Five years and $150 million later, what a mega business school gift can do

Larry Gies, 56, and his wife Beth Gies, 55, in front of the Gies College of Business at the University of Illinois

When Larry Gies came home from work to tell his wife, Beth, that he was considering donating $150 million to the University of Illinois College of Business, she was not only surprised but shocked.

“Do we have that much money?” Beth asked. “Why do you want to give everything away?”

They were legitimate questions. Over the past 23 years, Gies had quietly built one of the largest and most successful private companies in the world. As the founder, president and CEO of Chicago-based Madison Industries, he had amassed considerable wealth, even more than his wife had imagined. And because the company was private and not required to publicly disclose financial information, he had flown under the radar.

A BUSINESS COLLEGE TRANSFORMED BY A GENEROUS GIFT

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 (see table on following page). Five years later, on the day of the announcement on October 26, 2017, the Gies returned to campus to celebrate all that their promise made possible. The list of achievements for what became the Gies College of Business is exceptional in every way.

Total enrollments have increased from 5,100 to 9,500, largely due to massive investments in online education that have enabled Gies to play the role of a disruptor in higher education. Online graduates grew from 874 to nearly 7,000, with Gie’s iMBA now accounting for 10% of all online MBA students in the country. The faculty now numbers just over 200 out of 140, with the addition of several senior professors from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management and the University of Texas’ McCombs School of Business. Scholarships for undergraduate students have increased by 150%. New degree and certificate programs as well as new academic centers and laboratories have been established. The number of students involved in experiential learning projects has increased by 400%.

No less importantly, Gies’ gift inspired other alumni to reach into their pockets as well. On the day of the announcement, two members of Dean’s Business Council threw in half a million and a quarter million dollars. At the end of that first week, the college received an additional $1 million in donations. Since then, the school has raised approximately $200 million beyond Gies’ promise. The annual donation has almost tripled since the donation.

“THE GIFT IS THE DECISIVE MOMENT IN THE HISTORY OF THIS COLLEGE”

“We will always look back on five years ago as a pivotal moment in the history of this college,” said Gies Dean Jeffrey Brown, who had served less than two years before the gift was pledged. “Everything is now either before or after the gift. We had ideas, but we didn’t have the means to fund them. It was truly transformative.”

Gies has done more than write a check and partake in a champagne toast, he’s invested in the community that bears his name. He is on campus at least a dozen times a year to speak in class or at events and to chat with students, many of whom he knows by name. He’s been showing up for a two-and-a-half-hour class in for nearly 30 years in a row Financing emerging companiesFIN423, in which students dissect a case study of one of the companies he acquired and examine its purpose in life.

“Larry is always one of the students’ favourites, if not their darling,” says George Krueger, who teaches the course. “Initially, another faculty member told me he had three words to describe Larry: humility, honesty, and hard work. He was right.”

“I WENT COMPLETELY AWAY AWAY”

Jeffrey R. Brown, Dean of 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 appointed dean a year and a half earlier, met Gies there for the first time. 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 idea that through business they could have a positive impact on society.

It would shape the school’s slogan: Business On Purpose, to help students think about why they are getting a business education and how they can use that education to 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 $694 per semester.

“I walked out totally pumped,” Brown recalls.

The couple had met thanks to a clinical professor of investment banking, Rob Metzger, who was longtime friends with Gies. “I complained to Rob that the business school wasn’t getting the attention it deserved,” Gies recalls. “I had two sons who went to school with their friends, and few even went to the University of Illinois. When I was here, everyone wanted in.”

“LARRY WILL ASK YOUR WHY”

Gies told Metzger that the school should compare a few business school competitors to see what it could learn from them. Metzger told him to meet the new dean, who shared many of his ideas. Metzger told Dean Brown: “The first thing you need to know is that Larry will ask you your why when you meet him. But he flies under the radar and doesn’t like doing things.

A hyper-intense entrepreneur with an infectiously upbeat, positive vibe, Gies asked the dean why and was his typical high-powered self. Five months after her salads at Houlihan’s, Dean Brown found herself in the conference room at Madison’s downtown Chicago headquarters and proposed a big gift to him. It was only the second time the two met.

On that day in August 2017, Brown brought two presentation decks with him, not knowing how much Gies could possibly give: one asked for the $150 million for a name gift, the other for a significantly smaller donation. “We didn’t know how much money to realistically ask for,” Brown admits. “So the first deck was for the $150 million name gift and the other one we never had to pull out.”

WHEN THE DEAN REQUESTED $150 MILLION, GIES DID NOT BLINK

When the slide with the $150 million figure appeared, Gies didn’t blink. He just kept asking questions and taking feverish notes. He would discuss it with his wife, whom he met in 1987 when they were both students at the University of Illinois. She then went to the university’s Agricultural Consumer & Environmental Sciences School, majoring in textiles and apparel. Her second appointment was at the local YMCA to tutor youth. It was the beginning of a 35-year relationship. They have a 35 year relationship, 28 years of marriage. She felt just as committed as her husband to giving back to the school.

In retrospect, he worked towards this goal for a long time. After earning his bachelor’s degree in accounting from college in 1988, he received an MBA from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management in 1992. He turned down an offer from McKinsey & Co., preferring instead a more entrepreneurial option from a forbes 400 business owner that allowed him to acquire a business and run it at the age of 25. Two years later, he founded Madison using ten credit cards and a loan from a high school football friend to the max. His first acquisition, in 1994, was a plastic molding company in Cleveland.

Six days after the conference room session, Gies agreed with the post, but there was a catch. He and Beth didn’t want her name associated with college. At one point, Gies suggested five other graduates of the school whose names could be placed with the school with his funding.



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