Updated: Khan tells UI graduates the 'hard way' is the right way

Updated: Khan tells UI graduates the 'hard way' is the right way

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.

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ERE wrote on May 12, 2013 at 8:05 pm
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Congratulations to Mr. Khan-what a great success story and inspiration! His can't give up attitude will payoff once again. I can't imagine that an honorary doctorate from the U of I is not in his future, despite the glich this time from a few moronic faculty whose narcissism is only rivaled by their anencephahly-what poster children for the end of tenure tracks. We'd be lucky to have more businesspersons like him in the community creating appreciated jobs! 

griff507 wrote on May 12, 2013 at 8:05 pm

Great choice by the U of I. Kahn is proof, that all you need to do is pay your workers the least amount the law will allow, fire them if they miss a day, and skim all the profits for himself. Then if you give a university a few bucks,( tax deduction), they will hold you up as a piller of the community. Money can buy you almost anything!

The NFL didn't want him when he tried to buy the St. Louis Rams, now they are stuck with him in Jacksonville. Jacksonville fans already hate him, as he is trying to relocate their team to London, England. He will never have a winning Pro Football team. He won't pay the poor people that have made him a fortune a decent living, do you really think he will pay Pro players millions per year to play football?

Chancellor Wise could not have made a worse choice!

787 wrote on May 14, 2013 at 5:05 pm

Is it possible for the union protestors to let GRADUATION be about the GRADUATES?

Noooooo... the union protestors have to make it about THEMSELVES, and their personal agenda and vendetta.

Yet another sickening and pitiful display from our local labor representatives.  You look foolish.  If you want to picket, then picket the plant out on East University... not the Assembly Hall during graduation.

What an absolutely pathetic lack of good judgment.

Bulldogmojo wrote on May 19, 2013 at 1:05 pm

I know right, next thing you know people will want to shout "Don't abort your baby" at women getting a pap smear at a women's health clinic or holding up signs that say "God hates fags" at the funerals of soldiers or children killed in terrorist attacks.

The nerve of those union people publicly criticizing a corporate CEO who has a documented disregard for employee safety and poor wages. The nerve! I guess if someone had a sign that said "GOD hates hexavalent chromium" It would have been OK then?

We have to stomach a lot of vulgarity with the freedom of expression. It's an equal burdon we all must share so save your phony outrage for your bible study.