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Raymond J. Harbert originally came to Auburn University to be an engineer.
It made sense at the time given the fact that his father, John M. Harbert III, had made his fortune by starting Harbert Corporation and building it into a successful international construction firm. Eventually, Raymond Harbert put down his slide rule and followed his passion for investments across campus.
Looks like he made the right decision.
Harbert, who earned a degree in industrial management in 1982, went to work for his father’s company and eventually persuaded him to sell the construction business and make a full-scale commitment to finance. Now chairman and CEO of Harbert Management Corporation, Raymond J. Harbert leads an investment firm handling more than $3 billion in assets.
On June 21, 2013, he made another investment with excellent long-term potential. His $40 million commitment led to the naming of Auburn University’s Raymond J. Harbert College of Business. He described his gift as “an investment in intellectual capital,” one that will raise the college’s profile and standing through the creation of doctoral programs and new research centers and the recruitment of additional eminent scholars and endowed chairs.
Mr. Harbert took a few moments to discuss his gift and other topics related to the college.
What was the impetus behind making such a generous gift to the college?
“I got my business degree from Auburn and that gave me a great part of my foundation. Going back to the Biblical quote, `from whom much is given, much is required.’ This was just a logical place for us to make an investment of this kind. “I was very impressed by [Dean Bill Hardgrave’s] vision of what the future of the College of Business could be at Auburn. What we’re trying to do is lift up the total intellectual capital the College of Business brings to the table in the education of these fine young people in the college.”
Harbert Management Corporation doesn’t suggest investments to clients unless it has committed its own capital to those same investments. Your company states a philosophy based on “methodical assessment” and decision-making based on “common sense, experience and discipline.” How does that apply to your personal investment in the college?
“I met Bill before he even took the job. He came to Birmingham and saw me in 2009. In talking to Bill [about the college], where we could go, my position on the College of Business was that we could make it better. What I wanted to do was to try to pick out some areas where Auburn could create, to use [President] Jay Gogue’s term, `clusters of excellence’ and where we had the opportunity to be a first-mover.
“I do think there has been a fair amount of diligence put toward this. Bill can tell you that we’ve talked about this for a couple of years. I asked him to come up with his plan. … The part that is exciting to me is watching Bill put this to work.”
Over the course of your career, you have demonstrated a willingness to carve your own path. You came to Auburn to major in engineering – your father’s degree field -- but switched to business. You also convinced your father to sell a profitable construction business and shift the family business to finance. So many people are afraid of failure, of taking risks. How do you block out those doubts?
“I’ve argued that the key to the successful entrepreneur is the willingness to risk failure. A lot of times, and this was certainly true in my starting Harbert Management Corporation as an alternative investment asset management shop in Birmingham, Ala. – which is not known as a hotbed of finance – there is a certain amount of either ignorance or naïveté. I thought I had great ideas with some great people. My father was my first client, so we had some capital to put to work. I figured this would be like falling off a log, but we lost money for five consecutive years. It was one of those things where I was trying to figure out how we were going to make payroll, but then you get over that hump and go on with things.”
Is there one piece of advice that you would offer up to current business students?
“I don’t think this just applies to business students. I think you’ve got to chase your passion. Do something that you really love. The biggest thing is you’ve got to make certain that your wealth expectations match up with whatever that vocation or occupation is. If you want to be a marine biologist, you need to be comfortable living with whatever the salary is. I counsel young people all of the time on that. The real key is to find something you really are passionate about. “
What will it mean to you 10 years from now, to hear students say they’re graduates of the Harbert College of Business?
“I will be flattered and honored as I am today. Not to sound like I’m 18 years old, but I think that would be pretty cool.”