentially off the course or shaped you in a different way and thinking about deals from then on?
For me, I think a lot about the deals that went really well and I think about the deals that didn't go so well. And what you learned.
You got to think about both.
You have to, and you'll never hear anybody talk about all the dollars they lost on the stock market last week. They'll just tell you about the winners.
No, no one's going to talk about it.
But I think for me it's like, I come back to opportunities where I've had a chance to be a true operational partner. So one of the deals I'm most proud of in my career, a company called NuTonomy, was one of the largest cash deals for full stack autonomous systems. We invested less than 20 million, sold for 450 million, 400 cash on the downstroke in 22 months. A remarkable deal by way of the value we were able to grow. And that company, which was acquired by Aptiv, is now the technology and the leadership team that runs Motional, a multi-billion dollar business that's between Hyundai and Aptiv looking at their autonomous technology and how that's deploying. An unbelievable team in the founding team, an unbelievable kind of underlying technology, a very distinct moment in time. But being able to work with them on all aspects and shoulder to shoulder as a board member with Carl Nema and Emilio and the team that was there, truly an honor and truly something that I come back to the lessons learned as a part of that experience.
And then other things like I'm very lucky, and I mean that sincerely, to be one of the few individual owners of Buddy’s Pizza in Detroit, Michigan. And I love Buddy’s, I love it. And I had a buddy of mine from grad school who he works uniquely in kind of investing in restaurant properties, huge or small. And this opportunity came up to be a part of this and it's a longer story, but I convinced him to say, let me be a part of this. Let me invest. And at first he said no. And then he said maybe. And then he said yes. And I take a lot of pride in that.
I love how we go from autonomous stacks to pepperoni pizza. I mean, this is important, because as you're coming up with some of these great ideas, you’ve got to have something to eat.
You do. You’ve got to fuel the innovation.
You have to fuel the innovation. But then I say to myself, okay, you're doing all this, you got all this stuff happening, and then all of a sudden you're just like, all right, I'm leaving. I'm departing from Fontinalis, and now you have the Detroit Mobility Lab and Michigan Mobility Institute. These are two, although they work within the same ecosystem, they are a little bit different in the way that they're operating, or maybe they're the same.
They're very different.
What was the decision behind that?
It was that I had a lot of my very good friends who came to me after, when I made that decision, they were like, "Why are you doing this? You could be very comfortable and stick and continue on for the next 20 years." And I think part of it, that was part of the reason why I made the decision, because I think that comfort breeds complacency. I'm a big, big believer that you can't grow without discomfort. And there's a doctrine that I ascribe to called the Strenuous Life. And so this was something put forth by Theodore Roosevelt where he talked about that strenuous effort and overcoming hardships are ideals to be embraced by all Americans for the betterment of the nation and the world. And so, my life is one in which I didn't have a choice. Could I not work at 13, 14, 15 if I wanted spending money? I had to work.
I didn't have a choice. Could I not work during college? I had to work. But I worked wherever paid the most and sometimes they weren't very pleasant jobs. But going after it, being uncomfortable physically, mentally, intellectually, spiritually, emotionally, that breeds strength. And so for me, in just putting yourselves in those scenarios that are uncomfortable, not for the purpose of being uncomfortable, but for the hope for end-state of growth, I think that was something I wanted to be. And then as I said before, I wanted to be a part of a group of men and women of my generation in which we all were carrying water and building something that was truly dynamic, and I believe we'll be the best in the world at what we do. And so that was the motivation behind it. And you’ve got to shed your skin sometimes if you're going to grow. You’ve got to become something new.
If you haven't picked up the book The Strenuous Life, it is absolutely fantastic. And just as Chris talks about it, it is an important component that we all must understand and all must endure. And in the same way, you look at Michigan and there's a high concentration of engineers. There's so many people that work day in and day out to build this mobility of which we all, in some ways, take for granted because we just jump into a car and we just kind of take off. But the future of mobility is really focused on them and that's also the area of which you focus and you have been for the future. What are some of the biggest challenges you see when it comes to creating a successful model for the future of mobility and obviously the overall industry? I mean I, like most people, will watch Westworld and I'll see all these cool things happening.
And not-so-cool things happening on Westworld.
Not so cool things happening as well. But what are the biggest challenges for a successful model for the future of mobility?
Now, this is one of the most important questions in the space. And I would offer any definitive industrial segment as to what matters and why does it matter. So at Assembly, we define mobility, which is a little different than everyone else, as the physical and digital movement of people, goods, data and energy. So it's thinking about, how do all these things come together? Where are the differentiated systems in which you're not just looking at one silo, you're not just looking at automotive, but you're looking at logistical movements from A to B, from personal movements from A to B, from differentiated modes and what that means. And so I think a mistake some people make is that they are, I believe strongly in being focused, but I think you can be too narrow. You want to understand what are all these major thematics and technologies that are coming to bear and then how do you best use them?
And then also I think that sometimes people try to be all things to all people. The three portfolio companies we have at Assembly focused on next generation batteries, kind of holistic payment systems for any automotive environment, and then 360 recycling and circular economy, being able to reuse an end-of-life asset and put it (in this case, it's aluminum), right back into manufacturing processes. I think you need to be really focused on doing those things well once you define what it is you're going to be, but not be so narrow at the front end. And then the last thing I would offer is I think we at Assembly, we exist because of two hypotheses. We believe strongly that the East and the West, the US and China to start, but the Eastern and the Western world are moving apart at a rapid clip. And three years ago, two years ago when we started talking about this, people didn't believe it.
I think now it's pretty much gospel when you look at the world today. And the manufacturing logistics and supply chain opportunities that will come out of that bifurcation through technology enablement are going to be pronounced. And that's our sweet spot. Those are the companies we get really excited about. And then, two, and this goes back to Detroit, but also I think it's the correct thesis. We believe strongly in the legacy industrial centers of the western world. So, the Detroit Pittsburghs, the Turin Stub Guards, the Tokyos, Seouls. If those billion dollar balance sheets that exist there today in the hardworking men and women in those places, they make the right technology, partnership and acquisition decisions in the here and now. Not only will they continue to be at the table, they can continue to lead. But it needs to be very active. There has to be movement and a desire to actually think about… how does the old world engage with the new world in additive ways?
And I think to your question, maybe that's the last thing I'd offer. There's always a better way to do something. There's always new things to take into account that I think sometimes is lost on incumbents. And how do we think about young men and women and new companies and new technology? Not just say no to it out of hand, but why should it be a part of this ecosystem and how do we actually partner to make it better? That would be a good first start. And I think we've come a long way over the last 10 years in automotive to approach it from that perspective.
Yeah, I'd say that challenge that you're talking about in terms of the old guard and the new guard, that's a big challenge, because oftentimes, there's legacy in the way that you think about things, there's legacy in the way that you've done things, but then there's a future of the way things will be. And that rock and hard spot that you live in, I'm sure, has been something you've negotiated since the time that you enlisted into the military.
And that piece right there, that framework is so important. There's a group that I'm a part of called CLF, it's Compassionate Leadership and Finance, and it's about how do we break out of this mold of just what finance is and actually think about not only how we can build value and create different types of financings, but in a way that's going to improve the lot to everyone that's involved in very real and sincere ways. I think that that's a paradigm shift. That's hard to do. I think you're absolutely right.
So how come they're always just talking about Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos? How come they're talking about Christopher Thomas? When are they going to start talking about Christopher Thomas and all the great things that you're working on? I'm waiting for the headline. Christopher Thomas, Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, all changing the future of mobility and investing in transportation technology.
There was a story locally, recently, probably about a year ago, that actually talked about me and Elon and I got made fun of by my good friends in a lot of ways. And I would offer rightly so. But the way I'll answer that is I was in Spain speaking at a conference earlier this year in Madrid and someone asked the question, when will this be successful? When will you be the most successful? And my answer was, when I'm not on this stage. The way that I define success is when the men and women, and these were kind of younger entrepreneurs in the crowd, when you were on this stage, and I no longer need to be to talk about these ideas, because you have surpassed them, you have built them, you've created these things. We'll know when these things are really successful when I'm in the crowd learning and listening.
Think that is where, if I can do those things with men and women that I have the pleasure of working with, that's success.
I kind of have to say this. I'm on Instagram all the time. I'm on all the time.
That is true everybody.
And I happen to sometimes listen to the crazy stuff that Kanye says (or Ye) says, right? And he was just going off on this rant and I've never really ever brought up this before and I'm sure I'll take flack from it, so it's fine. But he was talking about, I think he's 36 years old, and he's like, I don't even talk to people that are older than me. I only talk to people that are younger than me because those that are younger than me know more than me. And he just was so adamant about a 37 year old or a 38 year old, whatever, is not going to be smarter than him because he's lived through more, he's seen more, he's understood sort of the evolution of things. And you didn't say it in that way. You said it in the way of once you all have come to master the things of which I'm investing my time and energy in, then I'm learning from you because you're the future.
Yeah, absolutely. But I would push back and say there are tremendous insights at every age, and people, to your point, to that point, people discount them if they're young to the old and old to the young. But there's also a tremendous amount of nonsense at every age. And so separating where you can find grains and kernels of truth and knowledge, I mean that's the real skill.
So when it comes to investing in transportation technology, for both terrestrial and extraterrestrial, what do you think about or what do you look for?
I look for, in terms of the companies that we get excited about?
Yeah, companies you get excited about, different technologies. I mean you talked about mobility is people, it's energy, it's recyclables. I mean there's a lot of things in it. What do you look for in those businesses?
I mean, first and foremost, I look for amazing entrepreneurs. And you want to find men and women that really just are building something that's unique, that's dynamic, that they have the ability to either scale for a certain amount of time or all the way through. Second, you're looking at… you want to find huge markets, which the acronym is TAM, Total Addressable Market. You want to find really big markets that you're investing in. So regardless of the way in which that company grows and evolves, there's going to be room for them to make mistakes and pivot because again, success isn't linear. Three, I'm looking for really dynamic new ideas and new approaches. And many times I'm also looking for spaces that people consider unsexy. If there's something within the recyclable space in the parking sector or the payment sector or something that people are like, that's such an old line industry, why would I spend time there?
I love those industries. Investing in full stack autonomy is tough because you're competing against the very best minds in the world that are trying to solve that problem. If you're investing in something that's just not nearly as much in the zeitgeist but still needs tremendous efficiency, that's really exciting. And so I love finding things in those spaces that aren't there. And then last but not least, I think to the point you just made, we are airlines scene space. There are incredible dynamic entrepreneurs and there's this weird, I've noticed recently, whether it be in popular media or in different social channels, you have land-based transportation making fun of space entrepreneurs.
And just this little weird tit for tat stuff. If you are trying to create the future of the way the world moves and the places we can go, I'm your ally. Because at Assembly we say that we invest in the men and women that move the world. And we say that because we believe that the men and women that move the world will define where the world moves. It's incredibly important in our mind to make sure that not just the technology but the ideas behind why these technologies exist move the world in a direction that is toward things we believe. That is something where we come back to it all the time.
You're going to have to stop dropping all these gems because I'm out of ink with my pen. I just keep writing all of them down. I mean, it's truly mind blowing and fascinating for me to be able to sit and listen to the way that you think because we need you at the helm of the future of mobility. We need you to think in the way that's so broad, but at the same time, so specific and have that notion of gratitude because it's frankly, in some ways, while it might be about you, but it's really not, it's really about the future. And so, speaking of the future, when you look at EV and drones and vertical takeoff, are we there soon? I mean, can I please just go from Detroit to DTW to Ann Arbor in just five minutes and just take off and land right in the middle of the stadium or right in the middle of the airport?
We're not there yet for you because you're just a bigger payload, my friend.
But I think where-
That's why I work out every day, come on.
But I think where we are now, the use cases around logistics in my mind are the most exciting. And that's not to take away from personal VTOL, personal transport. I believe in our lifetime, our kids, our grandkids… they're going to have a license. Our grandkids won't, and it won't be because they're not moving, but it's because they won't need one. And they're going to be in differentiated multimodal systems where you're going to take an autonomous kind of Uber-like vehicle, a shared asset that will take you to a V port, a viewport, and you'll get in that asset and you'll go to where you want to go. I'm not allowed to land in the middle of Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor. Maybe you can. But I think being able to go to those places will be real. But right now, we've got drone assets that are being utilized in a variety of different logistics ecosystems.
Right now in Detroit, we have companies that are defining how the airspace is going to be used to have set corridors for those assets. And not just kind of like commercial drones, but medical deliveries and different ways drones will be used in those ways for either drugs or other assets. Right now in warehouses around the world, you're having drones that are utilized to check SKUs and make sure that things are being run efficiently. You have autonomous assets that are being utilized in a loading zone. So all of this is happening in the here and now. Now we scale and we scale in a way that's going to be sustainable and actually be able to serve people with use cases that are profitable and that go forward.
And one of the companies I'm most proud of that I've had a chance to work with in the past is a company called Gatik. Invested very early on with them. They are now the most prolific autonomous vehicle for logistics delivery going from warehouse to grocery if you will, have brought on Walmart as investors, deployed across multiple states in the US. But this is just a matter of time at this point. It's not a question of if it's here. It's here in different stages. Now, it's how it scales.
And it will happen within our lifetime, maybe towards the latter half. But it will definitely be in our children's, at scale. At scale.
At scale. Yeah. At scale..
I know. I've watched the movies. I mean, I believe that art imitates life. I mean, I know that they're around, and it's not UFOs; it's just actually really insightful entrepreneurs that are building unique things.
To that end, I had my first legitimate pitch two weeks ago from an entrepreneur who I believe in to my bones who's building a truly functional human android for the purposes of differentiated work in online and in different manufacturing scenarios. And not to replace but to assist and co-bot alongside humans. Like this is not science fiction. And that is, if that's not the definition of mobility, I don't know what is. But there's still so many problems to solve within global automotive today. I think one of the things we get really excited about is partnering with some of the most remarkable companies in automotive to actually bring them differentiated technologies, find ways to partner, look at new ways from a BD and strategy perspective. But this is happening right now. This is not science fiction.
It's not at all. And so, I invite everybody to really take a look around you because it's going to be a lot different. And I think that the other thing that I know that you're really involved in is early childhood literacy. And we need our kids to be able to read and understand and to be able to process. What can you tell us about your time as a chairman for Read to a Child and why is this issue so important? I mean, if I'm thinking about it, the kids need to be able to read, they need to be able to understand, they need to be able to process. But for you, why is that issue important to you?
So I think it's because I come from a place where if my parents didn't read to me, like my grandma Thomas, who was an amazing woman, if she didn't read to me and encourage me and buy me Highlights magazine when I was a kid, I would never have been able to compete with those kids in Ann Arbor, in Gross Point, in Birmingham, coming from a public school working class kind of neighborhood in metro Detroit. And so just the ability to compete, those are table stakes. You have to be able to do that. And then having a love of literacy, Read to a Child was an organization I was introduced to when I was at Yale and New Haven. And I actually went and read to kids in the New Haven Public Schools, which are very, in many ways, akin to the Detroit Public Schools.
And being with these young men, having a chance to read to them. And I would actually bring in the Wall Street Journal and I would take a look and I would pick three different stories that were sanitized and we'd read about McDonald's earnings returns. And I remember I would-
We weren't supposed to.
I hope they invested at that time.
Oh man. Well, me too. But at the same time, they were in third grade. So I don't know. But at the time I remember it was supposed to be us reading just to them, but I would have them read sometimes as well. And there was one point at which one of the young men I was reading with got to the bottom of the page. And he was like, in the earnings report, said this. Turn to Page B3. And he just handed the paper back to me. And I was like, what do we do now? And he's like, we're done. It's the end of the article. I'm like, well, we got to turn to B3. So they had never read a newspaper. And it's actually not that surprising because I feel like not a lot of people read in stages.
There's not a lot of people that read newspapers now.
But to be with him and have a chance to impart that to a kid who would never be reading a newspaper at that age and see his mind light up and then work with him for multiple years, it was so impactful to me that I joined the board and I became the national chairman. But there's so many different issues and problems we have to solve in our state, in our country. But if we can all take a little time, and I mean you and me and others, Read to a Child's a great organization because it's an inverted pyramid. It's not you reading to 30 kids. It's you or another adult saying, I'm going to partner with one child and we're going to read to them during their lunch hour so it doesn't take away from academic instruction. And you're building a relationship and you're also just helping them in a variety of ways by giving them that exposure to literacy.
But imagine if every American adult did that. Imagine if half of us, a quarter of us. What would be the effect on our communities, on our cities, if we just said, we're going to take a little bit of time, we're going to schedule it so it's there. It's really hard to do. It's hard to do if you're working. It's hard to do with your own families. But the only way we're going to bring our people along and bring our country along is if we're engaging with each other. And so, it was really personal to me. It's something I'm very passionate about. When I had my own children in the business I was running, I actually stepped away from the organization. Now I read to my boys every night. But that's something we have to do. And I believe that truly.
Christopher Thomas, thank you so much. And before we close out, just something that we always talk about in this podcast is what we like to call meals and deals, right? I'm pretty sure I know the answer to this question, but tell us about your favorite deal and celebratory meal. Or you can also answer it and say, "This is the favorite place that I go in order to celebrate a deal." I mean, I already know what you're going to say. Just go ahead and say it. Go ahead.
I don't know if I know the answer to this. So my favorite venue to go when I'm celebrating a deal, that's the question?
Yeah. Favorite venue to go to celebrate a deal. I know what it's going to be. Come on, downtown Detroit, right around the corner. You're going to sit down. You're going to have a good old fashioned slice of…?
No! I love Buddy’s, but that's not where I'm going to go to celebrate.
I'm going to go to what I believe is probably one of, if not the finest bar in America. So it's a little bar called the Monarch Club in downtown Detroit. It's on the roof of the Element Hotel. And it is unbelievable by way of both its ambiance, but the quality of the drinks, the quality of the fare. But it's a place where I love to go to celebrate. And I mean this genuinely, when I'm sitting down with any kind of folks in my orbit and we're really excited about celebrating something, it's either there or it's by a fire. And usually it's in my garden in downtown Detroit. But those are probably the two places I like to go. But the Monarch Club, it is top notch. It is. I would put it against the old King Cole Bar in New York. I'd put it against the Gold Club in San Francisco. And it's right downtown. It's a great place.
Well, I look forward to having a drink with you next to the fire, maybe at the Monarch Bar when we spend time in Detroit. Thank you so much, Chris Thomas for being with us today on the Pathfinders.
A special thanks again to Chris Thomas for being with us today. It's really amazing to see the work he's doing to take the mobility industry to the future and learn how Assembly Ventures is coming at investing and dealmaking from a whole new perspective. If you're enjoying the Pathfinders, please make sure to leave us a review so more people can find the show. Until next time, I'm Dhani Jones and this has been The Pathfinders presented by Ansarada.