One midwinter day in 2005, three businessmen got together for seafood and serious talk at Turner Fisheries in Boston’s Back Bay, an ordinary event that occurs in dozens of downtown eateries every day. But this particular luncheon gathering would have extraordinary consequences for Northeastern University.
Business professor Daniel McCarthy had arranged to introduce two former students, Richard D’Amore and Alan McKim, who, as highly successful entrepreneurs, had much in common—starting with the fact that they had both expressed interest in doing something for McCarthy, their mentor.
“I brought up the idea of a professorship, which would help me do more of what I enjoy and would obviously help Northeastern,” he recalled. “I said, ‘that’s my idea, so why don’t you two talk, and I’m going back to work.’ ”
The duo, both business school alumni, would agree that day to endow a chair in global management and innovation, with McCarthy as the inaugural holder. That lunch marked the start of a friendship—and a giving partnership that has grown through President Joseph E. Aoun’s vision of Northeastern as an engine of innovation. And it culminated this fall in their joint $60 million gift to the College of Business Administration, the largest philanthropic investment in the university’s 114-year history.
With their profound and visionary gesture, Rich and Alan have literally changed the destiny of our business school and our university. They have lifted our sights, empowered us to dream bigger dreams, and inspired us to take Northeastern to a level of excellence that we could not have imagined.”—President Joseph E. Aoun
As Northeastern plans the 2013 launch of its most ambitious fundraising campaign ever, the gift has also dramatically altered the university’s philanthropic landscape.
While the cascade of benefits accruing from the gift cannot be fully known yet, it is certain to continue the upward trajectory of a university that is on a hot streak—just what D’Amore and McKim had in mind.
“I really felt,” says McKim, “like now is Northeastern’s time.”
An investment in innovation
The home page of North Bridge Venture Partners, the venture capital firm that Richard D’Amore co-founded in 1994, declares, “We invest in game-changers.”
That slogan sums up one way that D’Amore and McKim view their gift—as an investment in a university with innovation in its DNA, a vision of where higher education needs to go, and the potential to help lead it there.
»Once in a Generation
The phrase “game-changers,” however, has broader application in this tale—more personal than any calculated assessment of institutional achievement and potential. Both D’Amore and McKim experienced Northeastern as a game-changing element in their own lives.
They are lives filled with accomplishment. McKim is the founder, president, CEO, and chairman of Clean Harbors, a global environmental-cleanup firm valued at more than $2.5 billion, which he started in 1980 with three employees. D’Amore is a general partner at North Bridge Venture Partners, which has launched more than 170 companies, and provided growth capital to countless others. Both serve on the Northeastern Board of Trustees, D’Amore as a vice chair, and together they will co-chair the university’s upcoming fundraising campaign.
The two men credit many people for their success—family and friends, business partners and employees, teachers and fellow students—but Northeastern, each says, is the common thread.
“I found my way to the right place,” D’Amore says. “I’d like to make sure that the same opportunity is available to everyone who has the same fire in their belly.”
A place that gets you where you want to go
The Barron’s college guide for 1976—D’Amore’s graduation year—notes that Northeastern students are regarded as “serious and career-minded.” It’s an apt description of McKim and D’Amore in those years.
The latter’s father, a captain in the Everett (Mass.) Fire Department, worked at least two other part-time jobs. “I just assumed if you were an adult male, you worked, and that was what life was about,” says D’Amore.
McKim says that for him and his sisters growing up in Braintree, Mass., education was important, but hard work was a given.
Both graduated from high school in the early ‘70s, both went to work to support young families, and both enrolled at Northeastern, in part-time programs. But neither found a perfectly straight line of success on Huntington Avenue.
D’Amore started his business degree in what was then called University College. But under the burden of juggling family, work, and school, he decided something had to give: school.
McCarthy, not just a professor, but also D’Amore’s uncle, provided tough-love encouragement. “I said, ‘Don’t you dare leave. You have an obligation to yourself and your family.’ ”
»The Resounding Impact of $60 Million
Northeastern offered a solution. D’Amore could transfer into the College of Business Administration as a “day” student, and co-op would enable him to work full time for half a year, earning enough to keep learning. He did more than finish; he graduated with high honors, an academic achievement that helped propel him into the Harvard Business School MBA program two years later.
“I got very serious very fast, and Northeastern was a great place for that,” says D’Amore. “It was always a pragmatic place, always about getting results, getting you where you wanted to go.”
Learning like “drinking from a fire hose”
Northeastern would get McKim where he wanted to go, but not immediately. A lack of money forced him to quit the criminal justice program in 1974 after one semester.
He went to work for Bob Dee, owner of a small oil-spill-cleanup company on the South Shore of Massachusetts. Dee died in 1979 but passed along to McKim the experience and confidence to found Clean Harbors a year later.
By 1986, McKim was riding atop a $50 million company but still supervising work in the field, which “was conflicting with my responsibilities as an owner.” He needed to learn more about running a high-growth business.
John Griffith, the father of McKim’s best friend, was a professor at Northeastern. He urged McKim to see what the university could do for him.
What Northeastern did was admit McKim to the Executive MBA program, counting his business leadership experience in lieu of a bachelor’s degree.
The education gave him the necessary ingredients to take Clean Harbors to the top of the industry: credibility with Boston’s banking community; a foundation of business knowledge, particularly in management information systems, that would be crucial to his company’s long-term prosperity; and a relationship with Dan McCarthy that has lasted more than a quarter century.
“It was like drinking from a fire hose, I was absorbing so much,” says McKim of those days.
McCarthy would quickly become a mentor and a key contributor to Clean Harbors’ expansion, agreeing to serve as a board member when McKim took the company public in 1987, a position McCarthy holds to this day.
Some seven years later, he would also advise D’Amore on the plan to create North Bridge Venture Partners. “It was ambitious,” McCarthy recalls, because it focused the budding firm on early-stage venture investing, where the risks are greatest.
But it played to D’Amore’s strengths, he says, which are also McKim’s: a strategic intellect, street smarts, an ability to quickly read people and situations, and a talent for making very well-analyzed, well-informed bets.
Considering this last point, McCarthy adds, “Northeastern must look awfully good to D’Amore and McKim.”
A community of game-changers
In Be the Change, an examination of what motivates well-known philanthropists, author Lisa Endlich wrote, “The word ‘engaged’ does not truly reflect the passion that many … bring to their causes. Philanthropy was the love affair they did not expect.”
In 2005, when D’Amore and McKim founded the faculty chair at McCarthy’s urging, no one could have foreseen how deeply the two alums would be involved with Northeastern. But as they got closer to the university and learned more about its priorities and management, engagement escalated into passion.
Like all passion, theirs is built on belief—in the university’s leadership and direction and in the fact that its most innovative initiatives rest on a familiar foundation: the bedrock of their own best Northeastern experiences.
The university’s entrepreneurial focus, like theirs, extends beyond the narrow definition of founding a business. It’s about students being, to paraphrase New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman, their own startups—shaping their skills to be among the next game-changers.
McKim sees that attitude very much alive in today’s Northeastern students. The gift, he says, will enlarge Northeastern’s capacity to educate and support those students and their mentors: the next Rich D’Amores, Alan McKims, and Dan McCarthys.
But it also honors the many people who were game-changers for them, says D’Amore: the Bob Dees, the John Griffiths, the D’Amore and McKim families.
“There’s a lot of emphasis today on individual initiative, and that’s fantastic because it’s tremendously empowering,” he says. “But in the end, the great things are built by teams. When I look back, I recognize that there’s no way you get here on your own.”
»A Day to Remember
John Ombelets is senior managing editor.