CHAMPAIGN — After years of zealously guarding his online profile, Larry Gies is getting used to seeing his name in lights — or at least on billboards.
Like when he steps off a 7 a.m. train in Chicago and sees 15-foot letters spelling out "Gies College of Business" on a University of Illinois ad.
The founder of Madison Industries — a manufacturing firm with 10,000 employees in 31 countries and annual revenues of $5 billion — initially didn't want his name on the UI's business college. He even considered remaining anonymous when he and his wife, Beth, donated $150 million to the school in 2017, one of the largest to any business school.
After the gift was announced, he declined media interviews for months.
"If you do an internet search on me, other than the last two years you won't find anything," Gies said. "I didn't want to be on the internet."
His name is everywhere now, down to the sleeves of the coffee cups sold at the Business Instructional Facility.
"It happens to be my name, but at the end of the day it's the college's name, and the college is defining it," he said.
Ahead of his May 11 commencement speech, the UI alumnus opened up about the ambitious philosophy behind his company, his belief in education, and how his parents — one a Holocaust survivor — influenced his life.
First: Gies is clearly a planner.
"I never thought I was as smart as the other folks, so I always thought I had to work a little harder," he said. "I'm an optimist externally, but that's because internally I always think something could go wrong. I always plan for that," Gies said.
When he did an Ironman Triathlon in Hawaii, Beth Gies wore extra inner tubes around her neck in case his bike had a flat in the heat. If he has to go on stage to give a speech, he thinks about tripping and prepares for it.
"I even know what I'm going to say if it happens," he said. "So when I go into a situation, I'm not nervous because I've thought of everything."
Gies attributes that trait to his father, a businessman, and his mother, who has a "healthy skepticism," he said.
"That combination always has me prepared — probably over-prepared," Gies said.
He grew up in Mendota, a town of just over 7,000 people in LaSalle County, "where you knew everybody and they knew you," he said. "It was a wonderful way to grow up."
He still stops in to see friends on his trips back and forth to Champaign-Urbana to teach his UI course in entrepreneurship.
His early life focused on "sports and work." He detasseled corn, baled hay, mowed lawns, worked with cattle, "anything that needed to be done on a farm, I did. It was a great way to learn a hard day's work and see the results of your efforts."
He played football, wrestled and ran track in high school, and competed in the former Prairie State Games, a kind of statewide summer Olympics, at the UI. One summer, he got to meet the UI's wrestling coach and asked what he thought of Gies' chances of competing in college.
"He said, 'You'd be a great throwing dummy here,'" Gies said. "I was not going to be a great wrestler, and it focused me elsewhere."
That turned out to be business — specifically accounting at Illinois. He applied to only one school.
"When you grow up in Mendota, going to the University of Illinois was the school to go to," Gies said.
His father, Larry, worked at a manufacturing company and was the first in his family to graduate from college. His mother, Rachel, never finished eighth grade and stayed home to raise Larry and his sister, Rhonda.
"When I was graduating from here, it was a very big deal for them," Gies said.
His mother was born in the Netherlands during World War II, and her father was active with the Dutch Resistance. When Rachel was three months old, her father was picked up by the Nazis, "so the next day her mother put a rosary around her neck and sat her in front of a Catholic orphanage," Gies said. "Her mother was taken that day. So she survived."
After the war, Rachel was reunited with a great-aunt and -uncle who raised her along with their own daughter. Rachel came to the United States when she was 18 and settled in Alexandria, Va. She went to visit her adopted sister in Rockford, met Gies' father, and they later moved to Mendota for his job.
"She's the happiest person you'd ever meet, as happy as you can imagine," he said.
'Hooked' on business
Gies decided early on — in fifth grade — that he wanted to buy and run a business someday. That was the year Michael Heisley — future billionaire owner of the Vancouver (now Memphis) Grizzlies — bought Conco Inc., the Mendota company where the elder Larry Gies worked.
"I was hooked," Gies said.
He loved accompanying his father to the manufacturing plant on weekends and later worked there during the summers. He liked seeing products roll out and "the fruits of people's labors being marketed and sold to folks who could use it to do other things with it."
After college, Gies ended up running several companies that Heisley bought up around the country.
"It was a fabulous learning experience," he said.
He had picked up other business know-how at the UI, where he was active in student government and served on the Illini Media Co. Board, which owned The Daily Illini, WPGU radio and other student-run media.
It seems that a girlfriend worked at WPGU, and a friend told Gies that her boss was interested in dating her. The next day, Gies saw an ad in the DI about two openings for students on the IMB board. He applied and was selected, "the whole thought being I would be the boss of this guy who was the boss of my girlfriend."
The company was in the process of moving off-campus, and Gies learned a lot about how boards can be involved in the business side of a company but not the editorial side, "because you don't want to ruin the independence of your journalists."
And the girlfriend? "That didn't quite work out."
Building a legacy
After graduating in 1988, Gies worked at what is now Deloitte, then earned an MBA from Northwestern University (where he currently sits on the board). After working with Heisley for a few years, Gies started Madison Capital Partners in 1994, at age 27.
"I had no product, I had no invention," he said, but he was able to attract "really sharp people who wanted to build a business with me."
Gies loaded up 10 credit cards and recruited investors, his wife worked three jobs, a college friend loaned him $50,000, and he began buying up businesses.
"We built wonderful businesses with wonderful people. The problem was we'd have to sell the businesses to give the investors their return," he said.
Then, seven years ago, at an off-site retreat, Gies and his team talked about how to build the company. As an icebreaker, he had everyone write their own eulogy — what they wanted to be remembered for.
People talked about family and doing good for the world, he said, but they also talked about building something professionally that would outlast them, "something their grandkids would know about." Buying and selling off companies, they agreed, wasn't it.
"We decided that day to build something that would be here after we're gone, something that would be here 200 years from now," he said. "We're going to attract businesses and entrepreneurs to this company that make the world safer, healthier and more productive. And we're going to create a culture that would be sustainable and outlast us."
Madison Industries now makes products that help automobiles reduce carbon emissions and improve indoor air quality in workplaces, schools and homes, he said. It makes pens that surgeons use to cut and cauterize skin and remove the harmful smoke plume that can cause lung damage to doctors and patients. It manufactures a part for a device that removes pathogens from blood to keep the nation's blood supply safe, he said.
The corporation, privately held by Gies and 500 owner-managers, has rejected products that don't fit that mold.
For Gies, it's important for leaders to "connect the dots" between the work employees do every day and a higher purpose, to remind them what they're doing is good for the world.
"We spend 60 percent of our waking hours in our job. Shouldn't that have meaning?" he asked.
Leaders also have to build trust with their actions, he said. "Employees are watching you each and every day."
He talked about two company plant managers, one in Florida and the other near California's Napa Valley, who did "amazing things" during recent hurricanes and wildfires in those two states. Each shut down the plant to provide food, money and a place to sleep for displaced employees, and asked workers who weren't affected by those disasters to help those who were.
They "put employees before profits. That's showing true leadership."
Did Gies ever think he'd be this successful?
"I still don't think I'm successful. That's what drives me. I'm always my harshest critic. I'm always thinking about what could go wrong, what am I not doing right, how can I improve?" he said.
"Did I think I'd have the ability to influence others? Did I think I'd have the ability to help others at the scale I do? Absolutely not."
Gies credits his wife, a former teacher, for their "lifelong mission" to support education. They met at the UI, when Gies went with a roommate to pick up his girlfriend at a sorority house. As they waited on the front steps, "my wife walked by and I said, 'Who was that?'"
A few weeks later, she took Gies with her to tutor underprivileged children at the University YMCA.
Later, working in Chicago after college, a colleague asked Gies to tutor at the Boys and Girls Club on the west side.
"I learned there was a lot of need there, but if you're able to spend time with the kids and help them and give them access to a great education, you could change their lives," he said. "If you change the life of a child, you change the trajectory of a family for generations."
He later met Matthew Lynch, who wanted to start a scholarship academy for African-American youth on Chicago's west side. Gies agreed to support the project, now The Gies Campus of Chicago Jesuit Academy, which has a 98 percent high school graduation rate.
"He's doing just unbelievable work," Gies said of Lynch.
Beth Gies tutors there every week. "She loves that one-to-one interaction," he said. "I'd rather build the school."
His advice for other Illinois business graduates: Have as many experiences as you can — and don't stop.
"I'm experiencing all the time. Seven years ago we weren't building Madison Industries, we were building Madison Capital Partners," he said. "Keep growing, keep learning. And the minute you think you're done, that's when you're about to get the next big surprise."
Speaking of commencement ...
Larry Gies isn’t the only accomplished alum returning to campus to address the UI Class of 2019.
Among those booked for speaking gigs at individual college and department commencement ceremonies are these grads who’ve gone on to big things.
Grainger College of Engineering
The 1986 mechanical engineering grad’s story is sure to inspire young entrepreneurs: 12 years after Caruso founded a bandwidth infrastructure solutions business in Boulder, Colo., Zayo Group Holdings has 3,700 employees, serves customers on two continents and generates $2.8 billion in revenue.
Gies College of Business
If the last name rings a bell, you might have heard of the Chicago-based health care real-estate giant the UI grad founded — Lillibridge Healthcare Services is one of America’s largest medical office and outpatient facility companies, serving more than 400 health care providers in the U.S.
College of Media
Two years after trying to get his boss to deliver the main commencement address at Memorial Stadium, the chief of civic engagement for the Obama Foundation will headline a UI college ceremony himself. Strautmanis holds degrees from two of them — media (BS ’91/advertising) and law (JD ’94).
Department of Urban and Regional Planning
An education that ended with a master’s from the UI’s College of Fine and Applied Arts started at Moraine Valley Community College in Palos Hills. Now, Salgado heads up Chicago’s entire 80,000-student community college system as chancellor of City Colleges of Chicago.