Robert H. Smith: Investing in Potential
Robert H. Smith [1928-2009] saw a great investment where others saw a bare piece of ground. Among his successful ventures as a builder-developer was the vast, interconnected, underground Crystal City complex in Arlington, Va. "I love taking a raw piece of land and coming up with a vision and a project that is beneficial for the developer and the consumer," said Smith.
He saw potential in the University of Maryland's business school, which led him to make a landmark gift that changed the course of the school's future.
"Fifty years ago when I graduated from the business school, technology was a vague term about who knows how to use what machine. Today we have much more information available to us," said Smith. "Today's technology can give people the ability to make better decisions, and in this very competitive age, the ability to make better decisions is what helps people to succeed."
"I am a firm believer that life is a two-way street. Giving back to institutions you believe in is part of that philosophy. You don't have to give millions of dollars. The important point is to participate at the level you are comfortable with."
"Financial success is not a destination; it is only part of the journey, enabling you to reach your ultimate fulfillment, and that is to give something back to help make a difference."
Robert H. Smith
The Drive to Succeed
Smith succeeded beyond his own wildest dreams. By the time he was 15 or 16 years old, Smith knew he wanted to be a builder-developer. So he enrolled in the university's School of Engineering, thinking that would be the best preparation for his future career. A mechanical drawing course soon proved that his gifts and talents lay elsewhere. He did have an aptitude for accounting and finance, though, so he transferred to the business school. "I figured a background in business would serve me well, and I could always hire engineers," he said. "I'm very glad I majored in accounting; it was a terrific financial background to build on."
Smith remembered The Dairy fondly. "They had fantastic ice cream and milkshakes. It was kind of a hangout for kids. But I was a commuter, so I didn't participate in many of the campus activities. I studied a lot. I came in and parked and went to class."
A Grateful American
"My grandfather came to America in 1908; he was a carpenter and then a carpenter-contractor. My father came over with his mother and siblings in 1911. He didn't speak the language; he just knew that he wanted to learn English, to be an American and to succeed."
"I consider myself a grateful American. I'm very interested in the Founding Fathers and the period between 1770 and 1790, when these outstanding men came together with a common vision to create our society through documents like the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, the Constitution. They created a country that has given people more opportunity and hope in the past 230 years than any other type of government in the history of man."
"My family has had tremendous opportunities because we live in this free, democratic society, for which I am thankful. One who has forgotten to be thankful has fallen asleep in the midst of life. It isn't a calamity to die with dreams unfulfilled, but it is a calamity not to dream. When you cease to dream, you cease to live."
Robert H. Smith
Seeing the Business School's Potential
Being a developer gave Smith a certain measure of foresight; he loved looking at an empty piece of ground and imagining its potential, seeing its future. This made him perfectly suited to seeing the potential that lay in University of Maryland's business school.
"Robert Tardio (former chair of the University of Maryland Foundation) came to me 15 years ago and asked if I was interested in making a naming gift. I wasn't ready then," said Smith. "I also knew that if I was going to associate my name with an institution, I wanted to be sure it had the potential to be outstanding."
Several years later Smith received a visit from then-University of Maryland President William Brit Kirwan and newly minted business school Dean Howard Frank. They, too, were hoping to interest Smith in investing in the future of the business school. The businessman made them an offer: if the school produced a credible business plan to make the school one of the top 15 in the country, he was in. Frank and Kirwan came back with a detailed, year-by-year plan showing how the school would attract the best faculty and students and build the best physical plant. They described how Smith's gift would be used, and how the school would be supported with increased funding from the university and the state. Smith was impressed with Frank's vision to build a globally recognized institution with the best faculty, the best and brightest students, and the most up-to-date physical plant in the world. In 1997 he gave $15 million, the largest gift the school has ever received, to help make that vision a reality.
Making the Vision a Reality
"When you bring together the best faculty and the best students, and a dean who has a vision, exciting things happen," said Smith. "The changes in the last five years have been so dramatic. It is axiomatic that progress depends upon the belief that things can always be better."
Smith went beyond his initial gift to keep the school moving toward its vision. "This isn't just a short-term commitment on my part; its up to me to do whatever I can to keep motivating the school to exceed its own expectations. Excellence is everything. I'm willing to keep investing in the school because I can see the results."
Robert H. Smith was a 1950 alumnus of the College of Business and Management (major: Accounting) and was married to Clarice Smith, who attended the University from 1952 to 1953.
Smith was Chairman, Charles E. Smith Commercial Realty, a division of Vornado Realty Trust, and Chairman, Charles E. Smith Residential, a division of Archstone-Smith. His family company is best known for developing and building the Crystal City complex in Northern Virginia.
He was active in civic affairs, lending his energy and expertise to a variety of local, national and international organizations. His philanthropic efforts include the University, as well as such organizations as the National Gallery of Art, the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation (Monticello), Mount Vernon, Montpelier, Mayo Foundation and Hebrew University in Jerusalem.