Jan. 21, 2014

$10M gift founds family business initiative at Johnson

John and Dyan Smith
Jim Heemstra
John Smith, MBA ’74, and his wife, Dyan, have created the John and Dyan Smith Family Business Initiative with a $10 million gift to the Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management.

Cornell and its graduate business school made a big difference for John Smith, MBA ’74, and perhaps an even bigger difference for the family business, to which he returned after earning his degree. For while Smith was studying at the then Graduate School of Business and Public Administration, he became convinced that federal deregulation of his family’s freight trucking business was inevitable.

“You have no concept of what the competitive pressures are going to bring on your business in deregulation,” Smith said. “I met the right professors at Cornell, who convinced me that this was going to happen, and we’d better be prepared.”

Education and the preparation it inspired paid off, and today the family-owned CRST International of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, is among the 10 largest U.S. truckload concerns. Their wish for family businesses of all kinds to be owned and operated by subsequent generations moved the Smiths to make a $10 million gift to the Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management to found the John and Dyan Smith Family Business Initiative.

“It is in the best interest of family businesses and the country for these businesses to be carried on for many generations,” Smith said. “With a focus on family businesses at Johnson, good research will be conducted, educational seminars will address the unique needs of family businesses, and prospective students will be drawn to Johnson because of the family business expertise on campus.”

“One of the main reasons we are moving forward with CRST remaining within our family is because of education,” Dyan Smith said. “The initiative is the next step to putting Johnson in the forefront of family business management.”

The Smith Family Business Initiative will be housed in Johnson’s Entrepreneurship and Innovation Institute and will fund the John and Dyan Smith Professor of Management and Family Business, who will serve as the initiative’s lead faculty member; the Smith Family Clinical Professor of Management, who will serve as director of the initiative; and the Smith Family Research, Program and Faculty Support Fund, which will support course offerings, student and alumni programming, marketing and outreach, presentations by visiting executive speakers, and faculty recruitment.

The Smiths’ son, Ian, an MBA student at Johnson, is among many students from family businesses to study at Johnson over the past several decades – a trend that Soumitra Dutta, the Anne and Elmer Lindseth Dean, expects to continue.

“With the Smiths’ generous gift, we can now put in place a systematic program to help prepare students for starting, scaling and managing a family business,” Dutta said. “The Smith Family Business Initiative will have a profound and lasting impact on family business and graduate business education at Johnson and Cornell.”

Recognizing that family businesses are the foundation of economic growth worldwide, Johnson is moving forward quickly with research and new curricula specific to them. Wesley Sine, faculty director of Johnson’s Entrepreneurship and Innovation Institute, is developing the initiative’s first two programs: a course focusing on benefits and challenges peculiar to family businesses, and the Smith Family Distinguished Family Business Lecture Series, which will bring executives from the world’s most successful family businesses to the Cornell campus.

Ian Smith, MBA ’15, will likely graduate before the initiative is in full swing. That doesn’t concern his parents, though, who already see how Ian’s education will help advance CRST International. Ian plans to join the company’s board of directors immediately upon graduation and immerse himself in learning all aspects of the family trucking business.

“Ian has a very strong background in finance and strategy,” Dyan Smith said. “He likes to figure out the best way for the company and family to grow and change in the future” – what John Smith calls “up at 20,000 feet looking down; seeing how the pieces fit together and where we should be going.”

Shannon Dortch is associate director, public and media relations at Johnson.