David Calhoun: Finding a meaningful balance of success, family, and giving back
March 20, 2018
One significant event and one crucial lesson while he was just in his 20s helped shape David Calhoun’s professional, personal, and philanthropic future in ways he couldn’t imagine at the time.
“I’ve had a fair amount of success and do what I love to do on a pretty big and broad scale,” said Calhoun, who earned a degree in accounting in 1979 and is one of the most generous donors in Virginia Tech’s history. “The most significant thing that happened in my life in terms of developing the confidence to succeed was graduating from Tech. I always felt ready and capable. Always. And it started right there.”
Following graduation, Calhoun immediately signed on with General Electric to start what would become a distinguished 26-year tenure, during which he worked his way to the role of vice chairman and president and chief executive officer of GE Infrastructure. He moved from GE to transform Nielsen into a global information and measurement company and then to Blackstone, one of the world’s leading investment firms, where he is a senior managing director. He also serves on the boards of directors for the Caterpillar and Boeing companies.
Along the way, Calhoun has made many generous commitments of resources and time to Virginia Tech, including a recent $20 million gift to the Honors College, signaling his belief in the university’s vision of reimagining higher education to better prepare graduates for a complex and interconnected world.
But before all his successes, Calhoun had to learn an important lesson — one that he said changed how he viewed all facets of his life and one that he’s tried to pass along through mentoring and by example.
“I was like a lot of motivated people. I worked around the clock,” Calhoun said. “I didn’t get home as much as I should have. I tried to outstay everybody in the office.”
Then he came under the mentorship of Larry Bossidy, a GE vice chairman who was the father of nine children and who generally left work in time for dinner or to go to their activities.
“He just had this great discipline around how to allocate between his personal life and his business life,” said Calhoun, who along with his wife of 35 years, Barbara, has four children: Jessica, Amy, Corey, and Devon. “He had found this wonderful balance. He clearly told me how imbalanced I was. And then, just by observing, I came to grips with that. I can probably work around the clock, but that’s not a healthy thing, and you miss out on a lot. That was a defining moment in who I became as a person.”
Calhoun began to impose similar discipline in his own life, allowing him to find a better balance while still thriving at work and becoming a role model himself.
Kevin Sharer is a former president and CEO of Amgen, a senior lecturer at Harvard Business School, and has been a colleague of Calhoun’s at GE and Blackstone. He described Calhoun as a selfless role model and leader who cares.
“He is not at all a self-promoter,” Sharer said. “He is a low-key guy who is very practical and who sees the world in a realistic way. He has a fundamental view of what needs to get done.”
Calhoun was born in Philadelphia and grew up mostly in Allentown, Pennsylvania. Even so, Virginia Tech was in the family blood. A great-uncle, William Slater Cowart, graduated from the university in 1910, with a degree in civil engineering, and several other family members have attended Tech.
“I was steered to Virginia Tech very early on by my mother,” Calhoun told Virginia Tech Magazine in 2005. “She brought the whole family to the house to make sure I was going there.”
At Tech, Calhoun enjoyed a blend of academic, social, and intramural athletic pursuits. He was a member of Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity, where he played and starred on a number of intramural teams. And one of his fraternity brothers, friends, and roommates was Charlie Phlegar, a Blacksburg native and alumnus who became Virginia Tech’s vice president for advancement in 2015.
“I laugh every time I see Charlie because it’s hard for either one of us to imagine we would be doing what we’re doing today,” Calhoun said.
Phlegar remembers a guy who was gifted enough athletically — Calhoun’s still a scratch golfer and avid skier — that he could have been a Division I athlete but chose to concentrate on academics instead, where he also excelled.
“It was clear to me he was the kind of person everybody wanted to be around,” Phlegar said. “He was humble and personable then and now.”
Calhoun said he was inspired during his time at Tech by several of his professors, but especially Wayne Leininger, whose class in cost accounting directly impacted his career path. Over the years, Calhoun has remained deeply connected to Pamplin, where he is a member of the college’s advisory council. His service and generosity to Virginia Tech also includes co-chairing the university’s past fundraising campaign, which concluded in 2011.
“As an alumnus, I appreciate how Virginia Tech prepared me to succeed in my career,” Calhoun said at the successful close of that campaign. “As a businessman, I see tremendous value in supporting a school known for graduating exceptional people with both the technical knowledge and character traits that it takes to compete and win in our global markets.”
General Electric and beyond
Straight out of college Calhoun joined General Electric in part, he has said, because the job was in eastern Pennsylvania, where he had grown up. But the post would take him far from his home region and his comfort zone.
One important attribute Calhoun said he lacked enough of coming out of Virginia Tech was experience working with people of diverse backgrounds. At GE, he said in his commencement speech to Virginia Tech students in 2005, he was envious of the courage and resourcefulness of executives who had spent parts of their careers in Asia or South America, so he and his family moved to Southeast Asia for a stint overseas. The experience, he said, made him and his family better people.
“There’s no downside with diversity, period,” he said.
As a result, since the late 1980s, the first thing Calhoun does when he’s assembling a team to tackle an important project is make sure the group is diverse in all respects, including disciplines. That drive for diversity is also reflected in the Calhoun Scholars program he and his wife established several years ago at Virginia Tech. It provides scholarship awards from $1,000 to full tuition, fees, room, and board to Honors College students who are first-generation or from an underrepresented group.
“There is no better environment to promote and convey the importance of inclusion and diversity than a college campus,” Calhoun said. “That’s just a subject that ought to be front and center for everybody — faculty, leadership of the school, students.”
James McNerney, a former chairman and CEO of Boeing who first met and worked closely with Calhoun at GE, has seen how much Calhoun values different perspectives.
“He’s a very inclusive leader,” McNerney said. “He’s a guy who involves everyone. He appreciates others’ perspectives more than his own in many cases and does a good job of synthesizing things.”
McNerney said Calhoun’s passion for Virginia Tech is obvious to those who know him well, adding that, “He believes in you, and he wants to help you make a difference.”
In 2006 Calhoun left GE to take over as chairman and CEO of Nielsen Co., then known mostly for its television ratings business. In a 2010 interview, he said was driven by a desire for “a little anxiety” in his professional life and more family time in his personal life.
Calhoun retired from Nielsen, and in November 2013, was appointed senior managing director and head of private-equity portfolio operations at Blackstone, a position where he spends most of his time helping CEOs at the companies Blackstone owns.
“I knew I had a final 10-year window,” Calhoun said in 2015. “I wanted to gain a new perspective on business in that final 10 years that would be satisfying. And the itch I’ve always wanted to scratch was that of being an owner or entrepreneur, as opposed to being just a manager and an operator.”
In addition to the curriculum and learning experiment Calhoun is jumpstarting with his latest gift, he said he sees access to higher education as key for the future. Of his gift, $15 million is endowed for scholarships, while the rest will support a pilot project that is underway to develop new curricula and prepare graduates for the 21st-century economy.
“Distribution of wealth issues in our country are massive and getting worse,” said Calhoun, who was honored with Virginia Tech’s Alumni Distinguished Service Award in 2015. “Somehow and some way, we’ve got to make it easy for everybody to get access. I know it takes more than money, but money helps.”
— Written by Richard Lovegrove