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        Harbert Magazine

        Conversations from the C-Suite: Raymond J. Harbert

        January 17, 2024 By Harbert Magazine

        All News


        Raymond J. Harbert in his library

        A decade ago, Raymond J. Harbert’s $40 million gift did far more than change the name of the College of Business. It changed the trajectory of the college. In recognition of the 10th anniversary of the gift, he was interviewed for this issue of the magazine by Molly Ruffin, a Harbert College student who wanted to know more about the person whose name her college carries. Molly is a junior in business administration from Virginia Beach, Virginia.

        Ruffin: Most of our students are like me — they know your name, but they don’t know much about you. What would you say to help us know you better?

        Most people think of me as an extrovert, when in reality, I am an introvert. I recharge
        myself and garner energy from being by myself as opposed to being with other people. It is a common misperception that CEOs are almost always extroverts, when according to research, about 70 percent of CEOs describe themselves as introverts.

        Also, many students may think that I have always been successful, but that is not the case. I have worked long and hard with many setbacks and disappointments to arrive at the place that I am today.

        Ruffin: What was the College of Business like when you were here as a student?
        Harbert: The over-arching difference between today and forty-plus years ago, in the late 1970’s, is the role
        technology plays in the College and the world today. From computers to personal computers to different generations of smart phones, the College experience has been totally changed.
        Ruffin: Is there a specific memory that you have from your time that you look back on with a smile?

        Actually, there are a couple of memories that come to mind, and both are related to technology. The first is I had a very difficult statistics class; I think it was in my junior year. The professor gave exams — and he did this on purpose — that you could only complete about 50%. He just wanted to see how you would handle the pressure.

        You could use calculators, which had only existed for a very short period of time, to do your mathematical calculations. I had one of the early Texas Instrument calculators.

        In that class there was a defensive lineman on the Auburn football team. He had a calculator and every time he pressed a button it would beep. “Beep, beep, beep, beep, beep, beep, beep, beep, beep, beep.” We were in a large classroom, and everybody was trying to concentrate and get as much of the exam done as they could. It  was incredibly frustrating because it broke your concentration the entire time. But I don’t think anybody the entire quarter — we were on the quarter system back then — ever said anything to him because he was a giant football player.

        The second memory is also related to technology. I was taking some type of simulation class. This was back in the days when you used punch cards to create a program. The program was actually a collection of punch cards called a card deck. The computer itself was a giant machine that took up half the room and you ran your card deck through. I would spend hours working on these programs. I had a very basic understanding of three programming languages: FORTRAN, COBOL and BASIC. I was constantly trying to get the card deck in the right order with the holes punched correctly. I remember my girlfriend then — and now my wife of 41 years — sitting there watching with bemusement as I tried to get the cards punched and ordered correctly to run the program. Then within a few years, we had the first PCs. Interestingly enough, my first job out of Auburn was as a very poor computer programmer.

        Ruffin: Mentorship is a key aspect of our college and has definitely impacted my own experience here as a student. Did you have any professors or mentors who had a profound impact on you from your time here, and would you share a piece of advice they gave you?

        Yes, there were many of them. I can name three or four, but I think the important aspect to remember is that we achieve very little in life by ourselves. We are definitely a product of those around us and our interaction with them. I don’t have any particular advice from any of them. Mainly it was the support and encouragement of many people in the College.

        George Horton, who was the Dean of the College of Business and who we named the new business building after, was incredibly encouraging to me when I left the College of Engineering. Jim Cox and John Blackstone, as professors in my major — industrial management — were big mentors and encouraged me to push myself and not settle for mediocrity.

        Ruffin: Since you attended, the College of Business has obviously changed and 10 years ago began this transformation. As a student who was not there to witness the start of that transformation, I’m
        curious about what inspired you to make such a transformative gift.
        Harbert: For me, it really starts with a sense of gratitude. I very much appreciate my time and experience at Auburn and particularly the College of Business, which helped form and inform an immature young man to become who I am today and able to make that gift.
        Ruffin: In Horton-Hardgrave Hall, I’ve noticed your picture and the poem next to it. In keeping with that poem, your gift built, and is still building, a bridge to span the tide. Why do you feel that ongoing responsibility?
        Harbert: I have been, Kathryn has been, my entire family has been incredibly blessed in many, many ways. Not just money, but good health and in countless other ways. I have quoted many times from Luke 12:48 the words to whom much is given, much is required. That’s something that Kathryn and I both feel very strongly about and it’s a responsibility that we embrace. I look forward to continuing to participate with both the University and the College in building future bridges.
        Ruffin: Thank you, as a student. Our mission statement says that the Harbert College of Business is dedicated to producing highly desired graduates and generating knowledge that drives industry thought and practice. How do you think we’re doing with that so far?
        Harbert: I think we have made tremendous progress so far. I think we have come a long way from those early days when Bill Hardgrave became Dean, and I made my first gift for the TIGER Trading Lab. Bill and I, over a number of years, dreamed and discussed what the College could become and what it would take to accomplish that. If you look at the rankings and the growth in enrollment and all the other metrics, we should be pleased with what we’ve accomplished.
        Ruffin: How do you think the students who are here now can help achieve that vision going forward?
        Harbert: By graduating. Going out into the world in their chosen profession or vocation and being successful. This puts them in the position later on in life to give back to the College in whatever way their heart and mind moves them, which I have no doubt is and will continue to happen. Remember that it takes all of us doing what we can to make the College the best it can be.
        Ruffin: Today, there are eight majors available for students. If you were a Harbert College freshman today, what major would you choose and why?
        Harbert: Finance. From a very young age, I have been drawn to the investment world and the great elite investors. If I had it to do all over again, and if my father hadn’t pushed me into engineering, I would’ve gotten a finance degree.
        Ruffin: I like my finance class at the moment.
        Harbert: It’s fascinating. As I said, I’m in the investment business and havebeen my entire career. It’s a very fast-moving, sophisticated world, and you have the opportunity to work with a lot of very smart and interesting people.
        Ruffin: Many of us in the college have had moments of uncertainty. I know I have. What advice would you give students who do not have a specific path picked out?

        I actually think that is the natural course of personal development and maturation. Moments of uncertainty are a good thing. What I would advise is to go down many different paths, to be curious about many different things. Over time, those different experiences in different areas will shape your thinking and decisions. Remembering that often you learn more from your failures than you do from your successes.

        What I have found with most people is you'll find out what you like and, even more importantly, what you're successful at, and that will shape and form your decision as to a particular course of action or path to follow. If you can’t hear music or notes, I don’t think you are going to try to become a concert pianist.


        From your perspective, as an Auburn trustee, what challenges facing Auburn and higher education in general are causing you concern?


        The loss of civil discourse in this country. Particularly on college campus where it should be encouraged and enhanced. Today, it is very difficult to have a respectful, constructive conversation between people of opposing viewpoints and with different perspectives without the different parties demonizing each other. I believe this is very damaging to our democratic way of life and governance.


        From a different perspective as a business leader, what life skills do you think best serve new Auburn grads as they enter the job market?


        I think curiosity and a desire to continue to grow and learn are important, not just as you are entering the job market, but for your entire life. I think as people get older — and it’s something that I am working on to this day — they lose their sense of curiosity, lose their sense of wonder, which I think is too bad. I have nine grandchildren, and I love to watch them in their sense of wonder and discovery. Another life skill or personality trait is perseverance.

        As Benjamin Franklin said, “Energy and persistence conquer all things.”

        So that would be my advice — stay curious, and after you have chosen a career path, be persistent — persevere.