Special Report

Steve Adams: Bull’s-Eye Philanthropist

His creative giving to Yale's School of Music has enhanced the quality of music for audiences around the world.

By 3.23.09

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I knew Steve Adams in college. He didn't know me. He was a senior and I was a freshman and our relationship thus became frozen in time. When Steve is 105 years old and I am 102, he will still be the older, more mature presence, the wiser man.

Over the years I've watched Steve's career out of the corner of my eye. Following graduation, he went on to Stanford business school and then into private equity. This was forty years ago, mind you, and well before private equity was cool. In those days, PE was a way to buy and build a business rather than a technique for stripping assets, or a hook from which to hang debt for the flipper's dividend. Think of Steve Adams as more Henry Ford than Henry Kravis.

Steve built himself a heck of a business. RV dealerships and equipment stores and magazines for the campers. If you've ever hit the open road in anything larger than an SUV, chances are that you've done business with Steve. And if you have, chances are even better that you returned as a satisfied customer to do business with him again. He's innovated constantly and improved the customer experience over and over. In his hands, recreational camping became an American obsession and, ultimately, a big business. Steve is generally regarded as one of the two superstars of his high-performing B-School class, the other being Phil Knight, the founder of Nike.

I may have given you the impression that Steve's some kind of trailer-park guy. If he sounds like a campground bumpkin, you should also know that he owns six chateaux in Bordeaux, including three in St. Emilion and one in Pomerol. Your correspondent can confirm, after extensive research, that Steve produces some of the biggest red wines in the world. He's a man of several parts, actually, and in his mid-fifties he took up the piano. Not the way you and I might take up the piano, finger-fumbling our way through Cole Porter to Billy Joel. With characteristic diligence, Steve dug in and practiced until he became accomplished, until he could apprehend the almost-inaudible distinction between very good and great. He became very good. He preferred great.

In 1999 Steve gave $10 million to the Yale School of Music to bring its facilities up to international-class. The school's faculty, which was already good, improved further. Admissions to the School became more competitive and some of the students reached for greatness. Now and then, one of them broke through. Steve was thrilled.

And then puzzled. Why, he wondered, did so few of these high-potential student musicians go on to become career professionals? Why were young musicians with the kind of talent he could only dream of having -- why were they quitting just when greatness seemed within their grasp? Steve worried the question some, turning it over like a business problem, and came up with the answer. Student loans, he surmised. When a Yale graduate tripped off to McKinsey & Co. or Morgan Stanley, he or she could pay off the loans with the first bonus check. No problem. For a young musician, those same loans proved to be a pile of bricks in the knapsack and, too often, they buckled the knees. In response to economic pressure, Steve concluded, potentially great musicians were turning into fungible management consultants. There was something wrong with that picture. So he went back to the School of Music with a suggestion. He offered to pay the tuition bills himself. For every student. Every year. In 2005, Steve Adams prepaid $100 million worth of student tuitions.   

The results have been immediate and unsurprising. Admission standards have been elevated, the faculty has attracted new stars and the School of Music now offers a program fully competitive with the major conservatories -- all of this with an Ivy League education thrown in as a side benefit. Yale may one day soon be celebrated more for its instrumental musicians than for its a cappella singing groups.

Stephen Adams. Of how many people can it be said that they enhanced the quality of music for audiences around the world?

I should note that Steve's not a horn-tooter. He made his gift anonymously. The only reason he's talking about it now is that, with his reunion coming up this Spring, he'd like to encourage his classmates to think creatively. Perhaps he'll have that effect on others, as well.

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About the Author
Neal B. Freeman is chairman of the Blackwell Corporation.