Nov. 8, 2018 was a historic day in the history of Huntington and Marshall University. That is the date a press release went out announcing that alumnus Brad Smith and his wife, Alys, were donating $25 million to the Lewis College of Business. Almost immediately phones began ringing around Huntington as people wondered if the figure was a misprint. Social media blew up as people shared the news and posed numerous queries and comments online:
“Didn’t Brad Smith just donate $10 million to Marshall a few years ago?”
“That makes $35 million the couple have donated to Marshall!”
“This is going to be a game changer!”
In the press release Marshall President Jerome Gilbert heralded the $25 million donation, one of the largest in the university’s history, as “transformative.” And
Dr. Avinandan Mukherjee, dean of the College of Business, said “Today will be recognized as a pivotal moment for the university, as well as for the entire region.”
Back in Silicon Valley, Brad was wrapping up his 11-year tenure as president and CEO of Intuit, the software giant and maker of QuickBooks, TurboTax and Mint. In August he had announced that he would be retiring at the end of 2018 to pursue other interests and spend more time with his family. The news came as quite a shock to the business world considering his young age, just 54, and his phenomenally successful run at Intuit. The company, which employs 9,000 people across the globe, is recognized as one of the world’s best places to work, and Brad is widely considered one of the top executives in America today. In 2017, Fortune ranked him #6 on their list of Top CEOs in the United States, while Forbes named him one of the Top 10 Influential American Business Leaders.
“In a surprise move, one of Silicon Valley’s champion CEOs is stepping down,” an article in Fortune reported. “Since he became CEO in January 2008, Intuit stock has risen 588%, obliterating the Nasdaq’s 230% rise and the S&P’s 107%.”
So why was one of the nation’s most accomplished and respected business leaders vacating his highly coveted corner office?
“You take the job knowing that the end date will be inevitable. The goal is to make sure you are a part of choosing the date,” Brad said with a smile. “What’s more, the company was ready, our next leader was ready, and I was ready. I never wanted to be that athlete that had lost a step.”
Another key factor was his wife, Alys, and their two daughters, Payton and Devon. They had supported him throughout his career, in particular his schedule that often had him traveling around the world and working at a frenetic pace.
“I decided to change my priorities to family and home. And, Alys and I wanted to spend more time with our families in West Virginia and Ohio,” Brad explained.
In addition to deciding the time was right to retire, the Smiths also discussed their mutual desire to give something back, and first on their list was Marshall University.
“Brad and I are passionate about education and economic empowerment in West Virginia, Ohio and Appalachia,” Alys said. “We believe in supporting programs that are strategic, enduring and have a lasting impact on students.”
President Gilbert said that is exactly what their gift will do.
“This is a magnificent gift from Brad and Alys. It will provide a strong foundation for the redesign, reorganization and reenergizing of our College of Business. Their generosity will change the lives of our business students for generations to come.”
Mukherjee said the gift will allow Marshall to rework its business curriculum and build new facilities.
“In addition to redesigning our programs, we will build new facilities with spaces to nurture collaboration, creativity and entrepreneurship.”
In appreciation for the Smiths’ generosity, the undergraduate and graduate schools in the College of Business will now be named the Brad D. Smith Schools of Business and a new building will be erected and named the Brad D. Smith Center for Business and Innovation.
“This generous gift is truly a game changer for our business programs, as we can now aspire to the next level of excellence,” said Mukherjee.
The reason the Smiths are so interested in helping students in Appalachia is because both grew up in that region – Brad hails from Kenova, West Virginia, while Alys is from Akron, Ohio. After graduating from Ceredo-Kenova High School, Brad earned a degree in business and marketing from Marshall in 1986. He would later take night classes to obtain a master’s degree in management from Aquinas College. Alys earned an undergraduate degree in biology from The Ohio State University before going on to receive a law degree from the University of Akron.
The couple first met in 1991 on a blind date of sorts. Brad was in Akron working for 7- Up at the time, while Alys was trial lawyer for a law firm in nearby Cleveland. A work colleague thought they should meet. To impress Alys, Brad purchased two tickets to the Bolshoi Ballet from Russia who were performing in Cleveland. But when the big night arrived, Brad was so immersed in work that he lost track of time and stood her up. He called her the next day and begged for forgiveness. To his surprise, she gave him a second chance and things went much smoother after that. The couple were married in Akron in 1993.
“I teased Brad for years for standing me up on our blind date,” Alys said with a smile. “And I would often remind him that I never did get to see the Bolshoi Ballet. Last year we celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary, and as a surprise Brad took me to Russia where we finally got to see Bolshoi Ballet.”
Brad continued to climb the corporate ladder working for such companies as Pepsi, ADVO and ADP. Despite impressing the upper brass at each stop along the way, one of his bosses was troubled by his West Virginia accent and advised him to enroll in speech classes to defuse his dialect.
“I went to the classes, but it didn’t work,” Brad said with a grin. “You know, it’s funny. I think it helped me learn an invaluable life lesson — to be authentic to who you are.”
That West Virginia twang didn’t seem to deter his career ascent. In 2003 he joined Intuit and then, just five years later, was named CEO. He was just 43-years-old when he was asked to take charge of a global entity with 8,000 employees and annual revenues of $2.6 billion. During his 11 years at the helm, he remained authentic to his roots. He proudly wore his Marshall class ring to work every day, and could often be spotted donning Thundering Herd apparel around the Intuit campus.
“Some people ask me why I’m always promoting Marshall and West Virginia. It’s pretty simple — I am proud of where I’m from,” Brad explained. “As I’ve said many times before, my heart never left West Virginia.
This is not the first time the Smiths have written a check to Marshall. In 2015 they gave $10 million to the university to establish a scholarship for first-generation college students from West Virginia and Ohio. And Brad has been intimately involved in a number of Marshall projects over the years, including 2017’s Design for Delight challenge that saw Intuit leaders travel to Huntington to help Marshall students form business plans. The program culminated in a competition judged by Brad, actress Jennifer Garner and former Marshall and NFL quarterback Chad Pennington.
Before stepping down as Intuit’s CEO at the end of 2018, Brad made a point of visiting most of the company’s divisions around the world to thank them for their years of service. At every stop he was met by throngs of employees who treated his visits as a farewell tour. In the Intuit company culture, Brad Smith is a rock star. Like most everyone in Silicon Valley, he is extraordinarily bright. In addition, he possesses a rare set of traits that make him a leader who is both beloved and respected. He is described by employees as honest, warm, kind, approachable, encouraging and humble. It should come as no surprise that in 2017 Fortune ranked Intuit #13 on its list of the “Best Companies to Work For” in the United States. Perhaps Intuit Vice President Cassie Divine sums it up best when she said, “He is living proof that nice guys finish first.”
While Brad may have stepped down as Intuit’s CEO, he will still have a stake in the company as its new executive chairman. He also sits on the board of directors at Nordstrom and SurveyMonkey. Alys will continue to mentor young women as a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA), and work as a mediator. Their future will be anything but dull.
As for the future of Marshall University, the couple is confident that their investment will pay substantial dividends.
“I believe God was egalitarian when it came to handing out talent,” Brad said. “But the unfortunate reality is that economies and jobs are not equally distributed. Education and entrepreneurism are the great equalizers that level the playing field.”
“Our ultimate goal is to assist Marshall University’s leadership in transforming the College of Business, bringing us closer to solving the most intractable business and economic challenges in the region,” Alys explained. “Our shared passions are education, entrepreneurism and economic revitalization in Appalachia.”
Looking ahead 25 years, Brad said he is confident that Marshall will continue to evolve and become a university that can truly make a difference in Appalachia.
“Marshall University is as strong as they come. We’ve overcome tremendous adversity, but the strongest steel is forged in the hottest fires,” Brad asserts. “At this moment, Marshall is seizing the opportunity to transform itself with the reimagination of the School of Business. In doing so, it is leaning in to the future skills that the students, the state and the region will need to participate in the new economy. This new economy is global, connected by the cloud with computers in the palms of our hands. It is my aspiration that Marshall will rank among the elite universities in preparing young minds to compete in this new future.”
As for the future of his home state, Brad is equally optimistic.
“West Virginia is made up of men and women who choose to blaze trails instead of follow paths. While our history and our resilience will forever be rooted in the mountains, our future resides in what is possible in the clouds. With the transformation that Marshall is undertaking with the business program,
I believe West Virginia’s brightest days lie ahead.”
When asked why the couple chose to contribute such a large portion of their estate to Marshall, Brad said it was an easy decision.
“Marshall has been a part of my life since I was a little boy.
I was 6-years-old at the time of the plane crash. I still remember looking out the window of our home in Kenova and seeing the mountain glowing red. In college, professors like Robert Alexander, Michael Boudreau, Dick Jones and Chong Kim were hugely influential. But maybe the best answer to why Alys and I chose Marshall for this gift can be found in the lyrics of a song by Tim McGraw’s called ‘Humble and Kind.’
‘Don’t take for granted the love this life gives you
When you get where you’re goin’
Don’t forget, turn back around
Help the next one in line
Always stay humble and kind.’”
And then Brad simply says, “That’s how we were raised.”
JACK HOUVOURAS is the publisher and editor of the Huntington Quarterly. A 1988 graduate of Marshall University’s School of Journalism, he is a freelance writer in his spare time. His articles have appeared in Hemispheres, the award-winning onboard magazine for United Airlines, Sierra, the national magazine of the Sierra Club, Kingdom, a golfing luxury lifestyle publication, and more.