Hank Rowan was shocked. He paused for a moment, not sure if he had heard correctly. Sometimes he wondered why he even bothered with his hearing aid. No, he thought to himself, I’m pretty sure I heard that correctly. Astonishing, he thought, really astonishing. “This,” he finally told his guests, “is extraordinary.”
It was early March 2008. The men had gathered at Rowan’s offices in suburban Rancocas, New Jersey, 20 miles east of Philadelphia. Outside the air was warm and wet, hinting at an early spring. The visitors were from nearby Media, Pennsylvania. They represented the Williamson Free School of Mechanical Trades. Rowan was one of their foremost benefactors.
Rowan was first introduced to the school by Mike Piotrowicz, a Williamson trustee and booster. What Rowan found was a residential junior college dedicated to teaching skilled trades: carpentry, masonry, painting, landscaping, metalwork, and power plant management. Admissions are limited to unmarried men under the age of 20, all of whom come from families at no more than 250 percent of the federal poverty level. Each of the school’s 275 students receives a full scholarship.
Rowan also knew that the 120-year-old school was facing an increasingly uncertain future. Williamson accepts no federal support, and the (now discontinued) stipend it received from the state came to just $64,000 annually. Over the course of the previous decade, its endowment had grown 20 percent, while its operating costs had risen 60 percent. Capital improvements were needed across the century-old campus. Fundraising was consuming ever more time and energy among the school’s senior leadership. The board became increasingly uncomfortable with the financial outlook. In order to secure the long-term viability of the school, it approved a $50 million capital campaign—a seemingly insurmountable sum for a school whose most successful campaign had netted $11 million.
“We should be teaching people how to build things, how to create real wealth, real jobs,” says Hank Rowan.
This, Rowan decided, is a unique opportunity to help a unique charity. In November 2007, five months before the meeting in his office, Rowan had issued a $5 million challenge to Williamson—in nominal terms, the largest gift in the school’s history. It was carefully structured, intending to open new funding sources for the school. It promised to match, dollar for dollar, any gifts from first-time donors, any gifts from people whose lifetime giving was less than $5,000, and any other gift at least five times larger than the previous largest gift. “Try this out,” Rowan said at the time. “I’d like to see how you do.”
On that warm March morning, Rowan had expected an update about the challenge grant. He knew that the school had raised about $2 million so far, and he was curious how much more progress had been made. But the men who went to Rancocas on that March morning had unexpected news for Rowan. Paul Reid, then the president of Williamson, delivered the message.
Reid told Rowan that he had visited another local philanthropist about the challenge. Rowan didn’t recognize the other man’s name. This gentleman, Reid continued, had a counter-offer of his own. If I were to put up $20 million, he had proposed, would Hank Rowan be willing to match me?
Forge of Experience
Henry Rowan is not easily surprised. An engineer by temperament as well as training, he has long been a methodical planner and a careful thinker. Tall, with erect posture and bright, alert eyes, the 87-year-old Rowan still strides purposefully and speaks in crisply formed sentences. Those traits have served him well throughout his storied career. Rowan is the founder of Inductotherm Industries, the global leader in the manufacture of induction systems for melting, heating, holding, and pouring metal.
If anything, Rowan is accustomed to surprising others. In August 1945, for example, he dumbfounded the head finance officer at Roswell Air Force Base. Rowan had been training to be a bomber pilot since June 1943. The Germans surrendered shortly after he qualified on the B-17 Flying Fortress. He never deployed overseas. After V-J Day, the other pilots on base took it easy, passing time by playing cards, shooting pool, or knocking around volleyballs. Not Hank Rowan. He realized that he knew nothing about making payroll, but thought it was a skill that might someday be useful. So Rowan badgered the finance officer until he was given permission to spend his last two months in the military handling personnel compensation.
After he was discharged, Rowan and his new wife, Betty, packed their belongings into a beat-up 1929 Chevy Coupe. In a car that topped out at 28 miles per hour, stopping five times along the way to retighten the engine bearings, they puttered from New Mexico to Massachusetts. There, Rowan re-enrolled at MIT. Supported by the G.I. Bill and savings from his service pay, he completed his degree in electrical engineering in 20 months—during which time, Betty gave birth to their first two children. The day after graduation, Rowan went to work. He took a job with Ajax Electrothermic Corporation in Trenton, New Jersey, then the world’s leading manufacturer of induction furnaces. Rowan was excited to come on board.
He was soon disappointed. Since the discovery of the induction melting process in 1915, Ajax had enjoyed a virtual monopoly on the market. The company had grown comfortable, complacent. It expected customers to adjust to its expectations, rather than the other way around. Rowan chafed at its self-satisfaction, leaving the company in August 1952. But his restless mind kept grasping at missed opportunities, at the improvements that Ajax had always been reluctant to pursue. In April 1953, a friend and former customer named Paul Foley approached Rowan, telling him about his need for a furnace to melt beryllium copper. Rowan was plenty busy, but he was interested in the technical challenge. Over the next six weeks, he and Betty spent their free time in the backyard, building a 50-pound induction furnace.
That furnace marked the launch of Inductotherm Industries. On June 6, 1954—exactly 10 years after D-Day—Rowan returned to the induction business as CEO, chief engineer, and, with Foley, half-owner of Inductotherm. Rowan capitalized his half of the business by selling the home he and Betty had largely built themselves and moving the family into a rented house. Four months later, they had yet to win a single bid. Foley broached the idea of shutting down. Rowan recognized that there was no turning back. He needed to shake things up, to show the world what the new company was capable of doing.
Rowan’s chance to shock the world came in early 1955. Sales had started to dribble in, keeping the company afloat. In the meantime, Rowan had designed a new and vastly more efficient 175-kW, 600-pound melting unit. Inductotherm sold six such furnaces to the United States Mint. Rowan was proud of his design. Compared to the equivalent Ajax system, it increased production by nearly 20 percent, while cutting manpower costs by one-third and slashing electricity use by $40,000 annually.
There was one problem. The Mint’s maintenance men complained that it took four hours to replace a furnace after its refractory had worn thin. Rowan was furious. “I’ll make you a wager,” he told the Mint’s melting superintendent. “If I can’t do the job in 10 minutes, then we’ll redesign the furnaces so you can go back to using the same old kind your maintenance crew is used to.” “Can you do it on a full and hot furnace?” the superintendent asked. It was an unfair question. Nobody swapped out a full and hot furnace. Rowan swallowed hard. He had already over-promised. “Full and hot,” he agreed.
A week later, Rowan found himself at the old Mint, on Spring Garden Street in Philadelphia. The air was thick with the sweetly acrid smell of liquefied nickel alloy, glowing white at 2,800º Fahrenheit. The superintendent took out a stopwatch. Rowan got to work. He quickly disconnected the four lead cables. That was the easy part. To simulate a furnace change-out, he now had to reconnect them, blindly catching the threads on compression fittings. A jet of steam shot across his hands, burning his fingers. It was a bad sign. Shooting steam meant time was running out. It could end in an explosion or, more likely, a meltdown. Rowan felt his heart begin to race. Two threads down. More steam. Three down. Workmen on the floor started to back away. He struggled to stay calm. Then he felt the fourth lead catch. Seven minutes.
That dramatic act secured Inductotherm’s reputation in the metallurgical industry. Over the next six decades, Rowan led the company to global preeminence in the field. But Rowan was not yet finished shocking the world. What he had done in business he would soon do again in philanthropy.
On April 1, 1990, a representative of nearby Glassboro State College approached Rowan with a routine fundraising request. Rowan was disinclined to contribute—founded as a teachers’ college, Glassboro State was a fairly undistinguished public school—but he took a liking to his upbeat and highly competent guest, Philip Tumminia. He committed $1,500. One thing led to another, and a few years later Rowan found himself visiting the campus, where he was impressed by the clean-cut, sleeves-rolled-up attitude of its students. Tumminia then asked Rowan: Would you perhaps be willing to commit $11 million to create a business school?
“We have a generation of young people who have college degrees in business administration but know nothing about manufacturing,” Rowan replied. “We should be teaching people how to build things, how to create real wealth, real jobs. Maybe we should be talking about industrial engineering, not business administration.” Rowan then surprised himself. Almost on a whim, he asked Tumminia, “Phil, I’m just curious, but what would you and Glassboro State do with $100 million?” For once, Tumminia was at a loss for words. Rowan promised nothing, but insisted that if he were to make the gift, it would be contingent on the creation of a full-scale school of engineering.
Rowan went back and forth for a while before he made a decision. His charitable giving had mostly focused on local community organizations, like the Burlington County Boy Scouts, to whom he had contributed $250,000 to build a headquarters on land donated by Inductotherm. Of course, this gift would be orders of magnitude larger. Nor had Rowan really considered giving to higher education. “I give MIT a little every year for a scholarship program, but those are good for only a scholarship or two,” he explains. “Besides, MIT has billions of dollars stashed away. To MIT, my donation would just be pennies.” But at a smaller school, Rowan realized, his money could go much further.
On July 6, 1992, before a battery of television cameras and reporters, Hank and Betty Rowan ascended the auditorium stage at Glassboro State. James Florio, then the Governor of New Jersey, announced what was then the largest gift to a public school in American history. The Rowans had decided to contribute $100 million to Glassboro State College. In gratitude, the school was renamed Rowan College (later Rowan University).
“I think it turned out marvelously,” smiles Rowan. “By installing the engineering school, we greatly enhanced the reputation of the school.” There is compelling evidence on the point. In the 2011 U.S. News & World Report college rankings, Rowan University’s engineering program was ranked the 22nd-best in the country. Its chemical engineering department—now a human capital pipeline for the refineries in southern New Jersey—was ranked second-best among schools that focus on undergraduate education.
That same concern for practical education caused Rowan to turn to Williamson. “I think a carpenter does an awful lot of good in the world,” he says. “And I think it’s a shame that our society doesn’t recognize his value. A carpenter will actually build something and make the world a better place. We tend to forget that.”
[To learn more about the Williamson Free School for the Mechanical Trades and its founding donor, Isaiah Williamson, click here.]
Indeed, long before Rowan learned about Williamson, he was acutely aware of the need for its existence. His business is constantly looking for skilled tradesmen. “Machine shop workers are very, very scarce,” Rowan explains. “We have a fabrication shop, and we have an awfully hard time finding setup men, the people who install the proper tools, gauges, and fixtures for the production process. These days it’s almost impossible to find good people with the necessary skills. There is a tremendous shortage of those skills in the United States, because it is no longer the kind of thing that attracts people’s notice.”
According to Rowan, the problem may be even more fundamental. “I was taking a visitor through our shop one time,” Rowan recalls, “and there was a guy bending over his work area, obviously struggling with something. I walked the visitor through the floor, and when he left, I went over to ask the guy what the problem was. I could hardly believe it when he told me. All he wanted to do was cut a piece of copper nipple that would extend from 3/4-inch below a cabinet ceiling, through the 1/8-inch thickness of the cabinet itself, and then extend another 1? inches above the top of the cabinet. He had no idea how to add up the measurements. Think what that cost us, having a guy bent over a desk for half an hour, trying to add simple fractions. What are the public schools doing?”
Challenging the Challenge
Gerry Lenfest listened quietly. It was February 2008, and Paul Reid had come to the Lenfest Foundation’s offices in West Conshohocken, Pennsylvania. Lenfest listened as Reid described the school’s ongoing $50 million capital campaign. After outlining the purpose of the campaign, Reid turned to the $5 million Rowan challenge grant. “Would you,” Reid asked Lenfest, “be willing to meet the remaining $3 million in Hank Rowan’s challenge grant?”
Lenfest leaned back in his chair. His gaze drifted toward the ceiling. Vocational education was not a particular interest of his. Nevertheless, his foundation had been giving to Williamson since his executive director first visited the school a few years beforehand. Still, it was a considerable request, and Lenfest had never even set foot on the campus. After a moment, he said, “I’ll think about it. Let me talk with my wife and get back to you.” Reid thanked Lenfest for his time. Then he left.
“Suddenly, I had an inspiration,” Lenfest recalls. “I went down the elevator and caught Reid in the garage. I told him, ‘There’s $10 million on the table, right? There’s the $5 million in the challenge grant and the other $5 million from matched donations. Well, I’m not going to help you with the $10 million that’s on the table. What I’d like to help you with instead is the other $40 million, the $40 million that’s not on the table. But I’d like Mr. Rowan to work with me to make that happen. I’d like for him to be comfortable making the rules for how it happens and I’d like for this to stay his ship to steer.’”
Lenfest then made his proposal. He would put up $20 million toward the campaign—if Hank Rowan agreed to do the same. Together, they would take care of the $40 million that wasn’t yet on the table. It was a bold, decisive offer—characteristic of the man, his work, and his philanthropy.
Lenfest has never been one to shy away from taking calculated risks. (For more on Lenfest, please see “The Flagship Donor,” Philanthropy, Fall 2010.) He started his career as a Wall Street attorney, but made his fortune in the cable industry. After graduating from Columbia Law School, Lenfest went to work for the firm of Davis, Polk, & Wardwell. Through the firm, Lenfest was introduced to Walter Annenberg. The two men hit it off. Lenfest moved his family to Philadelphia and took a position at Annenberg’s Triangle Publications, then the largest privately owned communications company in the country.
“They owned TV Guide, they had six TV stations, twelve radio stations, cable television, [the] Morning Telegraph, Seventeen magazine,” Lenfest explained in a 2000 interview with the Cable Center at Denver’s Barco Library. “It was a vast company. . . . [Eventually] I took over a new division consisting of Seventeen magazine and their cable properties. So from being a lawyer, all of the sudden I was head of a teenage girl’s magazine and in charge of their cable [television operations].”
Lenfest immediately saw the potential of cable television. Annenberg, on the other hand, did not. He decided to sell Triangle’s cable systems—one in Binghamton, New York, and the other in Lebanon, Pennsylvania—for $9 million. Samuel (“Si”) Newhouse picked up the Binghamton property for $7.7 million. Lenfest spotted his chance. He desperately wanted to acquire the Lebanon market. There was one problem. He didn’t have $2.3 million.
Lenfest was in a tight spot. He acted quickly. He found two businessmen in Lebanon willing to back the venture. They had one condition: they demanded a guarantee that Lenfest would double their money in five years. Lenfest agreed. The night before the sale, however, the men got nervous. They told Lenfest that they wanted to pull out.
The deal was saved by the men’s wives. As Lenfest later recalled, they “excused themselves and their husbands and went into the kitchen. I could hear them when they said, ‘It just doesn’t seem right that you have changed your minds at the last minute. Tomorrow’s the closing and you told Gerry you were going to do it, and now you just decide not to?’” The two women talked their husbands into going through with it. In March 1974, the deal was inked. Lenfest owned a cable company.
It was a risky move. Lenfest was leaving a corner office to work out of his basement. “We were very tight in the beginning,” Gerry explained in the 2000 interview. “The only way we could sustain the cash flow we needed was to build and build and build.” As he worked to aggressively expand the company, Lenfest concentrated on building a cluster of service areas in the Delaware Valley region. By the time Lenfest sold the company to Comcast in 2000, it had more than one million subscribers in an area stretching from Harrisburg to Atlantic City—one of the largest contiguous cable clusters in the United States. Lenfest Communications sold for more than $7 billion. The Lenfests’ share came to $1.2 billion.
“I don’t believe in dying with a lot of wealth,” Lenfest explains. “We have a scholarship program for rural students in Pennsylvania, and we’ll provide it with enough funding to continue after our deaths. But we really don’t want to die with much money to our name. Andrew Carnegie said, ‘The man who dies thus rich dies disgraced.’ That makes an awful lot of sense to me.”
“Do you know Julius Rosenwald?” asks Lenfest. “He was the head of Sears, Roebuck at the turn of the 20th century. While most of the other big philanthropists were creating [perpetual] foundations, Rosenwald decided to give away as much as he could—he wanted to give away everything—in his own lifetime. Because of that, he was able to build more than 5,000 schools for African-Americans throughout the South. It’s incredible how much he managed to accomplish. Rosenwald is an absolute hero of mine.”
Lenfest is well on his way to duplicating Rosenwald’s achievement. Since selling the business 11 years ago, Gerry and Marguerite Lenfest have given away over $900 million. Their philanthropic interests range widely. They have contributed hundreds of millions of dollars to the schools they attended, including Mercersburg Academy, Wilson College, Washington and Lee University, and Columbia University. They support efforts to study and preserve the world’s oceans, and are leading patrons of the Curtis Institute of Music and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The Lenfests put up $10 million in December 2007 to bring Teach For America to Philadelphia, and have given millions more to Mastery Charter Schools, the Salvation Army, the Caring People Alliance, Christ’s Home for Children, and Habitat for Humanity.
Before he made his offer to Williamson, however, Lenfest had never considered vocational education a particular priority. Since then, he has given the matter more thought. “I feel there’s been an over-emphasis on college education,” Lenfest explains. “In large part, vocational training has been neglected, but it makes sense for a lot of students. I think there are a lot of young people who would benefit enormously from learning a trade. Besides, better technical education may be what the country needs most. We are no longer the manufacturing nation that we once were, in large part because we just aren’t thinking about skilled production.”
It is a point others are starting to notice, as well. “More Americans work for the government than work in construction, farming, fishing, forestry, manufacturing, mining, and utilities combined,” Stephen Moore recently observed in the Wall Street Journal (emphasis added). “Today in America there are nearly twice as many people working for the government (22.5 million) than in all of manufacturing (11.5 million). This is an almost exact reversal of the situation in 1960, when there were 15 million workers in manufacturing and 8.7 million collecting a paycheck from the government.”
But there was something else, something deeper, that drew Lenfest to Williamson. “Yes, the school teaches young men a trade. But more importantly, it also teaches them how to succeed in life. The students live on campus. They adhere to a strict honor code. They even have a dress code. And underneath it all, there is a moral and spiritual element to the education. It’s a very powerful combination. The students there are not just learning a trade. They’re learning to be good citizens.”
Lenfest’s voice starts to rise. “I would love to see Williamson replicated across the country,” he says. “In fact, one crazy idea that I have is that it would be great if you had retired military men involved in a replication effort. They’re used to training and disciplining a bunch of young guys.” Lenfest knows from personal experience. He served 26 years in the United States Navy, three years on active duty and the rest in the reserves, before resigning his commission with the rank of captain.
“The most important thing,” Lenfest concludes, “is what these young men learn about life. They leave the school prepared to be good workers, good husbands, and good fathers. They are ready to be responsible citizens in their communities. The country needs more of it.”
“If you just look at the numbers,” says Rowan with a slight smile, “I’m not sure you can justify the expense. Williamson isn’t a big school. It’s an awful lot of money to graduate 80 young fellows every year.” Of course, Rowan understands that the numbers do not tell the whole story. “The skills Williamson teaches are just vital to the success of the country—the whole country, you know,” he says. “It’s not just that the school makes them good craftsmen. It’s also that the school expends such great energy preparing them to make a contribution to society.”
Rowan sometimes tells the story of his first successful business. It had a rocky start. He was nine years old when he decided to raise chickens and sell their eggs to his mother. She was a captive market, true, but she refused to pay more than the going wholesale price published in the New York Tribune. Rowan quickly realized he had a problem. He could not afford the 100-pound sack of feed, which cost $2.50. Instead, he had to buy the 10-pound sack for 50¢. To his dismay, Rowan discovered that 10 pounds of feed could at best produce 45¢ worth of eggs. The more eggs he sold, the more money he lost.
His fledgling business was saved on his 10th birthday, when his mother gave him what he later described as the “present I wanted more than anything else in the world.” Rowan awoke that day to find a 100-pound sack of chicken feed. It was a small but vitally important gift. (Nearly 80 years later, he chuckles, “There’s no money in eggs if you have to pay retail prices for chicken feed.”) It enabled him to start his first successful business—and to envision himself someday running a much larger business of his own.
In a sense, Rowan and Lenfest have done much the same thing through their gift to Williamson. Their generosity has secured the school’s foundations, but the finishing work remains in the students’ hands. The gift has created an opportunity; it will remain their responsibility to master a trade, forge the habits of self-discipline, and realize their own potential. “To my way of thinking, Williamson stands for enduring things,” says Rowan. “It stands for hard work, good character, and productive employment. You can see today that it’s as relevant as it was a century ago. It’s strange to think that there aren’t a hundred more schools like it—astonishing, really.”
Christopher Levenick is editor-in-chief of Philanthropy.