The new college try

More corner offices are being filled by graduates of public colleges. There's no need to go to an Ivy to get to the top.

Published February 4, 2007

Doug McCree has little use for the Ivy Leagues. His degree from Vanderbilt has worked just fine helping him climb to the top.

"Why would I want to stoop to Harvard - 'the Vanderbilt of the North'?" asked McCree, now the CEO of First Housing, a mortgage firm in Tampa.

He talks big, but statistics back him up. In a November report on the S&P 500 CEOs, executive search firm Spencer Stuart found that a paltry 9 percent earned their undergraduate degrees at one of the Ivies.

On top of that, public schools are gaining ground as CEO factories. Here's a trend sure to humble private-school alumni clubs everywhere: The University of Wisconsin churns out more big-time CEOs than Yale.

In the Tampa Bay area, the predilection holds true. Two of the area's largest companies - Raymond James Financial and Tech Data - have Ivy Leaguers at the helm. But theirs is a pretty small club.

Execs like Dean Akers will tell you that it's a person's drive, not the diploma, that gets them to the corner office.

"I got my MBA from hard knocks," said Akers, CEO of Ideal Image and a Florida Gator. "I can go toe-to-toe with anyone on balance sheet reading."

Bill McGill, CEO of MarineMax, also credits his success to hard knocks and hard work.

He didn't have time to take geometry or trigonometry in high school because he was busy on his parents' farm. He majored in mechanical engineering, anyway.

"Studying 80 hours a week, I was able to do very well," McGill, a University of Dayton graduate, recalled cheerfully. "My dad was teaching me the value of hard work, which is the best education."

The person, not school

Half a century ago, when executive recruiters never ventured far from New Haven, Conn., and Cambridge, Mass., the route to the top was pretty direct: Start at an Ivy.

Now, non-Ivy colleges are gaining stature and raising admissions requirements, making them fertile ground for recruiters looking for smart kids. Also, some say the Ivies are de-emphasizing business in favor of liberal arts.

Tom James, CEO of Raymond James Financial, said the decline in Ivy-educated CEOs 14 percent in 1980; 9 percent now, according to some studies might indicate nothing more than an increase in non-Ivy college students.

James, a Harvard graduate, said he looks to hire the best applicants, not necessarily the Ivy Leaguers.

"The out-of-state standards at the University of North Carolina, the University of Virginia, even Florida, have become probably just as difficult as an Ivy League," he said.

The head of Raymond James Financial Services, Dick Averitt, is a Duke graduate, though he credits 26 years in the Marine Corps with really shaping him for success.

"I don't know of any school that has decision theory in its basic curriculum, or negotiating or true communication skills," Averitt said. The real tests, he said, come in the real world.

David Hurley, CEO of Tampa's Landmark Engineering & Surveying Corp., agrees. He doesn't care what college is on someone's resume when it lands on his desk. Though he never earned a degree, he's seen plenty of clueless diploma-toters.

"They went through and got straight A's and were professors' pets," Hurley said, "and they get out in the real world and have to deal with governmental agencies and getting permits and all that stuff, and then they say, 'Oh, what do I do now?' "

Ivies still carry weight

Even so, the weight of an Ivy League diploma can't be dismissed. The Spencer Stuart report found that, of the 205 surveyed CEOs who have MBAs, 43 earned theirs at Harvard.

Marc Fratello, chief executive of SOE Software Corp. in Tampa, says his education at Franklin and Marshall, a small liberal arts college in Lancaster, Pa., was superb.

But his MBA from the Wharton School didn't hurt either.

"Candidly," Fratello said, "I would be remiss if I didn't say that doors were opened for me simply because of the name of the school."

Christina Rexrode is a proud graduate of the University of North Carolina. She can be reached at crexrode@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8318.


Who Went Where among area execs

Here in the Tampa Bay area, an Eastern Seaboard away from the eight Ivy League schools, CEOs are mirroring a national trend and rising to the top, no Ivy required. Here's a nonexhaustive look at where some local CEOs earned their undergraduate degrees: 


Robert M. Dutkowsky, Tech Data: Cornell University

Tom James, Raymond James Financial: Harvard University



Dick Averitt, Raymond James Financial Services: Duke University

Doug McCree, First Housing: Vanderbilt University

David L. Dunkel, Kforce Professional Staffing: Babson College

John Long, First Advantage Corp.: College of New Rochelle

Penny Hulbert, Links Financial: Wake Forest University

Marc Fratello, SOE Software Corp.: Franklin and Marshall College

Bill McGill, MarineMax: University of Dayton



The Gators

Tom Johnson, Global Imaging Systems: University of Florida

Dean Akers, Ideal Image: University of Florida

J. Hyatt Brown, Brown & Brown Inc.: University of Florida

Michael Kane, ForeclosuresDaily.com: University of Florida



Karen Manning, American Government Services Corp.: Florida State University

Richard L. Sanchez, Advantica EyeCare: Florida State University



Charles R. Black, TECO Energy: University of South Florida

Rhea Law, Fowler White Boggs Banker: University of South Florida


Judy Genshaft, University of South Florida: University of Wisconsin in Madison

Gerard Veneman, the Children's Home: University of Wisconsin in Madison

L. Dick Buell, Catalina Marketing: Purdue University

Tim Main, Jabil Circuit: Michigan State University

A.D. Frazier, Danka Business Systems: University of North Carolina

Charles E. Sykes, Sykes Enterprises: North Carolina State University

Steven K. Clark, Flanders Corp.: University of Utah

Shelley Broader, Sweetbay Supermarket: Washington State University

Tony Holcombe, Syniverse Technologies: Georgia State University


Fewer Ivy League execs

Percentage of CEOs at Fortune 100 companies earning undergraduate degrees from:


Ivy League: 14 percent

Other private schools: 54 percent

Public schools: 32 percent


Ivy League: 10 percent

Other private schools: 42 percent

Public schools: 48 percent

Source: "The New Road to the Top," published in the Harvard Business Review