Foster Stephen Friess was born in 1940 in Rice Lake, Wisconsin. His father, who had a high school education, worked as a cattle dealer. “During the week, my father drove around northern Wisconsin buying cattle from farmers,” says Friess. On the weekends, he would collect the cattle he bought and take them to St. Paul to sell. He was a hard worker and had a zest for life I admired. He also believed in the American dream and served as an inspiration to me. He never achieved much success for himself, but he instilled in me a belief that if you worked hard, you could accomplish anything.”
Friess’s mother came from a large farming family. She was forced to leave school in the eighth grade to help her single mother and eight siblings pick cotton to save their family farm in Texas. “My mother was incredibly cheerful,” says Friess. “She would be working in the kitchen and whistling as she did her chores. She was self-conscious about her lack of education, and she never realized what an incredible person she was. Because of that, I have become more of an encourager to others to believe in themselves.”
Moreover, his mother taught him to be charitable to others in need. His family home was near the railroad tracks, and it became known to homeless men drifting through town that they could get a free meal from “Mom Friess” in return for stacking firewood, washing windows, or performing other household chores. When Friess’s grandfather became ill, his parents cleared out the furniture in the living room to make space for a hospital bed. Friess’s mother nursed her father-in-law until his death several months later. “That made a big impact on me,” says Friess. “My parents taught me what it means to be committed to family.”
Friess hardly remembers a time when he didn’t do chores or work at a paying job. As a child, he had a paper route and harvested beans and strawberries. In high school, he managed a Dairy Queen and helped his father with the cattle. Each October he helped to round up the cattle from the fields. Once they were corralled, it became Friess’s job to treat steers with pink eye and hoof rot. “I loved that work,” he says. “It was like being a cowboy.”
Friess also loved school and sports, serving as class president as well as student council president. His leadership also extended to sports, where he was captain of the basketball, track, golf, and baseball teams. As class valedictorian, he earned a scholarship to the University of Wisconsin in 1958. There he eventually became president of his fraternity and joined ROTC. Between his junior and senior years, Friess won a scholarship to study international economics for six weeks in Oslo, Norway. He earned a degree in business administration and joined the Iron Cross Society as one of the UW’s 10 most outstanding senior men.
After graduating in 1962, Friess entered active duty in the U.S. Army. He trained to be an infantry platoon leader and was an intelligence officer for the First Guided Missile Brigade at Ft. Bliss in Texas.
Upon his release from the service, Friess launched his investment career by joining the family-owned firm of Brittingham, Inc., and eventually becoming director of research. Ten years later, in 1974, he started his own investment management firm. The first year’s revenues were barely enough to feed and clothe his family. That same year, his infant son, Michael, contracted spinal meningitis. Gravely ill, Michael survived the illness but lost his hearing. “This was one of the more challenging moments in my life,” says Friess. “My father and grandfather had always told me if I worked hard, I could control my destiny. Well, my son’s illness taught me there is no control. But Michael has been such an inspiration to us. He never let his impairment stop him. He is an FAA-certified helicopter pilot. He has given us rich insight to the non-hearing community that we wouldn’t have known without him.”
Friess admits that in the early years of his investment firm, he worked long hours to make his business a success, thus making him a workaholic and a perfectionist. During that time, he essentially became estranged from his wife and children. “I was on the brink of divorce,” he says. “That’s when I invited Jesus Christ to become ‘chairman of the board’ of my life. It completely changed how I viewed the world. I learned that the difference between excellence and perfection is this: perfectionism abhors error and tries to eradicate and destroy it, but excellence embraces error and builds on it, transforms it. We grow as people by the rough times we experience.”
Friess’s approach to business changed as a result of his religious studies. “I learned to be a positive thinker,” he says. “I also learned to embrace adversity. Crisis is a terrible thing to waste. I came to believe that anger is a choice. I taught my staff to treat their subordinates not as people who report to them, but as individuals for whose success they are responsible. I began to give custodians a place of honor at company banquets, and part-time drivers attended company trips with our top performers. As a result of the changes I made in my approach to life, I not only restored my relationships with my wife and children, but my firm began to grow steadily.”
When the firm grew to $17 billion in assets under management, CNBC’s Ron Insana dubbed Friess “one of the century’s great investors.” Likewise, Business Week called him the “longest surviving successful growth stock picker.” In addition, Friess is known as one of the earliest money managers to harness the Internet for communications. He also received praise in Merrill J. Oster’s The Entrepreneur’s Creed: The Principles and Passions of 20 Successful Entrepreneurs for his investment philosophy. In 1992, Friess turned over the reins of his firm to his successor in order to spend more time directing The Lynn and Friess Family Foundation and working with public policy advocacy.
Friess says his becoming an “encourager” was largely responsible for his business accomplishments. “I learned how to lead others at an early age,” he says. “It’s important when you are in a leadership position to be an encourager. It isn’t productive to try to correct a person’s weakness. Instead, I believe you should build on his or her strengths and find someone else to make up for that person’s weakness.”
Mentors have greatly influenced Friess’s life. He fondly remembers a basketball coach who taught him the importance of learning fundamentals as opposed to strategies before going beyond the basics. His Boy Scout leader showed commitment to youth, and Friess greatly appreciated all the time that leader took to spend with him and his peers. He also credits his wife, Lynn, for teaching him dedication to family and the importance of being positive. “I would not be where I am today if it weren’t for her advice and counsel over our near 50 years together.”
But Friess often says that his number-one mentor is Jesus. “He was the greatest role model of all,” he says. “His treatment of people, his forgiveness, and his universal love are inspirational. Jesus spoke about the importance of reaching out to the poor. His words taught me that our money, our health, our family-they aren’t ours but his. We are not the owners—we are the stewards.”
Friess advises young people starting out in life to find what they love to do. He adds, “I also think it’s important to never compare ourselves to anybody else lest we become vain or bitter. For me, success is having maximized the best of our abilities and skills. And don’t be afraid to fail. Failure and a willingness to take risks is the next step to your next success. Most of all, I encourage others to understand why the Christian values are so important—even if you are a nonbeliever.”
Humbled by his Horatio Alger Award, Friess says, “What excites me a great deal about the Horatio Alger Association is that it demonstrates what is possible in America. It is the manifestation of the American dream as exemplified by the Members’ lives. Few of us would have achieved the same heights of success had we grown up in a less-nurturing culture or environment. America is good.”
Friess spends much of his time directing his family’s foundation and working with public policy advocacy. His philanthropic activities come as a response to real-world problems and include providing water purification units in Sri Lanka, Malawi, and Haiti; and funding mobile medical vans that serve thousands of people in poor areas of the United States. After the 2004 tsunami, Friess traveled to Sri Lanka to deliver sewing machines, carpentry tools, and a medical van. He also funded businesses for widows, and launched the Haiti Renewal Fund after that country’s 2010 earthquake. Following Hurricane Katrina, he gave millions to help citizens recover from the devastation. He met one woman in a Louisiana shelter who said to him, “I have lost everything I had but my joy.” Friess continues to feel inspiration from those words in his current relief work.
In addition, his Private Sector Solutions Advocacy Fund encourages private-sector solutions to America’s problems. He also invested $3 million to launch an Internet-based news site, The Daily Caller .
Friess has received many awards, including an honorary law degree from Pepperdine University; the Muhammad Ali Humanitarian Award; and National Charities’ Humanitarian of the Year Award in Washington, D.C., following in the footsteps of Coretta Scott King, Lady Bird Johnson, and Bob Hope. He has also received the David R. Jones Award for Leadership in Philanthropy.
Friess served one year as president of the Council for National Policy, which networks leaders of organizations committed to strong national defense, economic freedom, and traditional family values.