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April 22, 2016

Uncommon Interview: Booth School Donor Eric Gleacher, MBA ‘67

Eric Gleacher, M.B.A. ’67, is a retired financier, chairman, and founder of Gleacher and Company, an investment banking firm based in New York City. Prior to founding his own company, Gleacher headed mergers and acquisitions first at Lehman Brothers and later at Morgan Stanley. A longtime supporter of the Booth School of Business, Gleacher has recently donated $10 million to establish a scholarship fund for veterans seeking an M.B.A. from Booth. He spoke with The Maroon about the scholarship and his experience as a veteran in business school, and gave advice for current students interested in finance.

Chicago Maroon: Could you tell me a little bit about your mindset when you established the scholarship?

Eric Gleacher: Well, my mindset was that I’ve been involved with helping veterans get admission to Booth for a long time, going back to the dean before Sunil Kumar, somebody named Ted Snyder…. I always felt that it was a privilege for me to come to the business school after serving. I started a week after I was discharged from the Marine Corps and, as the press release said, it gave me tremendous direction. I learned about business. I didn’t know anything about business and I decided what I liked, which was finance, and I established my career in finance. If I hadn’t gone to Booth, there’s no way on earth that that would have ever happened, so I feel an obligation and a debt. Financially, it’s obviously very expensive to go to Booth, and the government has a pretty generous G.I. Bill and there’s the Yellow Ribbon program to provide additional money, but it’s still expensive, so having additional scholarship money at the discretion of the dean of the business school just makes it more attractive for, number one, military veterans to choose Booth and, number two, somebody like myself who’s been fortunate to do something in a mode where I’m giving back to others who’ve served.

CM: What was the business school like when you attended?

EG: It was great. There were almost no women, that was the main difference…. But it was a very exciting time, particularly in finance, economics, and econometrics. Gene Fama and Merton Miller had just started teaching their theory of finance course that I took which was fantastically interesting and stimulating. It was a very strong school. It was the leading business school in finance, which I think it certainly still is, and it was rigorous. One big difference I think is there were many required courses back when I went and I get the feeling now that that’s not quite the same. There’s much more freedom of choice in what you take, which I think is a good thing because a number of the courses which were required probably weren’t as relevant to somebody like me, and now you can focus on what you want to take, so I think that’s a big change. Another big change is the recruiting seems to start now the day the student arrives at the school. I don’t quite know how that works because, as I said, I didn’t know what I wanted to do, so I’m not sure what kind of recruit I would have been…. The recruiting was very organized back then but it was later, sometime during the second year…. I think another big change is the Harper Center, which is a fantastic thing. Your entire life is in that building. It’s brand new and it’s beautiful. There’s food in there and classrooms, and all the students. I would think that’s an enormous addition to the students because they see each other and they’re there all the time, and it must foster all kinds of relationships that are helpful in many ways. When I was there, it wasn’t the case, but it was nice and the building we were in had a library in it. It was right near where the school of economics taught their courses. I used to go and audit Milton Friedman. It was great back when I was there. It was sensational.

CM: What made you decide to go to business school? What made you decide to go into finance?

EG: I decided to go to business school because I came to the conclusion that if you want to go into business you need to have an M.B.A. to give you the best chance of getting a top job, where your future could be aligned with the highest potential which you could achieve. I just thought you needed an M.B.A. I was a history major. My father was not a businessman. He was an engineer. I knew nothing about business and I did not think that having a history major would have prepared me much. I decided while I was in the service that I was going to get an M.B.A. before I tried to find a job. It was interesting because all my buddies said, “What, are you crazy?” The jobs were everywhere, unlike now where it’s much harder. Jobs were falling off trees and I was the only one who went back to school. I started a week later, and that was one of the reasons I went to the University of Chicago. I wanted to go there—that was my first choice—and it turned out that timing-wise it was fantastic. At school, I thought at first, maybe marketing would be what I could do. I didn’t know anything about finance. But once I started taking finance courses I really liked it. I saw a combination of analytical requirement and also people skills. I thought that was a combination that I possessed. I liked the idea of the markets and the global aspect of it, and so forth, and that’s why I chose it.

CM: What was the transition like serving in the Marines and going to business school?

EG: Nothing was very difficult, but looking back the transition was indicative of my three and a half years in the military. I started, and I had to take calculus, and my professor was a guy named Hodson Thornber, a Ph.D. student in economics…at this time he was a good-looking guy with blond hair down to his shoulders. The class was pretty small, and once he realized that I was just getting out of the Marine Corps, he just started talking about the Vietnamese War, and there were a lot of demonstrations on the campus—I think Bettina Aptheker was there…. And I thought, this is crazy, because I was in the Marine Corps and I was believing [in] what was going on, and here were these people completely at the 180-degree plane of antagonism to that. After a while, obviously they were right. It showed me how my perspective was very limited and very narrow, which probably says that was the way it was supposed to be in the military. So that was a real eye opener for me. The first quarter, I remember, I was pretty good at accounting. But when the midterm came, I was so nervous about doing well that I misunderstood one of the questions on the exam. It was a question I had actually asked in class. The professor had reworded it and I got a zero on that question because I totally misunderstood it. Looking back, I didn’t have any money and I had a pregnant wife, and I hadn’t been in school for almost four years. So there was a transition, but it was made easier by the dean of students at that time, a guy named Jeff Metcalf. He was the first guy I met when I showed up, and I went in his office, and he had a picture of a Marine general on the wall. So I felt comfortable there. I told him, “I hope I’m up to this.” And he said, “I’m sure you will be. Don’t worry. I’ll look after you and everything will be all right.” I’ll never forget that. Of course, he and I became great friends, as he did with almost everybody he had real contact with. He was a tremendous asset for the school in so many ways.

CM: Were there many other veterans [at Booth] when you were there?

EG: No. There was one fellow that I met, his name was Bob McCormick…. He had just gotten out of the Navy…. We were in the same three classes that first term, so we got to know each other. It was good for me. He was obviously a friend that understood where I was coming from. He also knew a lot about investment banking, which was something he wanted to do, and I learned a lot about it from him. There weren’t classes at school that taught it. There were classes on securities analysis and money and banking and all that, but there was no information about investment banking. So actually from a friend I learned a lot about it, which is something that happens all the time. That’s the benefit of working in groups. But other than him, I don’t remember any other veterans.

CM: What qualities and experiences do you think prepare veterans for business school?

EG: I mean most of the veterans have experienced some form of requirement for leadership, and that’s a given in business. You have to have those qualities no matter what you do. I think that’s why the program has been so successful at the school. And students work in groups now a lot more than back when I was there. The veterans add a perspective to the whole process that the other students absolutely don’t have. And that’s probably a tremendous and valuable asset for all the other students to benefit from, to have people from the military who have done all kinds of things. It adds to the experience of working in a group, or learning from someone else like I learned from my friend who had been in the Navy. Those qualities, aligned with what you learned in the business school, have the potential to follow people into leadership positions, entrepreneurships, or the corporate world. It’s a very powerful combination.

CM: Do you have any advice for college students today who are interested in going into finance?

EG: I think that undergraduates should take a wide variety of courses, and not think that if they major in economics it’s going to help them get ahead in the world…. I think that if you’re an undergraduate interested in the liberal arts education, you should take a whole wide variety of things. It’s not a time in your life when you’re preparing specifically for a job. And then when you go to business school, you try to figure out what you like, and then you focus on that. And you do take all the courses you can that pertain to that. That’s the advice that I’ve given to my kids, and many others.

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