The $150 Million B-School Donor Who Is Also A Superstar In The Classroom

Gies College of Business

Larry Gies in class


On the massive screen behind him, Gies shows that one study found that 83% of all public company transactions added zero shareholder value.

“Why do people mess up when they do deals?,” he asks the class.

“They buy too high,” says a student.

Gies then turns back to the winning team and asks how they came up with their numbers.

“On the fly,” concedes one student, noting the team wanted to win.


Lesson learned. “The true value of the business is the cash flow it will create in the future,” he says. “Happiness is positive cash flow. But people underestimate risk, and there is so much risk out there that you have to build in a cushion for your valuation. You always need to buy low because price is the one thing you can’t change after closing. There’s no such thing as a good company or bad company, only a good price or a bad price.”

He quotes investor Warren Buffet: “Be fearful when others are greedy and greedy only when others are fearful.”

Gies then tries to find an example more relevant to a student and finds a young man in the third row of the auditorium who tells him he recently bought a car for $36,000.

“Dude, you are in college and you bought a $36,000 car?,” Gies asks. “Do you want to pay $36K or something less? What do you do for a living?”

“I’m a student,” he answers.

“I want to be a student,” quips Gies.


The conversation is fast-paced, and Gies’ eyes scan the room so he can determine if what he is saying is registering with every student. The first hour of the class feels like it went by in a few minutes. The students take a brief break and returns for a part of the class that Gies seems most to enjoy: Finding meaning and purpose in life.

“Life is about experiences, a series of experiences,” he tells the students. “It’s not about a career. It has been empirically shown that a lot of experiences will give you the ability to find out how to have an impact in the world. The pivots you do in life are where great things happen. Whenever you get a chance to have a great experience, take it. In every experience you have, something is going to click. Whatever you do, while you are there, work hard. Work your butt off. The harder you work, good things happen. When you put more effort in, you will get more out of it.”

“Who is afraid of failure?” he suddenly asks.

No one raises a hand.

“Liars,” he shouts.  “I fear failure. I don’t feel it so it paralyzes me. But if I fail, I just don’t fail myself. I fail my family, my investors, and my team members. I don’t think fear is bad as long as it doesn’t paralyze you.”

And then Gies goes into what he calls three failures that helped him pivot in a way that made a difference to him.


“I am in third grade and make the Little League baseball team,” he begins. “I came home and told my dad and asked if he would buy a baseball glove for me. On Saturday, we walked down to the Sears catalog store, and instead of a glove, we bought a lawnmower for 98 bucks. I asked my dad, ‘What about the baseball mitt?’ My dad said, ‘Once you pay me back for the lawnmower you will have the money to buy a baseball glove.’ I am eight years old. But that was my first business. It was awesome.”

An entrepreneur was born that day. Gies started mowing lawns with abandon and with each new customer, a new and important lesson was discovered. “I charged the first person $5,” he reveals. “The next person, $10. The next, $12. What I realized is that you take a risk on price. Jump your price up. You can always lower your price back. Your price is what the market will bear. I guarantee that the people who work for you are afraid to raise their prices. But there are only three ways to increase revenue: New product, volume, and price. You always got price. Try it out.”

The other stories unfold, each with an enduring lesson and impact on Gies from the time he worked for free in exchange for equity he never received or the time he was a 24-year-old accountant at Deloitte and told the Sears CEO Ed Brennan how to run his business. Gies was booted out. When he was clearly failing in his first job after graduating with an MBA from the Kellogg School, his boss sent him a fax with a hand-drawn ladder and a rope. “You dug yourself a hole,” the boss scrawled under the drawing. “You’ve got a rope and a ladder. Good luck.” And he recalls buying his first company by leveraging up ten credit cards with 90-day teaser rates while his wife worked three jobs.

As the class clock ticks closer to the end, Gies relays a story that became a wake-up call for him.


At the time, he was 47 and already a success. “I liked building companies, but something was missing,” he says. “I was with a bunch of my buddies from school and we were all complaining about life and our jobs. We go for a run and a friend snapped a picture of us and sent it to me.  I suddenly realized the problem. Behind us, there were 100 kids running around on a school trip. I was thinking about me and not thinking about them.”

Gies organized a retreat in California and brought his leadership team. He asked each to write their own eulogy. “People talked about their families. From a professional standpoint, people said they wanted to be remembered for doing good in the world, something their grandkids would know about. We started talking about doing something that would outlast us. We began talking about things that will help society and make a difference every day.”

The mission of his company became clear: It was to make the world safer, healthier, and more productive. Madison owns companies that produce everything from surgical suite equipment for hospitals to the “jaws of life” used to pry open vehicles involved in accidents when a victim may be trapped. “I wish I had started this 30 years ago. Because we are talking about things that will help society and make a difference every day,” he says.


“We are here on earth to have impact,” concludes Gies. “Fame and fortune are fleeting. But the one way to leave your mark on the world is to have impact. It’s not about money. It’s not about fame. It’s about impact. We need to create profit and cash flow but we always go to mission first.”

He makes it clear that a person does not have to work for an organization or a person who articulates a well-meaning vision. You can do that for others wherever you work, notes Gies, and you should. “People are thirsting for context, and context drives behavior, something beyond just going to work. What’s key is connecting human longing to a higher purpose. Your job is to connect the dots to that higher purpose. Be the leader who connects the dots.”

Gies walks off to a rousing applause at 8:32 p.m., slightly more than two and one-half hours after starting. But many of the students felt they wanted more. Over two dozen of them lined up to have another moment with the dude who gave $150 million to the school, the guy who connected the dots.

Gies College of Business

After his class, more than two dozen students line up for a chance to chat with Larry Gies


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