A Transforming Gift
U-M Business School will take the name of $100 million donor Stephen M. Ross '62
By James Tobin
Steve Ross studied the ugliest building in Manhattan for years. He walked around it, drove past it, pondered it from his office window a few blocks away. It was a bland monstrosity called the Coliseum, New York's old convention center, the architectural embarrassment of the Upper West Side, decrepit and abandoned but still standing, impervious to repeated attempts at redevelopment.
Then, in the mid-1990s, Ross was done looking. He bought the Coliseum, demolished it, and built in its place the biggest thing in midtown Manhattan since Rockefeller Center—the twin-tower, 2.8-million-square-foot Time Warner Center—and in the process became a certified superstar of American real estate.
"He's consistent in everything he does," says Robert J. Dolan, dean of the Business School. "He says, `If it isn't going to be great, don't do it.'"
That is the governing attitude behind the largest donation in the history of the University of Michigan: Ross's $100-million gift to remake what has already been renamed the Stephen M. Ross School of Business.
Ross earmarked three-quarters of the money for building improvements, one-quarter for endowment. He and Dolan conceive it as a massive kick-start to make Michigan no less than the most innovative and prestigious business school in the nation. (It is arguably that already; The Wall Street Journal ranked Michigan first among the nation's business schools in its 2004 survey.)
Executing a vision of the future
"The way I think about Steve's gift," Dolan says, "is that it enables us to go back to fundamentals—to say, if you're going to create a business school that executes your vision of the future, what would it look like?"
So far, that question has no definitive answer—not to the level of blueprints, anyway. But the plan will undoubtedly embrace the school's emphasis on "action learning" connected to real-world business settings. That, in turn, will entail a physical transformation. And the new facilities will surely reflect Ross's interest in creating the sort of "unified look and feel"—the reigning buzz-phrase—that makes the U-M Law School's architecture and atmosphere so distinctive.
Like the design, the timing of construction remains up in the air, and the U-M Board of Regents has yet to approve anything but the school's new name. "The design influences fundraising, and the actual amount raised will influence the design and the Regents' decisions," Dolan says. The school's newer buildings will likely remain. This much is certain: the square block at the corner of 701 Tappan will soon look very different, thanks in large measure to Steve Ross's vision.
Born in 1940, Ross grew up in northwest Detroit. His father was an inventor, never terribly successful, who moved the family to Florida when Ross was a freshman in high school. Ross's heroes were two innovative businessmen—his grandfather, William Fisher, who started a small oil refining business after moving from Salem, Ohio, to Detroit in the 1930s; and Fisher's son, Max, who built an empire in oil and real estate and became Michigan's leading businessman, a major philanthropist and a friend and adviser to every Republican president since Richard Nixon.
During his youth, Ross says, "my uncle was the star of the family. I kind of watched him from afar. I was very proud of him, and I thought that if he could make it, there's no reason why I couldn't. That gave me confidence, which is as important as anything else."
What his uncle did not give Ross after his graduation was money. In fact, Ross's biography is in part the story of the man who did not want to be known as "Max Fisher's nephew." The skids were not greased, and it took him a while to get moving.
After two "not terribly happy" years at the University of Florida, Ross transferred to Michigan, where he took his BBA in 1962. Next came a law degree in taxation at Wayne State and then a master's of law degree at New York University. A two-year stint at Coopers & Lybrand's Detroit office convinced him he didn't want a career in tax law. But he liked the work he did in real estate. In 1968 he moved to New York, and after gaining experience at two investment firms, he launched The Related Companies. His mother lent him $10,000 to live on while he got started, but that was all he asked of his family.
"People in Detroit were always saying, `You're Max Fisher's nephew—why do you need anything?'" he recalls. "In New York, I was my own man."
It took Ross about 20 years to reach the heights he aspired to. He started with a backwater of real estate he had learned about along the way—syndicated tax shelters in affordable housing. From that he moved to deals for affordable housing complexes, financial services for the affordable housing industry, and property management. Keeping his hand in all those businesses, he used the profits to simultaneously develop apartments and diversify into condominiums, retail complexes, office parks and mixed-use developments, largely in New York and Florida. Then came the deal that created Time Warner Center.
This colossus, unveiled early in 2004 in Columbus Circle, has luxury shops and restaurants, a jazz performance center, a top-drawer hotel (the Mandarin Oriental) and some 2.6 million square feet of space, including a four-story, two-block-long atrium sheathed in a curving glass facade. Inside are the studios of CNN and the headquarters of the Time Warner media empire. (Ross will soon move to Time Warner Center himself, along with his wife, Kara, her two daughters from a previous marriage, and Ross's own two daughters from a previous marriage.)
The enormous visibility of Time Warner Center—and its on-time success after nearly 20 years of failed efforts to develop the site—dramatically raised Ross's profile and led to comparable deals elsewhere. These include major plans to reshape both the heart of Manhattan in New York City and the center of downtown Los Angeles, the latter with a $1.2 billion mixed-use project. In the meantime, Ross has become a leader in the movement to bring the Summer Olympics to New York in 2012—a project which, if successful, he says, will mean he'll donate his time to lead the development for all the venues in New York City, including building housing complexes for the athletes and attendant Olympic throngs.
Ross had already made significant donations to the University (including an endowed chair at the Business School and a lead gift to the athletic department for a new academic center) when he and Dolan began to discuss what Dolan calls a "transforming gift" to the Business School in 2003. What they had in mind was a gift that would make possible a massive renovation of the school's physical plant, considerably increase its endowment and inspire other donors to make major gifts as well.
In the footsteps of Uncle Max
For Ross, the gift represents another way to follow in the footsteps of his uncle Max, who gave a naming gift to the business school at Ohio State, his alma mater.
"The fact that two members of one family could endow two different Big Ten business schools," he says, "and they both made their own money—it's a great story, and I felt good about that."
And the gift is a vote of confidence in the state of his roots, and in a work ethic that he finds alive and well in the Middle West.
"You never want to forget where you're from," Ross says. "That's why I always kept up my relationship with Michigan. I think Michigan students sometimes underestimate themselves. They're a little awed by the East. But I think when you get somebody who can see through that, and have confidence in themselves, you have somebody that can go a lot farther and understand a lot more about what the country is about."
James Tobin '78, '86 PhD, is the author of Ernie Pyle's War: America's Eyewitness to World War II and To Conquer the Air: the Wright Brothers and the Great Race for Flight, both of which received major national awards.