Richard J. Heckmann, 65, builds companies via acquisitions and sells them when it no longer pays to be an acquirer. During the 1990s, he was a large shareholder and CEO of U.S. Filter: He took a struggling company with $7 million in sales, made an astonishing 260 acquisitions, and sold it for $8 billion in 1999. He used another 26 acquisitions to expand sporting-goods maker K2, which he sold for $1.2 billion in 2007. Then he quickly raised $430 million for a so-called blank-check company, Heckmann Corporation, essentially a vehicle for investors to bet on Dick Heckmann making more smart acquisitions. The first of those was China Water and Drinks, which he bought in 2008 via a deal that effectively allowed him to reduce the purchase price after problems surfaced at the operations.

I was born in St. Louis, but I lived in eight or nine different places, because my dad was with GE. High school in Des Moines -- I was bagging groceries and delivering newspapers. College in Hawaii -- I sold Fuller brushes door to door. I didn't graduate. I went to Vietnam in '65 and was assigned to the 33rd Air Rescue Squadron. When I came back in '66, I wasn't in any mood to go back to school. I got a job selling insurance.

I started my first company in '69, making rescue beacons for downed airplanes. We were young guys in our 20s -- three of us -- in Seattle. We understood everything about flying and rescue beacons and nothing about cash flow. We had some nice cars and a company airplane, but we ran out of cash. I was 27.

Then I stumbled across a company that made surgical implants. This is 1972. It was owned by Stuart Anderson of the Black Angus Steakhouse. He took $2,000 down and a note for $398,000 and a percentage of the gross. I took over. In 1977, I sold it to Hexcel. Stuart ended up getting $1.2 million. I got several million in Hexcel shares. I retired to Sun Valley, Idaho, to ski.

I'd gone to the Harvard Business School small-company management program. We had a reunion. I mouthed off during some meetings to Hamilton Jordan [Jimmy Carter's chief of staff] about how screwed up the SBA was. The next thing I knew, I was appointed a deputy administrator. I was 33. I did that until '79. I loved it.

I had put my Hexcel stock in a blind trust. It went from $8 to $30. So I decided to be a stockbroker, mostly to manage my own affairs.

A client of mine, Verne Winchell of Winchell's Donuts, had a neighbor in the water business who wasn't doing very well. We invested. After about six months, it still wasn't doing too well. Winchell and I went to spend a day at the company and figured out the guy was an idiot. I said, "Well, shit, I really believe in this water story."

Verne's friend's company was called American Toxic Control. It wasn't controlling it -- it was causing it. We decided to acquire the assets. In the coffee room, I saw a sign that said "U.S. Filter Corp." I called the owner of the name, and he said, "We don't care about the name; if you want it, we'll send you a letter." That's how I got the name.

American Toxic had $7 million in sales in 1990 and lost $2.2 million. I did an IPO for U.S. Filter in 1991 and raised $19 million.

We made 260 acquisitions. In the early '90s, you'd just come off the S&L crisis. Companies were trying to get back to their core. We were buying little divisions they didn't want.

I'm a flat-organization guy. Even when we had 24,000 employees, $5 billion in sales, we had only 50 people at headquarters.

Our stock caved in October '98, when the Fed raised rates momentarily. It fell from $30 to $9, then recovered to about $22 or $24. I thought, This is bullshit; I feel a top. So I started looking for a buyer and found Vivendi.

I would only sell for cash. I wouldn't take stock. The whole market blew up a year later. I define myself on the basis of the money I make for shareholders. I define myself on cycle timing.

I went on the K2 board. In 2002, I'm having dinner, and the CEO calls and says they are going to file Chapter 11 in the morning. I said, "You're screwing this up. Who's your bank? Patch me in."

"You know me. U.S. Filter. I need 60 days, and I'll put $25 million into it." "Good enough for us," they said.

I made 26 acquisitions. They were great until '06, when you couldn't do it anymore. All the private equity guys were throwing money around. They were outbidding me. When Blackstone filed its IPO, I knew it was over.

None of my executives wanted me to sell. But I was fairly generous giving stock options and restricted stock. Everybody who'd built the company was going to make a lot of money.

I wanted to go back in the water business. I found China Water at an investment conference. It was a perfect fit. I had all the money, and they had a nice little company. We're the largest supplier of bottled water to Coca-Cola in China now. We're building our ninth plant.

When I sold U.S. Filter, the CEO of Callaway Golf had left to become the dean of the business school at the University of California, Riverside. He came to me and said, "Why don't you give some of that money to us?" I agreed to give them $6 million. The state kicked in $10 million. That's why there's a Heckmann Center for Entrepreneurial Studies.

It can't be taught. But it can be nurtured. We have 90-something CEOs who come in and talk. The kids love hearing how it really happens.

A kid at UCLA asked me a couple of nights ago, "What happens next?" The next 15 to 20 years, the money's going to be made owning and running businesses. If I have any advice, it's look for a small business where you can be a principal. If you think you are so smart, go prove it. Don't go to your rocking chair at 65 not knowing.