As thousands of Egyptians took to the streets during the Arab Spring protests of 2011, Ray Dalio, a hedge fund billionaire, decided to sail the Nile River with some friends, including some other financiers.
It was a risky place to be, with the Middle East convulsed, and Mr. Dalio’s trip raised concerns at the Connecticut headquarters of his company, Bridgewater Associates. But his security team couldn’t get him to change his plans, so they set up a special team to track him and his group by GPS, hoping to keep him out of trouble.
You could say that Mr. Dalio was applying one of his very own rules, known internally as Principle 188: “If you make a plan, follow through!”
Over four decades, Mr. Dalio, 68, has built Bridgewater, which has $160 billion in assets, into the largest hedge fund firm in the world — bigger than the next two largest hedge funds combined. He manages money for some of the largest companies, big public pensions, sovereign wealth funds and even some central banks. He has become a financier-statesman, of sorts, consulting with political leaders in China, the Middle East and elsewhere.
He has also built an unusual and confrontational workplace at Bridgewater, where employees hold each other to account by following a strict set of rules that he created, “Principles.” He began developing the rules, which number more than 200, two decades ago based on his life experiences.
Some, like advising employees not to “tolerate badness,” are self-evident. Others — “look for people who sparkle”; “be willing to ‘shoot the people you love’” — are more unconventional.
All of the rules celebrate what Mr. Dalio calls “radical transparency” in the workplace, and the search for the ideal employee. Those ideals stand in stark contrast to Bridgewater’s reputation as particularly secretive when it come to its trading, even for an industry where secrecy about investing is the norm.
Now, Mr. Dalio hopes that others will embrace his ideas about the future of work as he embarks on a big public push to promote his Principles. But is corporate America ready for his sometimes contradictory vision of radical transparency?
On Sept. 19, Simon & Schuster will publish “Principles: Life & Work,” a 567-page book written with editing help from a former GQ magazine writer that combines Mr. Dalio’s rules with a memoir. He is also working on a smartphone app — once called the Book of the Future — to help other business leaders apply the Principles.
The effort to establish Mr. Dalio as a business icon in the vein of Steve Jobs or Warren E. Buffett comes even as questions persist about Bridgewater’s unusual culture. The firm videotapes nearly everything that goes on there for future case studies, and employees are given homework and graded on their understanding of Principles.
In interviews with nearly 50 current and former Bridgewater employees, including several chosen by Mr. Dalio, The New York Times found that he is driven to enforce his rules to ensure that they survive at the firm. Some senior executives have been taken to task in “public hangings” — one of the Principles meant to “deter bad behavior” — when they break the rules. Other employees have been pushed to tears.
The Times also found that Bridgewater’s investment process is largely a secret not only to investors but to most of the firm’s 1,500 employees. No more than a dozen people have a full sense of how the firm trades.
Even employees who left with a positive experience describe a workplace that is rigid and sometimes oppressive.
“Is it a hedge fund, or a social experiment?” said Tim Bradley, a technology consultant who worked at Bridgewater for a year in 2010.
At a time when workplace culture — whether at Silicon Valley start-ups, Wall Street banks or factories — can attract intense public scrutiny, Mr. Dalio’s pitch to other businesses that they can adopt the Bridgewater model could be a tough sell.
Mr. Dalio declined to comment for this article. In the past, he has dismissed criticism of the firm as exaggerations by disgruntled workers and “distorted news.”
Bridgewater, in a statement, said that people either thrived in the firm’s “unique culture” or “they dislike it and decide to move on.”
The Principles at Work
Nestled amid pine trees and hidden from the main road, the serene setting of Bridgewater’s headquarters in Westport, Conn., is beloved by employees. Many also find the work intellectually stimulating.
Plucked from top schools, most of those hired by the firm arrive with little or no expertise in the world of finance. They work hard, and party equally hard at off-site retreats sometimes held at the Lookout, a firm-owned guesthouse where meals are cooked by Bridgewater chefs, or at Mr. Dalio’s house in Vermont.
“Bridgewater definitely changed me and I would say for the better,” says Owen B. Jennings, who was hired as an investment associate in 2011 after graduating from Dartmouth College.
Others describe a darker side of the firm’s culture. Turnover is high — a third of employees are said to leave within the first two years, a figure the firm does not dispute. Some who have left said they became disenchanted with the constant blunt feedback, questioning of their actions, lack of privacy and need to adhere to Mr. Dalio’s rules.
Nearly all of the current and former employees interviewed declined to speak on the record for fear of retribution because of the firm’s strict nondisclosure agreements. The Times reviewed documents from a dozen lawsuits and complaints filed against the firm by former employees, and documents obtained from public agencies through Freedom of Information Act requests.
The picture that emerges is that life at Bridgewater is demanding, with a heavy focus on maintaining Mr. Dalio’s rules.
Each day, employees are tested and graded on their knowledge of the Principles. They walk around with iPads loaded with the rules and an interactive rating system called “dots” to evaluate peers and supervisors. The ratings feed into each employee’s permanent record, called the “baseball card.”
Two dozen Principles “captains” are responsible for enforcing the rules. Another group, “overseers,” some of whom report to Mr. Dalio, monitor department heads.
The video cameras that record daily interactions for future case studies are so ubiquitous that employees joke about “the men in the walls.”
Meetings occasionally last for hours, sometimes simply because of a debate over why certain subjects are on the agenda or the quality of an employee’s presentation. Workers described being publicly berated for not completing homework assignments related to the firm’s culture or, sometimes, for “below-the-bar thinking.”
In one of the firm’s more memorable case studies — videotaped episodes of events at Bridgewater that employees review and analyze — a female employee burst into tears during a group interrogation. “I have never seen so many smart people in a room who never get anything done,” Mr. Bradley said.
Bridgewater said “it would be misleading to characterize” the firm as a place where employees are publicly berated.
The app that Mr. Dalio is developing will include some videotaped Bridgewater case studies but only ones that employees have agreed can be shared with the outside world.
Mr. Dalio, a devotee of Transcendental Meditation, considers confrontation part of a quest for getting to the truth and determining an employee’s “believability.” Because, as Mr. Dalio once explained in a Principle known in-house as No. 194, only “believable” people “have the right to have opinions.”
James Cordes, who was hired several years ago as an internal adviser to the Bridgewater management committee, said Mr. Dalio, “was a purist; you had to go all in.”
Mr. Dalio has talked about the firm as a place devoid of office politics, where employees don’t talk behind each other’s backs. But some former employees contend Mr. Dalio has simply created a different kind of office politics, one that rewards those who play by his rules.
The firm’s top executives, like Mr. Dalio, see things differently. “This is a deeply analytical place,” said Brian Kreiter, a member of Bridgewater’s management committee. “When something goes wrong in any part of our business it gets debated vigorously with reference to our shared understanding, systems, and principles.”
“We want this place to be an idea meritocracy,” he said.
But in Mr. Dalio’s quest to create an environment that values data, emotional intelligence can be stripped out of business decisions, said Robin Levine, a former employee who now runs a job-matching platform she and another Bridgewater alumna founded. “If you read through the Principles, there is more emphasis on the individual.” Ms. Levine added that working at Bridgewater did foster good interpersonal relationships.
Yet some incidents of raucous behavior at off-site retreats have led employees to complain.
In one 2012 episode, at Mohonk Mountain House in upstate New York, several dozen junior associates watched a fireside chat that started in humor, and then took a turn when Greg Jensen, one of Mr. Dalio’s lieutenants and a co-chief investment officer, was asked by another employee to describe the time that he and Mr. Dalio sat naked together in a sauna during a trip to Japan.
After the retreat, several employees said they were made uncomfortable by some of what had gone on that weekend, including skinny dipping and heavy drinking by some who were there.
Three years ago, another top executive took a group of young interns to a strip club. Again, some employees complained about the outing later and the episode became a case study to be discussed internally.
These incidents have spilled into public view over the past year, leading to concern about the firm’s image. The impact on recruiting has become a topic of discussion within the firm, according to an internal document reviewed by The Times. One manager wrote in the document that Bridgewater had become “a place that is difficult to hire for and lukewarm to join.”
Last year, the firm resolved a complaint filed by the National Labor Relations Board over its restrictive employment contracts.
Mark Carey, an employment lawyer who has represented five Bridgewater employees in disputes over the past two years, said that Mr. Dalio had created an environment that could deter employees from speaking up about workplace problems.
“This whole transparency and truth-seeking thing is juxtaposed with the fact that they intentionally secretize all interactions with employees from public view,” Mr. Carey said.
Mr. Dalio has acknowledged that the firm’s culture is not for everyone. Of his rules, he writes in his book, “I don’t expect you to follow them blindly.” The firm said, “While there could be some concern that media distortions might impact recruiting, the firm just had one of its best recruiting classes ever.”
Bridgewater also notes that business leaders like Bill Gates and Jamie Dimon have praised Mr. Dalio’s book.
Robert Kegan, a professor at Harvard Graduate School of Education who spent a week at Bridgewater doing research, likened Mr. Dalio to a great inventor. “Every critical thing you’ve heard about Bridgewater could be true and it still doesn’t take away from the basic project itself,” Professor Kegan said,
Mr. Dalio was contributing to “ as dramatic a transformation as the industrial revolution,” he added, referring to the Bridgewater founder’s vision of the future of work.
Some hedge fund managers get museum wings named after them for making large donations. Others have hospital wards dedicated in their honor. Mr. Dalio had a species of coral — Eknomisis dalioi — named for him in 2011 because of his involvement with the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.
His beginnings were more humble.
He grew up in Jackson Heights, Queens, the son of a jazz musician. He earned an undergraduate degree in accounting from Long Island University before heading off to Harvard Business School. After graduating, he landed at a small brokerage firm that was led at the time by Sanford I. Weill, who would later forge Citigroup.
Mr. Dalio didn’t last long. He punched his boss in the face and brought a stripper to a corporate event. He was fired and then formed Bridgewater in 1975, working out of his two-bedroom Manhattan apartment.
He married Barbara Gabaldoni, a descendant of the Whitneys and the Vanderbilts, and the couple moved to Wilton, Conn. For a time, Bridgewater was so small that it was run out of their home.
Early clients included the pension funds for the World Bank and Eastman Kodak. The firm gained a dedicated following on Wall Street because of its deeply researched daily economic note, Daily Observations.
After profiting on the stock market crash of 1987, Mr. Dalio started to become known beyond Wall Street. The next year, he appeared in an episode of “The Oprah Winfrey Show” called “Do foreigners own America?”
In 1991, Bridgewater started one of its flagship funds, Pure Alpha, which makes bets based on the direction of global economic trends. Five years later, it started All Weather, a fund that pioneered a steady, low-risk strategy called risk parity.
As for Principles, the concept flowed from Mr. Dalio’s early practice of jotting down his observations about how markets worked. He moved on to writing down his thoughts on how employees should interact in the workplace.
In the mid-2000s, he had just a few dozen Principles, but the number quickly grew along with Bridgewater’s head count. Ultimately, Mr. Dalio compiled his rules into a little white book. All employees carried hard copies before Principles became available on the firm’s iPads.
It wasn’t until the financial crisis of a decade ago that Bridgewater made the big leagues. The firm saw before most in the industry that trouble was brewing in the mortgage market and at investment firms like Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers. So when the stock market tumbled in 2008 and most hedge funds recorded big losses, Bridgewater’s Pure Alpha fund made for its investors. Its success led more money to pour in.
Since it began, Pure Alpha has made investors an annual average return after fees of 11.9 percent, slightly better than the 9.5 percent average yearly return for the Standard & Poor’s 500. The All Weather fund has given investors an annual return of 7.9 percent return since it began.
In an industry known for producing flameouts, the consistent returns have drawn investors to Bridgewater despite Mr. Dalio’s idiosyncratic leadership style, which has included frequent management shake-ups. Most recently, Mr. Dalio ousted Jon Rubinstein, a former top Apple executive, in March after hiring him just 10 months earlier as the firm’s co-chief executive officer, because he was not a “culture fit.”
“It is a culture that is not for everyone but not one that would dissuade me from investing,” said John Longo, a finance professor at Rutgers University School of Business.
Yet much of the firm’s vaunted investing machine remains shrouded in mystery, even to those working at Bridgewater. On Wall Street, how the firm makes its money long has been a source of envy and debate because it goes to great lengths to conceal its trades from competitors.
As one of the first hedge funds to embrace quantitative analysis, Bridgewater bases almost all of its trades on algorithms derived from decades of market observations. The firm trades in many diverse markets, including the Japanese yen, Treasury securities and gold.
There is little room at Bridgewater for intuition and fast-paced trading. Unlike their counterparts at other big hedge funds who are responsible for trade ideas, many Bridgewater traders simply press buttons that execute trades. Many of those positions are held for several months at a time.
Only a small number of top executives who occupy Mr. Dalio’s “circle of trust” have a complete picture of the firm’s trading strategy from start to finish. Another half-dozen employees on what is called Signals team, which decides how the firm should adjust its trading, sign long-term noncompete agreements.
To avoid any inadvertent leaking of trading information, Bridgewater has a general policy that discourages the 450 employees who work on the investment side of the firm from socializing with those employed at Wall Street firms it trades with.
“Not only is the information kept confidential with respect to the public at large, it is not even openly disseminated within Bridgewater,” Nella Domenici, the firm’s chief financial officer, wrote in an effort to get the Teacher Retirement System of Texas, a Bridgewater investor, to deny a public records request by The Times.
At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in January, Mr. Dalio appeared on a panel with two senior Russian officials: Kirill Dmitriev, the executive officer of the Russian Direct Investment Fund, and Igor Shuvalov, the first deputy prime minister of Russia. The panel came as a political firestorm was spreading in the United States over intelligence reports that Russia had meddled in the presidential elections.
“It would be better if the sanctions were lifted,” for Russia’s economic and financial development, Mr. Dalio told the audience, while adding that Russia had already made adjustments to be less dependent on foreign investment.
The message appeared to please his panelists. Mr. Dmitriev said he hoped to organize a delegation to Russia later in the year, “containing the largest funds and companies from the U.S.,” adding, “we would love to have Ray and other people there as dialogue partners.”
In his book, Mr. Dalio writes a good deal about his world travels, particularly his meetings with foreign leaders and economic thinkers. The meetings have not only informed Bridgewater’s trading style, but also have shaped Mr. Dalio’s views about how to manage his people and the firm.
But no foreign country and its leadership is as important to Mr. Dalio than China, which he first visited in 1984 and where his son Matthew lived for several years. Mr. Dalio has often met with the country’s senior leaders during his frequent visits there. In 2015, he was one of a few business leaders to attend a state dinner at the White House in honor of president Xi Jinping.
Over the years, Mr. Dalio has geared up for the day when China opens itself up more fully to foreign investment firms, securing hard-to-get licenses in order to expand its investment business.
Last year, Bridgewater became the third global investment firm to receive a license for a wholly owned foreign owned enterprise, allowing it to set up an entity to manage money for Chinese institutional investors and, potentially, to engage in foreign currency trading. The firm received the approval just weeks before China stopped issuing licenses to foreign investors.
Months later, Mr. Dalio met with Pan Gongsheng, the deputy governor of the People’s Bank of China who is also an administrator of China’s State Administration of Foreign Exchange, or SAFE, which is responsible for managing China’s foreign exchange currency reserves.
In 2014, the Dalio Foundation, an $750 million enterprise, established a separate charity in China, Beijing Dalio Public Welfare Foundation, to support child welfare, education and “social organization innovation.” As recently as 2015, the charity’s chairman was Wang Jianxi, who, according to Bloomberg data, is a vice chairman of SAFE Investments.
Bridgewater has a relationship with SAFE and the China Investment Corporation, China’s sovereign wealth fund, and has advised both government entities.
Mr. Dalio’s travels to China have continued even as he promotes himself as a management guru. A recent trip became fodder for a June meeting at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, where he told a small audience of prominent money managers — including William A. Ackman and Jim Chanos, a China bear — that the country’s economy was in safe hands with its policy makers.
And, Mr. Dalio writes in his book, one of his close counselors, not only on China, but on big ideas about the wider world, is Wang Qishan, one of the most powerful men in China and the nation’s anti-corruption czar.
Every time Mr. Dalio goes to China, he meets with Mr. Wang. The two men, Mr. Dalio writes, discuss subjects as varied as artificial intelligence and the implications of Julius Caesar’s rise to power. Mr. Dalio, who refers to Mr. Wang as one of his heroes, said that his advice had helped in the planning for Bridgewater’s future.
“Every time I speak with Mr. Wang, I feel I get closer to cracking the unifying code that unlocks the laws of the universe,” Mr. Dalio writes. Such interactions, were “thrilling to me.”