2005 Horatio Alger Award Winner
"There is nothing more important in your business or personal life than integrity."
The son of Russian immigrants, Sam Fox was born in the small town of Desloge, Missouri, in 1929. The youngest of seven children, he lived in a home with running water and two stoves for heat, but without heat in the bedrooms. Fox remembers going to bed in the winter and being able to see his breath. He was eight years old when his father installed flush toilets. Even though the family enjoyed few modern conveniences, Fox has fond memories of his youth. "We all looked out for each other," he says. "No one locked their doors, and I didn’t even own a house key until I was an adult. The radio was our connection with the outside world. We lived modestly, but we had a roof over our heads and food on the table so we had enough."
Fox's father traded in hides and furs, and later changed to produce. "My father never had much financial success," says Fox, "but he was a hard working, happy person who never saw the downside of anything. My mother was one of the most caring women I have ever known and never had an unkind word for anyone. She had little formal education, but she was dedicated to her family and neighbors. My parents always shared what little they had and would tell us an old saying: 'If you're not a beggar, give to a beggar'."
For three summers, beginning when he was 15, Fox and a few of his friends took a Greyhound bus to a canning factory in Illinois for the summer. They made 80 cents an hour canning peas and corn, and lived in a barracks. At the end of the summer, they collected their pay and went home. Fox put all his earnings in the bank for college.
"I had never thought much about my future," says Fox. "But my sister Esther, who was 16 years older and practically a second mother to me, really stressed the importance of a college education. And by the time I started at Washington University, Esther was married and living in St. Louis. So I lived with her, which saved me the expense of room and board."
Like his father, Fox searched out entrepreneurial opportunities as he made his way through school. He sold Fuller brushes and collected burlap bags from feed stores and sold them to a contractor who needed them for a construction project. During the Korean War, when construction steel was precious, he collected structural steel I-beams at various wrecking sites, had them assembled by a welder, and delivered them building-ready to a man erecting a bridge on his private property. That enterprise paid a year's tuition as well as some living expenses.
Washington University changed Fox's life. "Growing up in a small Missouri town during the Depression," he says, "we were isolated. We had one mediocre newspaper. Television hadn't been invented. Our town didn't have a library. So when I got to college it was as if someone had flipped on a light switch."
Fox graduated with honors in 1951, earning a degree in business. He joined his two brothers in a manufacturing business they had started near St. Louis, making powdered iron for the chemical industry. "My brother Irv was an absolute genius at all aspects of manufacturing," says Fox. "It was Irv who infused me with a love for manufacturing." But when Irv became ill, the business was sold. On his own, Fox started Harbour Group in 1976. The privately owned company acquires, consolidates, and develops companies for long-term investment.
Sam Fox's advice to young people is to select a career based on interest rather than money. "If you get into a job and don't like it, get out," he says. "Don't be afraid to change jobs. If you enjoy what you do, you'll never think of work as a chore." At the same time, Fox stresses the importance of a balanced life. "Live life to the fullest," he says, "but keep it balanced between work, giving back to the community, and spending time with your family."
Fox follows his own advice. He is a devoted family man -- he and his wife Marilyn have five grown children and 14 grandchildren -- and he has been extraordinarily active in civic affairs in St. Louis and nationally. He serves on the boards of many institutions, including Barnes-Jewish Hospital, the St. Louis Muny Opera, Forest Park Forever, and Civic Progress, an organization of St. Louis’s most prominent civic leaders that works for community benefit. He served two terms as chairman and one as president of the St. Louis Area Council Boy Scouts of America, one of the strongest scouting programs in the United States. He is former president of the board of commissioners of the Saint Louis Art Museum, and he is a lifetime member of the Art Museum’s board of trustees. He also has served on the boards of the Arts & Education Council of Greater St. Louis, Saint Louis Symphony, Opera Theatre of St. Louis, the Saint Louis Science Center, and the Saint Louis Zoo, and he led the successful 2003 United Way of Greater St. Louis campaign.
Fox is also extremely loyal to his alma mater, Washington University in St. Louis. He has served as a Trustee of the university since 1989, and was named a Life Trustee in 2004. He chaired its latest capital campaign which raised $1.5 billion. The new Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts was dedicated in 2006.
His service has brought him many awards, including honorary degrees from Washington University and St. Louis University; the St. Louis Citizen of the Year Award; the Woodrow Wilson Award for Corporate Citizenship; and the Marco Polo Award, presented by the Chinese government in recognition of his economic development and humanitarian contributions to the People's Republic of China.
"I believe in what I call active-duty citizenship," Fox says in explaining his many civic endeavors. "My parents always talked about how blessed we were to live in America. When we cherish the gift of freedom and give back to our communities, when we reach out to one another and help those in need, we make this a better nation."
When asked about his Horatio Alger Award, Fox says he is honored and humbled. "But I never saw my humble beginnings as adversity," Fox stresses. "I wasn't handicapped by my beginnings. It was a privilege to have been raised in Desloge. And I attribute much of my success to my Washington University education and a few lucky breaks, the luckiest being my wife."