This Private Equity Vet Has Been A WW2 Secret Agent, Is Standing For Congress And Fancies A Run For President
What do well-known real estate investors do when they retire? Few are likely to have had as unique or diverse a second life as Roger Barris.
In a 30-year career he ran Merrill Lynch’s European real estate investment before starting his own pan-European opportunity fund business, Peakside Capital, which managed around €1.8B of assets when he stepped back from the helm in 2015.
Since then he has tried his hand at televised espionage on the BBC, and now he has turned to politics, more specifically the U.S.’ Libertarian Party.
Michigan-born Barris has moved back to the U.S, and is standing for election in Colorado's 2nd Congressional District in November. If that goes well, he fancies running for president in the 2020 election.
His chances of following President Donald Trump as a second real estate alumni into the White House are slim — the Libertarian Party polled just 3% in the last election, although that is a big jump on the 1% it garnered in 2012. But he said just standing in the election would be a wild ride.
Barris told Bisnow he has been a supporter of the Libertarian Party since he was 17, with his involvement waxing and waning as he left the U.S. to become first an investment banker in Europe and then a real estate investor. Since 2012 he has written a blog, Economic Man, outlining views that fit staunchly with what the Libertarian Party, founded in 1971, stands for: free markets with little or no regulation, small government, with decisions devolved as much as possible to the individual, and the legalisation of drugs, among other social policies.
After moving back to the U.S. he decided to take a more active role in the party, organising its Colorado conference in March.
“If you’re looking for responsibility in the Libertarian Party you need to pass the mirror test, which is where they hold a mirror under your nose and if it fogs up you get as much responsibility as you can handle,” he said with a laugh.
Bisnow is a nonpartisan organisation, and any discussion of Barris’ political views does not amount to an endorsement.
He said although the party was small in comparison to the behemoths of the Republicans and Democrats, the divided nature of current U.S. politics was working in its favour.
“Trump has taken the Republican Party in a direction that a lot of Republicans have no interest in, that kind of high-spending populism is not what the Republican Party has stood for,” he said. "And, in response, the Democrats have embraced their loony side, so they are pretty far from the mainstream in U.S. politics right now. And that means people are more interested in what we have to say.
“One of my campaign themes is that we should have a federal government small enough so that we shouldn’t have to fight over it. Both sides have weaponised the federal government.”
Barris is attending campaign debates, appearing on local radio shows and trying to raise his public profile as much as possible in the run up to the vote in November.
“Getting exposure in the media is the biggest challenge,” he said, adding that the party in general struggled for central government funding because it did not achieve more than 5% of the vote in the last election. He said it was a bit of a paradox for a Libertarian to complain about being denied access to government funding.
Barris said his time in real estate bolstered his views about the role government should play in business and the life of the individual. And that there were a few lessons he had taken from the sector into the political world.
“Running any business gives you a good idea just how intrusive and counterproductive most forms of government action are,” he said. "It also gives you a good sense of the perverse incentives that government policies frequently create and the unintended consequences of these incentives.
“The biggest lesson for politics may be a counter lesson: all the things that worked in business — being thoughtful, truthful and logical — might actually count for very little in politics, where emotions and tribalism seem to rule. This is probably the greatest indictment of the political sphere, and government, of all.”
Barris’ political ambitions run beyond Colorado, and if things go well in November he said he fancies becoming the Libertarian presidential candidate. Doing well is of course relative for the third political party, and for him success would constitute improving on the 7% the party polled in the district in the last election, and perhaps even coming second in the staunchly Democratic area, although he has a way to go to catch up on the 37% the Republicans polled last time around.
“I can’t imagine anything more fun than being on a debating stage with Donald Trump and Elizabeth Warren, or someone like her. That would be the experience of a lifetime."
Barris has always had a taste for doing things a bit differently — while in Europe he drove for an amateur endurance car racing team, competing in 24-, 12- and eight-hour races.
And since retiring he has also been involved in another off-beat project, appearing in a BBC television reality series called "Secret Agent Selection: WW2". Fourteen participants were put through a re-creation of the training undertaken by potential recruits for the British Special Operations Executive, an espionage and sabotage unit active in occupied Europe.
The training — and the series — was gruelling both physically and mentally. The participants learned hand-to-hand combat, went on cross-country treks, learned Morse code and had to undertake mental tasks while mock gun fights were staged in the same room to put them off.
Barris bowed out around halfway through, hampered by the fact that he tore muscles in both legs learning hand-to-hand combat.
“My narrative was, ‘here’s an investment banking master of the universe who’s not as good as he thinks he is,’" he said.
“But the mental element was much tougher than the physical.”
From distressed investing, to hand-to-hand combat to potential verbal sparring with Trump. It has been a far from obvious journey for Barris.