CHAMPAIGN — Shahid Khan told University of Illinois graduates on Sunday that it was his determination to take the harder path and the art of cold-calling that brought him to the top of his multi-billion-dollar auto parts business and eventual ownership of a professional football franchise.
Khan, the president of the Urbana-based Flex-N-Gate Corp. and a controversial character locally, delivered the keynote speech during the university’s campuswide graduation ceremony Sunday. He was met with applause inside the State Farm Center, but some criticism outside the arena’s doors.
“We just think he’s not the most appropriate person as a commencement speaker,” said Gene Vanderport, speaking on behalf of groups Central Illinois Jobs With Justice and the Coalition of Labor Unions.
About a dozen or so members of the groups demonstrated outside the State Farm Center as graduates and their guests gathered for the morning and afternoon ceremonies.
Inside, Khan encouraged graduates not to take the easy road as they launch into new careers.
“Whenever I faced an easy way or a hard way, invariably, the hard ways turned out to be the right way,” Khan said.
A UI graduate himself, Khan came to Urbana in 1967 from his native Pakistan with no job and little money. He found housing in the University YMCA for $2 per night as he began his studies toward an engineering degree.
He said he made a lot of cold calls looking for jobs before he found employment at the Flex-N-Gate plant in Urbana. He would eventually buy the business in 1980, and the operation grew into an international supplier of automotive parts and became the industry standard.
Last year, Khan paid $770 million to buy the Jacksonville Jaguars, an NFL franchise. He said that, too, was a result of cold-calling and meeting with NFL owners, and he encouraged graduates not to abandon interpersonal communication and to be prepared to be told “no.”
“You won’t find an NFL team for sale through social media or listed on Craigslist,” Khan said. “To achieve the American dream, it's all on you to make it happen.”
He also said that, as an immigrant, he was criticized in his early days for taking a job away from American citizens. But through hard work, he said he has now created thousands of jobs.
“Imagine if we fixed immigration how many more millions of jobs would be created here in America,” Khan said.
Protesters outside the arena said they were not there to make a fuss, but rather to call attention to what they called poor working conditions at his Urbana bumper plant.
Given the plant’s history — it was cited by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration with nine “serious” violations last year — the protesters thought Khan should have been passed over as a speaker.
Last year, OSHA issued a $57,000 fine to Flex-N-Gate for not providing adequate training and supervision to workers handling chemicals used in the chrome-plating process for car bumpers.
Khan was described in the commencement program as a deeply committed philanthropist, “giving generously to the University of Illinois and the surrounding community.”
Vanderport said the demonstrators are appreciative of his philanthropy, but the working conditions at the plant very much need to improve. He also claimed Khan has been involved in attempts to block those workers from unionizing.
“We especially want the graduates to think about the employment issues as they go into their future careers,” said demonstrator Germaine Light.
UI Chancellor Phyllis Wise introduced Khan on Sunday. She said Khan “exemplifies that magical combination of innovation, hard work and generosity” that the university strives to cultivate in its graduates.