When Jim Reynolds first came to UW-La Crosse in the 1970s, it was after one of the longest Greyhound rides he can remember. He returned to his alma mater on Tuesday to share his story of becoming one of the Chicago’s most successful business leaders.
Reynolds was honored as this year’s Russell G. Cleary Distinguished Business Leadership Lecture Series speaker in Hesprich Auditorium in Graff Main Hall. The series is sponsored by the Cleary family and honors Russell Cleary, who attended UW-L from 1951 to 1954, built La Crosse’s G. Heileman Brewing Co. into one of the largest breweries in the country, and earned the Graff Distinguished Alumni Award in 1980.
“I got a lot out of my time at UW-L and was given a lot while I was here,” Reynolds said in an interview Tuesday morning. “I’m glad I’m having a chance to speak with a new generation of students.”
Reynolds almost didn’t go to college, something he shared with students during his talk, which focused on the choices people make and the lessons he has learned.
Growing up, he went to a vocationally focused high school and had studied television and radio repair. But when his family’s television broke right before graduation, he found he couldn’t fix it, no matter what he tried.
He was struggling with this fact when a cousin who was studying at what was then Viterbo College suggested he apply at UW-L. He got in and came to La Crosse, where he planned to play basketball, which he did his first two years on campus.
That came a second life-changing experience. He spent most of his time playing sports, he said, and was a solid C student.
But when he passed library late one night, he saw students studying and having fun together. He decided to quit the team the next day and devote his time and energy to his classes.
“I wouldn’t stretch my day but do different things during my day,” he told the students. “A very strange thing happened: I went from a C student to the dean’s list right away. If I had not made that switch, I would not be here today. My life changed.”
Kristine Cleary, executive vice president of Cleary Management, said it was great for the lecture series to honor both a UW-L grad and someone who has been so successful in the business community. She said Reynolds is a regular contributor to Bloomberg, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times as well as heavily invested in the communities on Chicago’s South Side.
“The goal of the series is to bring in business leaders who are visionary and impactful,” she said. “It allows students to hear new ideas and voices.”
Reynolds has made a more than 35-year career for himself in finance and investment banking. He said the power of capital was impressed upon him while working an overnight investment desk while he was in his 20s. He would make a $10 million investment at 11 a.m., he said, then go about his day celebrating happy hour, eating dinner, attending post-dinner events then sleeping. When he’d return the next day, and the money would have grown by as much as 5 percent from the morning before, having kept working while he ate and slept.
“It drove home to me how much money works,” he said, “and the efficiency of how money works.”
In 1997, Reynolds formed investment firm Loop Capital with a staff of six. Today the company has more than 200 employees and a diversified portfolio, making it the largest minority-owned financial services firm in the United States.
Capital is a powerful force, he said. Students need to value that, even if their careers or passions don’t take them into the financial sector.
“You better understand finance,” he said. “At least some of it.”
A native of Chicago’s South Side, Reynolds said he never lost touch with his roots and build his home in the city, near where he was born. He is a board member of the Chicago Alliance to End Homelessness, Chicago United, The Lyric Opera of Chicago, and The University of Chicago Hospitals.
He’s served appointments by the mayor of Chicago and the Illinois governor to help build and grow the business community. Most recently, he was asked by Gov. Bruce Rauner to help woo internet retailer Amazon’s second headquarters to the state.
He said he has a connection to what young people in South Side neighborhoods go through and experience. It is important for people like him who experienced success to stay involved with the community.
“My business culture is aimed at giving back and staying attached to the community,” he said. “I’m in a position now to give back and help.”
The university has changed a lot since he first came to the campus on a Greyhound and lived in Laux Hall. The number of students is larger and more diverse, and there are more craft beer options than when he and his friends would take the Heileman brewery tour every Friday, waiting to hear the words “and now we taste the finished product.”
“I’m glad at being able to share my thoughts with today’s students,” he said, “and hearing their perspective on today’s issues.”