Boston University’s School of Management today announced it has received a $50 million naming gift from alumnus and long-time retailing giant Allen Questrom and his wife, Kelli. The gift, the largest ever received by the university, will endow 10 faculty chairs and enable planning to establish a new graduate program facility and result in the renaming of the school to the Questrom School of Business.
The gift is one of the largest given to a business school, eclipsed by only 13 other benefactors, including David Booth whose $300 million to the University of Chicago is the largest ever to a business school and Dorothy and Robert King’s $150 million pledge to Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business. It should help to raise the profile of the school whose full-time MBA program is ranked 42nd best in the U.S. by Poets&Quants.
Like so many big-name donors to business schools, Questrom’s connection with BU set the stage for his long-time career in retailing. In his last semester at the university, Questrom recalls taking an elective course in retailing from the late marketing professor Alan Beckwith. “I can see his face today, more than 50 years later,” recalls Questrom in an interview with Poets&Quants. “He was very engaging and he got his students involved through case studies. It wasn’t something I was really interested in and my goal was to be a ski instructor. Unfortunately, we didn’t have any snow that winter and I ended up not working.”
A BU PROFESSOR LINED UP THREE INTERVIEWS FOR QUESTROM THAT STARTED HIS CAREER IN RETAILING
Questrom recalls phoning professor Beckwith with his dilemma. Beckwith returned his call with three interview possibilities: Federated Department Stores and Gimbel’s in New York and Jordan Marsh in Boston. Questrom took a job as a management trainee for Federated in 1964 and the rest is history. “That is how I started in retailing and also met my wife, Kelli. That was 48 years ago,” he says. “We’ve had a long partnership together, fighting and arguing, but still come up with the right answers most of the time.”
The right answer that led to the $50 million gift came from Questrom’s involvement in two separate stints on Boston University’s Board of Trustees but also the strongly held belief that higher education is vital to those who want to climb the ladder of success. “Allen and I both came from working class families and have been blessed with scholarships and mentorships,” says Kelli Questrom. “When we took a look at how we could pay it forward it was so clear that after Allen’s many years as a trustee, higher education was definitely a most worthy cause. One of the biggest problems is one of our biggest blessings: Equal opportunity and the furtherance of that. Higher education is the foundation of equal opportunity. If you can’t get a good education in whatever talent you have, you will not be able to pursue happiness.”
“This is a transformative moment in the history of the School and the University,” said BU President Robert A. Brown in a statement. “The gift will both propel the School on the path of increased impact and quality and will forever associate it with the name of one of the most successful and highly regarded corporate executives in America, and one of Boston University’s most distinguished graduates.”
A RETAILING TURNAROUND EXPERT WITH SOME OF THE BIGGEST RETAIL BRANDS
Questrom, who graduated from the Boston University School of Management in 1964 and is a current member of BU’s Board of Trustees, is nationally recognized for his turnaround leadership of several notable department stores and specialty retailers, including JCPenney, Neiman Marcus, Barneys New York, and Federated Department Stores. After Questrom brought Federated out of bankruptcy, he led the acquisition of rivals The Broadway Stores and the Macy Stores, the combined companies of which later became known as Macy’s, Inc.
His wife is a former fashion promoter and long-time civic volunteer who for nearly 40 years has worked with cities’ mayors and councils, advocating to solve the problems of AIDS, homelessness, women’s preventative medicine, and sitting on boards in service of the arts and education.
“I would hope that students, as they go through school and into a career, will periodically reflect on their life, to pay mental homage to the people who helped them along the way and to recognize as they ‘make good’ that they have a responsibility to ‘do good,’ to pay it forward by helping the next generation,” said Questrom in a statement. “When one looks at where investment can do the most good, you have to think of innovation in our schools because second only to the positive influence of family values, the route to earned success is to be well educated.”
DEAN DISCUSSED METRICS, TARGETS & GOALS BEHIND THE GIFT
Kenneth Freeman, whose Allen Questrom deanship and professorship were endowed by an earlier gift from the Questroms, says the new gift will enable the school to attract outstanding faculty widely recognized for excellence in research and teaching. It is a pleasure and an honor to have the Questrom name on the school,” Freeman told Poets&Quants. “We had a number of discussions and it was a very business person to business person conversation. We talked about metrics, targets and goals. I think of Allen and Kelli not only as benefactors but investors in this school. And I’m looking forward to have the opportunity to continue an ongoing dialogue as we thrive to become one of the world’s elite business schools.“
Questrom says it was his confidence in the university’s leadership that ultimately led to the gift. “Changing a big university around, and Boston University is a big university, really takes a lot of time,” said Questrom. “But I have been impressed by the focus of the leadership of the school and with the advisors we have spent a lot of time coming up with criteria on key issues including having the school continue to make progress on its rankings. We have confidence in the leadership and their commitment to make sure we have a fine school that can help people compete in the world.”
Dean Freeman said the donation also provides seed funding for the planning of the addition of new classroom space that would connect to its existing building. Since moving into its current home in 1996, the school has grown significantly. The current facility, which was originally designed to accommodate 1,700 students, now welcomes more than 3,500 undergraduate and graduate students.
(See following page for how the Questrom’s gift compares to others)