Photo: Sean Marrs

Jay Shidler and Transformative Giving

All the difference a gift can make.

When Vance Roley left the University of Washington to assume the dean’s chair at the UH business school in 2005, he knew a couple of things: the buildings were quite possibly the ugliest on campus and the school’s potential was endless, particularly given its location against a global economy looking right at Asia.

What he didn’t know was that among the alumni he’d soon meet was a force of nature, a man who credits his success to the school and some good partners and whose vision and stick-to-it-ness would soon transform everything Dean Roley was to touch.

For Roley, Jay Shidler was just a name on a list of alumni the school’s foundation staff told him to get to know. For both of them—like in business and life—timing was everything. 

“I’d been driving by that school for years, looking at the ugly buildings,” Shidler says. “Then the new dean came, and it happened to coincide with me having made some money.” Maybe it was money. Or maybe Shidler was starting to look ahead, not just to the businesses still to be built, but to the good he could do, the legacy he could leave.

Photo: David Croxford

“The first proposal I took to him, he didn’t go for,” Roley says. “So I came back to him with people and programs. I know what a top program looks like and what it takes to get there.”

That’s what Shidler was looking for—someone who wasn’t just tossing out ideas, but had the knowledge, expertise and discipline to get things done. “I liked the guy,” he says. “He was both visionary, talking about the vision and the possibilities, and also strategic and focused, identifying all the strategic components that make a great college.”

Before committing, Shidler did his due diligence. He learned that until the last twenty five years, donors didn’t often give to public universities. They weren’t even sure they could, given the public nature of the schools. He also learned that when people did give, it could be a game-changer, taking a somewhat generic institution and creating buy-in, name recognition and success that creates momentum.

He made a few calls, including to Steve Ross, another real estate developer who’d given generously to his alma mater, the University of Michigan, where the business school carries his name. “He said to me, ‘Jay, with your ego and your money, if they put your name on that school, you’re going to give more money and work harder for that school than you ever dreamed,’” Shidler says. “I told him no, that it was a one-time thing. But he was right. When they’ve got you by your name, your heart and mind follow.”

Photo: Courtesy of University of Hawaii

Since his first gift in 2006, Shidler has donated $228 million in cash and real estate ground leases to what is now the University of Hawaii Shidler College of Business. His 2017 gift of $117 million included the donation of land underlying 11 significant office buildings in nine Mainland cities, meaning the school can count on a dependable income stream from those leases through their maturation and then hold ownership of the land and the buildings. In 2019, he worked with Roley to bring UH’s Travel Industry Management School into the business school, combining the strength and autonomy of two separate schools and creating a “school-within-a-college” model. The move also provided for additional summer research programs and matching funds for six new faculty endowments.

The combined value of these gifts, including the revenue generated by the leases and the land and building value upon maturation is expected to yield a whopping $7.2 billion to the school over the coming decades.

That’s a transformative gift.

To understand the calculus behind Shidler’s strategy, you have to understand three things: his business model, his reliance on partnerships, and despite what Ross suggested might be a healthy ego, his deep gratitude for the life he’s made in Hawaii.

Shidler recalls the early days of his marriage, since his wife was a Kamehameha Schools graduate and mother-in-law worked for the school, and he first learned the ins and outs of leasehold. “Mrs. Bishop (Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop) had a pretty good idea,” he says. “Long-life institutions survive when you own the land under the buildings. That’s a strategy that’s hard to screw up.” He points to generational wealth around the country, how families amassed the land that afforded them the ability to impact change and build more wealth. “Some of the wealthiest people in New York come from families where, on his deathbed, granddaddy reached over and said, ‘Whatever you do, don’t sell the land.’”

Shidler thinks a lot about the difference between what’s urgent and what’s important. Urgent tends to overtake the day, while important often gets pushed to the side. Shidler likes to keep his eye on important and let others focus on urgent. In his view, assets that generate predictable income while amassing greater value — like his 2017 land donations — allow more time for the important. “Dean Roley deals with the urgent every day. My job is to focus on the important,” he says: How can the school create transformational change? How can it be positioned to best serve students generations from now?

As for partnerships, Shidler doesn’t do anything without them. When he talks about the early days doing business from Hawaii, he hedges when asked why that young, eager entrepreneur didn’t head off to Chicago or New York, instead of choosing to stay in the Islands. He talks instead about partnerships, and how having partners around the country working alongside him makes each project more viable, more likely to succeed. Of course, that doesn’t really answer the question and he knows it. Then he talks about his wife, a Chinese-Hawaiian woman who wasn’t going anywhere. “Sometimes you’ll work harder to help your partner succeed,” he says.

Those business partnerships have created great successes for Shidler’s interests. Together, they’ve listed seven companies on the New York Stock Exchange, each time being there, opening the day’s trading, even getting the bronze bull to memorialize the day. A herd of these bulls stand watch from Shidler’s credenza. “It’s pretty heady,” he says. “They give you a bull every time you list a company. They give you a nice breakfast and then the compliance people come in and tell you what you can’t talk about or you’ll go to jail. Then you go ring the bell.” He points out that on one such day, he shared the honor with Martha Stewart, who gave out cupcakes, and they had her ring the bell instead of him.

At the UH business school that bears his name, Roley is his partner. “I know what I don’t know, and I’ll never know as much as he knows,” Shidler says. “It’s not just about buildings and ideas. It’s about backing a person. I backed Dean Roley, and with that, I don’t ever have to second guess.”

Photo: Sean Marrs

Shidler, who was among the first in his family to get a strong education, makes light of growing up a military kid, moving around the country, never putting down roots.  But in Hawaii, he found roots. He found love. And the University of Hawaii business school opened doors he’d only imagined. “You know, the Beach Boys: be true to your school,” he says, trying to change the subject.  But then he gets serious. “Lots of people talk about how they wished they’d gone to a better school. I tell them the way-back machine is busted, so the only thing you can do is make the one you went to better.”

That’s what he did, partnering with Roley. He set out to make his school better.

To test his strategies, Roley and Shidler started with people and programs, taking the school’s endowed professorships from 6 to 38 and dramatically increasing scholarship money. Shidler insisted on improving the buildings, and soon, the Shidler College of Business at the University of Hawaii was a player nationally. “Immediately, we could aim high, competing for the best faculty and students,” Roley says, “and we were competing against the best schools in the country.”

With some foundational security, they dreamed bigger. “Our strongest area is international finance,” Shidler says. “If commerce is international and we’re here in the Pacific, we’re in the middle of it all.” The school’s MBA program in Vietnam is unparalleled, having succeeded where other, bigger-named schools have failed and in a country that is widely believed to be critical to global finance in the next decades. Shidler and his wife have attended graduations there, humbled by the experience. “Go to that graduation, in a country that desperately needs these young leaders and a country that in our lifetime, we’ve not always been kind to — that’s a heart shot.”

Roley sees the momentum from Shidler’s generosity every day. Deans from other universities ask him how he did it, how they can follow suit, and Roley puts them in touch with Shidler, who is happy to mentor them. Their now-seasoned faculty is the envy of many of Roley’s peers, and as he puts it, when they don’t snag a student, it’s only because “we’re losing to a much more impressive list than we used to.”

As for Shidler, he’s clearly humbled by the work and profoundly grateful for the experience. “One of the keys when you give money is to know what you don’t know, especially when people aware of your donations endow you with more wisdom than even your mother would give you,” he says.

By Roley’s account, Shidler is an excellent partner, staying out of the way and always offering crucial counsel. Shidler also acknowledges how right his real estate developer friend, Ross, was. “I’ve learned what a difference it makes when you get emotionally engaged, how it all works, the challenges the institution has. I care more now.”

Asked to reflect back on that first gift, when it all started, Shidler pauses and then says: “I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t know it would make such a big difference.” He marvels at the increase in donations and school pride that followed. “All of it exceeded my expectations. I’m proud of the endowments, the scholarships, the ratings. But what really gets me is when some man or woman comes up to me and shakes my hand and says, ‘Thanks for the scholarship. I wouldn’t be here without it.’” He pauses again. “I didn’t expect that. Or I didn’t expect to care about that. I’m a pretty heady guy, but that matters.”