When Larry Gies came home from work to tell his wife, Beth, that he was thinking of making a $150 million donation to the College of Business at the University of Illinois, she was not merely surprised but shocked.
“Do we have that much money?” asked Beth. “Why do you want to give it all away?”
They were legitimate questions. Over the previous 23 years, Larry Gies had quietly built one of the largest and most successful privately held companies in the world.
As founder, president and CEO of Chicago-based Madison Industries, he had amassed significant wealth, even more than his wife had realized. And because the company was private, not required to publicly disclose financials, he had flown beneath the radar.
So Larry’s conversation with his wife, in the summer of 2017, preceded the announcement of what remains the second-largest single gift to a business school in history.
Five years later to the day of the announcement on Oct. 26 of 2017, the Gieses returned to campus to celebrate all that their pledge has helped to make possible. The list of achievements for what became the Gies College of Business is extraordinary by any standard.
Total enrollment has soared to 9,500 students from 5,100, largely due to massive investments in online education that have allowed Gies to play the role of a disrupter in higher education.
Online graduate students increased to nearly 7,000 from 874, with Gies iMBA now accounting for 10% of all the online MBA students in the country.
The faculty now numbers just over 200 from 140, with the addition of several senior professors lured from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Managment and the University of Texas’ McCombs School of Business.
Scholarships for undergraduate students have risen by 150%. New degree and certificate programs and new academic centers and labs have been launched. Students engaged in experiential learning projects have increased by 400%.
No less crucial, Gies’ gift also inspired other alumni to dig into their pockets. On the day of the announcement, two members of the Dean’s Business Council tossed in a half a million and a quarter of a million dollars. By the end of that first week, the college received another $1 million in donations. Since then, the school has raised roughly $200 million above and beyond Gies’ pledge. Annual giving has nearly tripled since before the gift.
“We will always look back to five years ago as the pivotal moment in this college’s history,” says Gies Dean Jeffrey Brown who had been in the job not more than two years before the commitment of the gift. “Everything is now either before or after the gift. We had ideas but we did not have the resources to fund them. It truly has been transformational.”
More than writing a check and attending a champagne toast, Gies has invested himself in the community that bears his name. He is on campus at least a dozen times a year to speak in classes or at events and pow-wow with students, many of whom he knows by name. For nearly 30 years in a row, he has shown up for a two-and-one-half-hour class in Financing Emerging Business, FIN423, in which students dissect a case study on one of the firms he has acquired and examine their purpose in life.
“Larry is always one of the favorites, if not the favorite of the students,” says George Krueger who teaches the course. “In the beginning, another faculty member told me he has three words to describe Larry: humility, honesty, and hard work. He was right.”-said Jeffrey R. Brown, dean of the Gies College of Business at the University of Illinois.
The story of the landmark gift begins with a late-afternoon meeting over salads at an empty Houlihan’s Restaurant in Champaign. Brown, who had been named dean a year and a half earlier, met Gies for the first time there. The two chatted for hours about Brown’s plan to make higher education more affordable and accessible to others and to instill in generations of students the notion that through business they could have a positive impact on society.
It would inform the school’s tagline: Business On Purpose, to help students think about why they’re getting a business education and how they can use that education to help make the world a better place. That message resonated with Gies who attended the school as an accounting major in the 1980s when tuition was all of $694 a semester.
“I walked away completely jazzed,” recalls Brown.
The pair had gotten together thanks to a clinical professor in investment banking, Rob Metzger, who had long been friends with Gies. “I was complaining to Rob that the business school wasn’t getting the attention it deserved,” remembers Gies. “I had two sons who were then looking at schools along with their friends and few even looked at the University of Illinois. When I was here, everyone wanted to get in.”
Gies told Metzger that the school should benchmark a couple of business school competitors to see what it could learn from them. Metzger told him he should meet the new dean who shared many of his ideas. Metzger told Dean Brown: “The first thing to know is that when you meet Larry, he’s going to ask you about your why. But he flies under the radar and doesn’t like to do stuff.”
A hyper-intense entrepreneur with an infectiously upbeat, positive vibe, Gies did ask the dean about his why and was his typical highly engaged self. Five months after their salads at Houlihan’s, Dean Brown found himself in the conference room of Madison’s headquarters in downtown Chicago, pitching him for a big gift. It was only the second time the two had met together.
On that day in August of 2017, Brown brought two presentation decks with him, not knowing how much Gies could possibly give: One asking for the $150 million for a naming gift, The other for a significantly smaller donation. “We didn’t know how much money to realistically ask for,” concedes Brown. “So the first deck was for the naming gift of $150 million and the other one we never had to pull out.”
When the slide popped up with the $150 million number, Gies didn’t blink. He just kept asking questions and feverishly taking notes. He would talk it over with his wife, who he had met in 1987 when they were both undergraduate students at the University of Illinois. She was then at the university’s Agricultural Consumer & Environmental Sciences School majoring in textile and apparel. Their second date was at the local YMCA to tutor youngsters. It was the start of what would be a 35-year relationship, They have a 35-year-long relationship, 28 years of marriage. She felt as committed as her husband to giving back to the school.
In retrospect, he had been working toward this goal for a long time. After earning his bachelor’s in accounting from the college in 1988, he got an MBA from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management in 1992. He turned down an offer from McKinsey & Co., favoring instead a more entrepreneurial opportunity from a Forbes 400 business owner who allowed him to acquire a company and run it at the age of 25. Two years later, he started Madison by leveraging up to the hilt ten credit cards and a loan from a high school football friend. His first acquisition in 1994 was of a plastic molding firm in Cleveland.
Six days after the conference room session, Gies agreed to the contribution but there was one catch. He and Beth didn’t want their name attached to the college. At one point, Gies suggested five other alums of the school whose names could be placed on the school with his funding.
“The name part was a real stretch for me,” adds Beth Gies. “That was a real struggle. It’s still a little hard. People are just different when they know you have a lot of money. All of a sudden, you are the funniest person or the most interesting person in the room. I didn’t want that.”
Neither did her husband. “We wanted this to be about the students and not us,” he says. In fact, Gies refused to be photographed without students in any promotional or marketing materials until only recently posing for one photograph with his wife on the University of Illinois campus.
Brown, however, believed the school needed an identity. He showed Gies a list of top business schools in the U.S. and noted that only two were unnamed: Illinois and Wisconsin. And the school of business at Wisconsin had received funding from its alumni not to name the school. Having an identity was important in getting the school greater visibility and enhancing its reputation, the dean argued.
Gies had to agree. “This school is midwestern humble. We do not brag.”
“And besides,” reasoned Brown, “It won’t be your name. The students will own it. They will define it by what they do.”
It took a couple of weeks to persuade Gies to finally agree to have his name on the school. The evening before the announcement on Oct. 26th of 2017, his wife turned to him, clearly worried about the prospect of having the family name so publicly associated with their generous gift.
“Is this going to be a big deal?” she asked innocently. “Will there be anything in the papers?”
At that moment, says Gies, “I knew we were in trouble. We would no longer be under the radar.”
The gift could not have come at a more opportune time. The state legislature had failed to pass a new budget for two years so funding concerns would come up in faculty recruitment conversations, even though state support had been falling for years. Yet, the school was moving forward, launching its iMBA online with the disruptive price tag of a mere $22,000. Soon after Brown became dean, the faculty reimagined the undergraduate business curriculum and he invested in a major branding campaign to get the school better known.
The inflow of money, directly from the Gies gift and indirectly from other alums who ponied up, has transformed the school. “I have been blown away by how it has been embraced by the school and the students,” agrees Beth.
“There are a lot of metrics we can throw out there,” adds Brown, “but what is hardest to measure is the sense of pride and purpose and the aspirations of the students who are gung-ho. People walk with a bounce in their step.”
This spring the Gies College will break ground on a new building of classrooms and video studios. Brown already has a $25 million pledge from a donor who is resisting putting his name on the facility. The school is now a pioneer in offering students credit-bearing stackable online credentials that can be applied toward its online degrees. Even its online Master’s in Management program is fully stackable into its online MBA.
At an anniversary celebration in the cavernous atrium of the BIF (as students refer to the college’s business and instructional facility), Gies warmly greeted students, alumni, and faculty, hugging some he already knew. Some 68 Sicilian pizza pies from Papa Del’s were quickly consumed.
“There are two things I do on a bad day,” sighs Brown. “I go to the atrium to talk to students or I call Larry because he will always pump me up.”
Just like a generous gift that pumped up a college of business. (JA.B)