Jim Dey: Peter Fox, no matter where he is, means business
For a man who seemingly has a finger in every pie, Peter Fox is remarkably relaxed.
Reserved in nature and kept company in his Champaign office by his equally relaxed dog Willie, Fox is matter-of-fact in discussing business interests that range from the University of Illinois Research Park to the I Hotel, Houlihan's restaurant and the 28 Jimmy John's franchises he owns to investments in dozens of potentially groundbreaking high-tech businesses that are spinoffs from university research.
He says he has no management problems because "we have a very deep group of quality people" to run the enterprises on a day-to-day basis.
What animates Fox is talk of the future, specifically recharging the Champaign-Urbana economy and the role the UI and its scientific researchers can play in building the community. Specifically, he's excited about Chancellor Phyllis Wise's proposal to open a new medical school here that is affiliated with the Carle health system.
"I think (the idea) is the salvation of the community," he said. "We're not creating the kind of jobs we need to survive."
Fox is talking about the kind of high-paying jobs that skilled professionals — hundreds of physicians and engineers associated with high-profile medical and research facilities — earn.
Plus, he said the UI will find itself at a competitive disadvantage if it "doesn't reinvent itself."
"It's so key that we become more involved in medicine because that's where a lot of the technology and innovation has occurred. Plus, that's where the (public and private) funding is," he said.
Without that kind of jolt, Fox fears, Champaign-Urbana and the UI will limp along economically, sending elsewhere highly educated professionals who might otherwise stay.
"If the community doesn't do something like this, I think we're missing an opportunity," he said.
The 62-year-old Fox makes it a point not to miss any opportunities, and he's become a big player in local philanthropy, the public schools, the arts, business and the UI.
So much so that rumors spread quickly when it was learned that Fox and his wife, Kim, are selling their Champaign home while building a house in Chapel Hill, N.C.
Peter Fox leaving?
It's nothing like that. It's like this.
With his two children attending college in North Carolina and 25 Jimmy John's franchises in the Carolinas to go with three others in the Indianapolis area, the Foxes spend much time in North Carolina.
So after receiving an unsolicited offer to buy their Armory Street residence, the Foxes decided to downsize. Plans aren't final, but Fox said he's hoping to add living quarters to his offices on Fox Drive. They will continue in the future, as they have in the past, to divide time between Champaign-Urbana and Chapel Hill.
The attraction of Chapel Hill is business, family and pleasure.
"Kim likes it. I like it. It's a nice place to go," he said.
The Carolinas also are a nice place to do business. In addition to the 25 JJ's Fox owns, he want to add another 75 "over the next five years."
"It's a $30 million-a-year business out there," he said.
But another 75?
"If you're not ambitious, you don't make the kind of progress that you can make," he said.
A member of the board of the privately-owned Jimmy John's corporation, Fox said he became involved with the company after Jimmy John Liautaud paid him a surprise visit. The company has become one of the nation's fastest-growing franchises, with a recent Forbes Magazine article listing it as No. 2 behind the Five Guys hamburger chain.
"People don't realize how smart (Liautaud) is. He is tenacious, almost maniacal, about the details. That's what I really think separates the chain from the competition," he said.
Fox also is intrigued by the Research Triangle in North Carolina. Just as he has invested through Fox Ventures in spinoff enterprises at the UI, he said "we're starting to do the same thing in the Raleigh-Durham area." They involve the life sciences, optics, energy, computer software and web applications.
He said he finds investment ideas by meeting and then engaging in long talks with scientific researchers.
"My wife doesn't think I'm very social. But on a one-on-one basis, I like to talk to people," he said.
But Fox said he doesn't make final decisions without consulting his wife, one of his closest advisers.
"We don't really make a decision unless she agrees with it," Fox said.
The oldest of four children born to William and Alice Fox, Fox grew up in Champaign before leaving to attend high school at Andover and college at Stanford. He calls his father, a U.S. Navy frogman in World War II and a successful banker, one of his heroes.
Fox said he learned from his late father never to let problems fester, "to define what the next step is and solve it."
He also said his father derived considerable satisfaction from helping other people succeed and that is something in which he, too, takes pride.
After a brief stint in state government after college, Fox owned eight Wendy's franchises from 1977 to '88 and then spent 14 years as a senior managing director at Bear Stearns before returning to Champaign in 1997 to focus on real estate development and private equity investments.
Fox said he has many business and personal interests that range from reading to travel. But he said the greatest satisfaction comes from bringing people into his businesses and watching them flourish.
"The most fun is to see somebody succeed," Fox said.
Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 351-5369.