Meet business legends who have spent from their fortunes and lent their good names to the colleges of business at five Alabama universities.
“There are always opportunities. Take advantage of it and sacrifice.” — Charles Collat
Charles and Patsy Collat School of Business
The University of Alabama at Birmingham
“I am blessed to have the means to help,” says Charles Collat, from his Mountain Brook office. And help he does. For decades, he and late wife, Patsy, have assisted those in need from Jefferson County and beyond. And a favorite “beyond” is their namesake — The Charles and Patsy Collat School of Business at The University of Alabama at Birmingham.
“Certainly Mr. Collat’s strong leadership and vision in growing Mayer Electric into one of Birmingham’s largest privately held companies is an outstanding success story in business,” says UAB President Ray Watts. “At UAB, his generosity and service have touched virtually all corners of our campus — from medicine to education to engineering to business.”
Collat, retired CEO of Mayer Electric Supply Co. Inc., did not start as a wealthy benefactor. A native of Savannah, Georgia, his teenage jobs included assembling furniture during Christmas holidays, followed by working as a paper mill operator. His father died early in the boy’s life, forcing young Charles and his mom to seek work, leading to Birmingham.
In 1953 he married Patsy Weil, whose parents founded Mayer Electric Supply. Charles worked in its warehouse, then left it for a two-year stint in the U.S. Air Force. He returned in 1955 as a warehouse operator, then warehouse foreman, sales and eventually, CEO. Under his leadership, Mayer grew to be one of Birmingham’s largest privately held companies and one of the most charitable.
“I was attracted to UAB, seeing how it handled its student population,” Collat recalls. He knew what it meant to be a needy college kid. “I went to the University of Georgia, when a quarter’s tuition cost $50 — but it was hard to find the $50.”
Collat believes UAB’s population is made of “students of opportunity,” meaning they use opportunities available. “They work to go to school,” he notes. “They take lots of evening classes. UAB puts them at a high priority.” So did Collat, donating $25 million.
“Our school is extremely proud to carry the Collat family name,” says the institution’s Dean Eric Jack. “Mr. Collat’s generosity, integrity, grace and years of dedicated service all make him a tremendous role model for our students.”
Collat’s gift to UAB, the largest philanthropic contribution from any donor to the school, was a “transformational gift,” said Watts, when he announced the September 2013 renaming. “Charles and Patsy have set a tremendous example for others who want to see UAB faculty, staff and students continue to bring recognition to our city and state through outstanding education, patient care, research and service. This is just the beginning.”
Collat’s passion for UAB, the school, is matched by his advocacy for students. He advises them, “Choose a good place to work. If you put your life in the hands of a company, put it with a company built to last. You might have to sacrifice in a job that is not glamorous or glorious, but that’s ok. A lot of people spend more time picking out a tie than their future.”
Charles’ wife, Patsy, whom he met at age 15 and never stopped courting, died in January 2015. But his charitable work, with UAB, the United Way, Alzheimer’s disease research and other causes, continues.
The Birmingham philanthropist credits much success to seizing opportunity and stresses to those wanting to follow his footsteps: “There are always opportunities. Take advantage of it and sacrifice.” He uses Mayer Electric Supply as an example: “You probably won’t get rich working for Mayer,” and adds with a smile, “But you may get a nice place on the lake.”
The Culverhouse College of Commerce
The University of Alabama
Approximately one-third of all University of Alabama bachelor degrees are from Culverhouse College of Commerce. “Dad would be proud,” says Hugh Culverhouse Jr., about his father’s namesake. “He loved the school and loved accounting.” The son found out the hard way.
“I was a history major — for two weeks,” laughs Hugh Jr. When his dad found out, the news did not go well. “Like hell you are!” the elder Hugh Culverhouse said. “Son, during a depression, accountants work overtime. History teachers get fired. You are an accountant!”
Father, son and family backed their beliefs with bucks. The Culverhouses donated millions to the university’s business school, including a $10 million single gift, at the time the largest in the school’s history. The school was named for Culverhouse Sr. in 1997.
The Culverhouse-UA relationship began in the late ’30s, when, much to the dismay of his Auburn graduate father, Hugh Sr. took a boxing scholarship at the Tuscaloosa Capstone, where his sparring partner was George Wallace.
Culverhouse Sr. majored in accounting and later attended law school. At age 26 he joined the Army, served as a second lieutenant during World War II and returned to Alabama. “Dad was offered a full scholarship to Harvard,” recalls his son. “But it was on condition that he repeat his first year.” He refused.
Upon graduation, Hugh Culverhouse Sr. operated a law firm, held an accounting practice, became an IRS attorney, real estate investor and owned the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers. “He was one of the toughest negotiators anyone ever met,” says son Hugh. “He was also one of the hardest working. When he went to trial, no one was more prepared.”
Perhaps he learned some of his drive from his college boxing days. “Dad once learned of a fraternity brother treated badly, roughed up, by a rival fraternity,” recalls the son. “Dad stood in front of their house and called them out.” When they appeared, he beat the daylights out of them.
“That was how dad operated, ” says Culverhouse Jr. “He was not a finesse player. He told you exactly what he was going to do and he did it.”
But his philanthropy is legendary. Millions of dollars from Culverhouse and his family have followed that early and groundbreaking $10 million donation.
Unfortunately, the elder Culverhouse died before Alabama’s business college was named for him. But his son believes “Dad would still have a passion for business, and students” — especially accounting majors. “Accountants are the life blood of business,” is a Culverhouse motto.
And if losing were an issue, trying was the answer. “Dad told me ‘Son, you are going to lose some cases. But in the morning, you will drink coffee, eat your eggs and butter your toast. Losing is not the end of the world. Not trying your best, is.’”
Hugh Culverhouse Sr. died August 26, 1994. He is survived by his wife, Joy; his daughter Dr. Gay Culverhouse, and his son Hugh Jr.
Manderson Graduate School of Business
The University of Alabama
Now age 90, living in Atlanta, Lewis Manderson started as a country boy in Cordova, Alabama. “It was a small cotton town,” he says, recollecting childhood. “My after-school days were spent working in the mill, doing whatever asked to do.” Completing high school and a stint in the Air Force, he enrolled in the University of Alabama. Manderson did not graduate from the University, leaving after two years. But he left his name behind, literally.
“Being from a rural cotton mill town high school, I didn’t have a good background for academia,” Manderson recalls. “I was worried if I could make it, so only took required general courses.” But he stayed in Tuscaloosa, married during college and started a family.
After working for an area auto dealership and then an outdoor advertising company, Manderson founded Creative Display Inc. and made a fortune. He sold Creative Display in 1983, and moved to Atlanta, where he ran investment firms and several companies, including an acquired advertising business owned by Ted Turner. And he never forgot Alabama, the state or the Tuscaloosa campus.
“I felt the University was an institution that needed to grow,” he says. “And I made a vow a long time ago, if I ever had the financial means to help others, I needed to do so. I’ve always felt this way and lived by it all my life.”
Over the years, Lewis Manderson and his wife, Faye, have donated millions to charities. The Manderson Graduate School of Business, a division of the Culverhouse College of Commerce, at the University of Alabama, was named for Lewis Manderson Jr. in 1987.
Accepting the honor, he told the school and public, “Faye and I are pleased to partner with the University in educating and supporting the brightest business leaders of today and tomorrow. We want our gift to support many generations of The University of Alabama family and continue a tradition of academic excellence at the Capstone.”
In 2008, the Princeton Review ranked Culverhouse/Manderson’s MBA program fourth for best facilities, eighth in best administration and ninth for best classroom experience. As for students enrolled in the 20-plus graduate degree programs, Manderson advises, “Your goal should be to find and do what you love and work like the devil achieving it.”
The billboard magnate has slowed down these days. He laughs, “Reaching age 90, I may be getting older.” He doesn’t visit Tuscaloosa quite as often. But speaking of the town he lived in for 37 years and its iconic school that he attended for two, adds, “I was so proud when they named the graduate school after me. I never dreamed this would happen, being a country boy from Cordova, Alabama. It has been a good and blessed life.”
In 2009, Manderson donated and pledged in excess of $12 million to the school’s “Our Students, Our Future” capital campaign. The man who never graduated from college gave the third largest single financial donation in the University of Alabama’s history.
Raymond J. Harbert College of Business
A 1982 Auburn University alumnus, Raymond Harbert never forgot the wisdom of his professors. “They challenged me to focus on my studies and work hard,” he says, “and got me thinking about where I was trying to go and do.” He credits the sage advice for much of his success. And he awarded the source of the advice, Auburn University, with $40 million, the largest single financial gift in the school’s history.
The Raymond J. Harbert School of Business is named in his behalf. “This is a historic day for the College of Business,” Dean Bill Hardgrave said, at the time of the 2013 name change. “We are proud to forevermore carry the Harbert name as a symbol of quality, hard work, entrepreneurial spirit, dedication and the Auburn spirit.”
Harbert’s Auburn relationship started with a change of course. After graduating from high school, the Birmingham native enrolled at American University, in Washington, D.C. But he didn’t like it, so he transferred to Auburn University and attended its engineering program. He didn’t like it either.
“I was always interested in the business and financial side of things,” says Harbert. “I was ill-suited for engineering.” After college, he worked for his father’s firm but honed his interest in investing, ultimately running the investment side of his dad’s company.
“Business was a great fit for me,” he says. He turned that “great fit” into Harbert Corp. in 1994, now managing $3 billion in assets. And he credits Auburn: “My business school experience made me what I am today.”
His Auburn time did more than launch his business. It also introduced him to fellow student and future wife Kathryn Dunn, of Greenville, South Carolina. The two share a fundraising passion for Auburn and other charities. “I wanted Auburn’s business programs to compete with the very best,” he says. And he wants to attract the very best in students.
“Students today are seeing a business world much more sophisticated than when I was here,” Harbert notes. “Information is fast, sometimes instantaneous.” And he adds, “Students need to be in a school exposing them to cutting-edge technology and professors who know how to teach it. Auburn is one such school.”
His advice for students and graduates: “Do what you love. It isn’t a job if it’s fun. Determine what you enjoy and chase it.”
The Brock School of Business
The late Harry Brock was more than a benefactor to Samford University. He was legendary. “He is a memorial to tenacity,” notes Samford’s President Andrew Westmoreland. “It should have been his middle name and his first name — Tenacious Tenacious Brock Jr.”
Though not a graduate, Brock, a Fort Payne native, loved Samford. “He adopted this place as his own,” notes Westmoreland. “And thousands of individuals have benefited as a result.”
In 2007 the business studies program was renamed the Brock School of Business at Samford University, in conjunction with Brock’s contributions and commitment to the school’s $100 million endowment drive. “My desire and vision for the School of Business is for it to be a little different and to find a niche that will help these young people fulfill their dreams,” said Brock, during the donation drive.
His innovative banking strategies were “a little different,” too, and changed the course for Alabama banks.
In 1963, against all odds, Brock and a small group of associates created Birmingham’s Central Bank. “With $1 million original capital amid predictions by the sage gray heads of banking that we would surely fail,” Brock noted, he introduced Saturday banking hours, offered Green Stamps and paid state employees when the state Legislature failed to approve a budget on time.
“He ran roughshod over anything that might be characterized as orthodox,” adds Westmoreland.
In 1971, Central Bank acquired State National Bank of Alabama and formed a registered bank holding company. It was a game changer. Until the merger, banks could legally only operate in one county. State National Bank of Alabama, however, was exempt because it existed before the rule.
Fueled by his success, Brock was instrumental in the passage of the Statewide Bank Merger bill of 1980, allowing banks to establish across county lines. Brock could now merge his banks into one, with branches throughout Alabama and beyond. Multistate banking was pioneered by Harry Brock.
Today his 1964 startup is BBVA Compass Bank.
Brock’s tenacity was not limited to his banking competition. “He cheated death on too many occasions to recall,” notes Westmoreland. “Harry survived an airplane crash at the Auburn-Opelika Airport in 1977. And he and wife Jane were on a 26th hotel floor in San Francisco during the city’s Great Earthquake of 1989.”
In addition to Samford University, the banker-philanthropist contributed to many projects and charities including the formation of the Kiwanis Foundation, The Daniel Foundation of Alabama, and the Harry B. and Jane H. Brock Foundation.
Samford President Westmoreland notes that upon a first encounter with Brock, the benefactor and banker asked “Are you a closer?” — meaning “Do you seal the deal?”
“I answered ‘Yes,’” recalls Westmoreland. “But years later after an unfulfilling fund-raising visit with Mr. Brock, I reminded him of his question. “You didn’t close this one did you?” he said. Westmoreland answered, “No, but you know that an important rule for a loser is to keep a deal alive until he can win.” He laughed, and according to the university president, “gave me partial credit for a reasonably good line.”
Emmett Burnett is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. He lives in Satsuma.