2012 Horatio Alger Award Winner
"The most powerful things I know of are a kind word, a thoughtful gesture and enthusiasm for what you are doing."
Ken Langone, the second of two sons, was born in 1935 in Roslyn Heights on Long Island, New York. Neither of his parents, who were the children of Italian immigrants, attended school beyond junior high. Ken’s father worked as a plumber and his mother worked in the cafeteria at the small public school across the street from their house.
During Ken’s youth, the economy was weak from the Great Depression and work for Ken’s father was sporadic. He was an hourly union plumber, meaning he was laid off at the end of a project until a new project began. In addition to financial struggles, Ken’s father suffered from manic depression. When he went into what the family referred to as “dark periods,” Ken’s mother took a more in-charge role. “My mother never complained,” says Ken. “She had an enormous sense of optimism and I got that from her, and both my parents had a wonderful capacity to give their sons unconditional love. It wasn’t for sale and it wasn’t traded. It didn’t come with good grades or get lost with bad grades. They could be unhappy or angry, but underneath it all there was this enormous, endless well of unconditional love. That was a powerful force behind me when I later moved out into a competitive world.”
Both of Ken’s parents came from large families, and he grew up on Long Island surrounded by dozens of relatives. “They were all of modest means,” says Ken. “I had an uncle who worked in the sand pits, mining the sand used to build most of New York City. One uncle sold kerosene house to house. One was a truck driver. I had an aunt who was a seamstress. Two of my distant cousins became a policeman and fireman, both of whom were killed on 9/11. They weren’t even on duty that day, but they wanted to try to help. These are the people I come from-humble, hard working, loving people.”
Ken began working at the age of 12. He sold wreaths door-to-door during the Christmas season and cut lawns in the summer. When he was 14, his brother entered the Army and Ken inherited his job at the local meat market. He worked three hours a day after school and all day on Saturday. A few years later he caddied and worked for either UPS or the post office during the peak Christmas season. He also worked evenings in a service station. When time permitted, he served as a plumber’s helper to his father. “My parents wanted me to attend college,” says Ken, “but my father thought if I learned a trade I would always have that to fall back on if all else failed.”
Ken did little to distinguish himself academically in high school. Looking back on those days he believes he was unable to relate academic accomplishment with success. On the night of his high school graduation, his school principal, a man Ken greatly admired, told Ken’s mother and father they were wasting their limited resources by sending him to college. He felt Ken would flunk out by the end of his first semester.
A few months before high school graduation, Ken visited friends at Bucknell University and before he left the campus, he met with the registrar. Shortly thereafter, he received a letter of acceptance to Bucknell. At the bottom of the typed letter, there was a hand-written message from the registrar, which said, “In college, you will have to work much harder than you did in high school.”
Ken’s parents mortgaged their house to send their son to college, and during his first semester, Ken did all he could to fulfill his principal’s prophecy. By the end of the first term, he was flunking every course. His economics professor called him into his office. Once Ken was seated, Professor Headly took out a recent test booklet of Ken’s and said that while Ken’s English was horrible, he was impressed with his understanding of the subject. He asked Ken how he was doing in his other classes. Ken was honest and told him he was failing all his classes. Professor Headly told Ken that if he would put in maximum effort, he would contact all Ken’s other professors to see if the semester could be salvaged. Before Ken left the meeting, the professor asked him if anyone had ever told him he was stupid. Ken said that several of his high school teachers told him was stupid and that he wasn’t college material. The professor told Ken it was sad his teachers had felt that way, but even sadder that Ken believed them.
True to his word, Ken’s professor contacted the other professors and with their help and encouragement, Ken was able to save the semester. From that point on, he did well in school. He didn’t have enough money to stay for four years, and took enough courses to finish in three and-a-half years. He says of his college experience, “At that time in my life, I realized my success was due to a group of people who saw in me qualities I didn’t see in myself. I also came to realize that there is no such thing as a self-made person. Along life’s journey we succeed in our endeavors in good part because of the help and encouragement we receive from others.”
Ken was married with one semester remaining in college. Upon graduation, his father-in-law arranged for ken to have an interview with the investment department of the Equitable Life Assurance society, where he then began his career. While at the Equitable, he attended night classes for his master’s in business administration at New York University. He did so well in his classes the university invited him to become an adjunct instructor. He taught at NYU’s night business program from 1960 to 1965. Today, the school’s night program-now called the Langone Program-is based on his own educational experience.
After spending a year in the Army, as a recalled reservist, Ken became an associate at R.W. Pressprich & Co. on Wall Street in 1962. By 1966, he was invited to become a partner. Shortly thereafter, he saw a unique opportunity with businessman Ross Perot and his young company, Electronic Data Systems (EDS), which Ken took public in 1968. “That was a defining moment of my career,” says Ken. “It put me on the map.”
By the early 1970s, Ken had developed an interest in the medical industry. In 1974, he left Pressprich and founded Invemed Associates, a small investment bank that specializes in healthcare and high technology companies. A few years later, he joined Bernard Marcus and Arthur Blank to found a home improvement company, Home Depot. The first store opened its doors in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1978. Today, this nationwide chain is the largest home improvement retailer in North America with 350,000 associates and doing more than $70 billion in sales.
Ken Langone has achieved great financial success in his life, but when asked how he defines success, he says, “For sure it’s not by how much money you’ve made. In fact, financial wealth wouldn’t even be on my list. Success in business is when someone you have dealt with previously would be willing to do business with you again. That speaks volumes. I’m proud of the business relationships I have built over the years, and I can’t think of one person or company I have dealt with in the past that would not do business with me again today. Reputation is everything to me.”
Mr. Langone has said that Yankee Stadium could not hold all the people who have helped him along the way. He explains, “I am not a self-made man. Without my parents, my wife, my children, my in-laws, my friends, my teachers, my associates I would not be where I am today. I am even thankful to my old principal who predicted I would fail. When I made partner at Pressprich, the firm announced it in the New York Times. My high school principal cut out the ad and wrote a message on it and send it to me. It said, ‘How wrong I was!’ And I’m glad that in college I finally took responsibility for myself and set a course I could enthusiastically follow.”
When offering advice to youth, Mr. Langone acknowledges that hard work is important. “I did work hard in my career,” he says, “but that isn’t all it takes. A kind word, a thoughtful gesture, and enthusiasm for what you are doing-those three things are critical to getting all you can out of life. I also think it’s important to develop a sense of independence. Don’t look to other people to do things you can do for yourself.”
Ken Langone’s Activities and Honors
As a philanthropist, Ken Langone has donated close to $250 million to his favorite charities. His largest contributions support his alma maters Bucknell University and New York University. Mr. and Mrs. Langone made an $11 million donation to Bucknell University, where he was a trustee for 15 years, to build the Kenneth G. Langone Athletics and Recreation Center in 2003. The scholarship to Bucknell in his name has awarded 64 students with financial assistance in recognition of their high integrity, loyalty, and steadfast determination. The donations made by the Langones to New York University have funded professorships, curriculum, and student services to the Kenneth G. Langone Part-Time Evening MBA Program at the NYU Leonard N. Stern School of Business. The Langones are among NYU’s most generous supporters, and he is a trustee of the NYU Langone Medical Center-named for him and his wife in 2008.
He serves as a trustee of the Harlem Children’s Zone and is chairman of the Promise Academy, its charter school. He is also a board member of the Ronald McDonald House as well as the Robin Hood Foundation, which raises money to fund effective programs and services in New York City that work to end hunger and poverty.
As a co-founder of Home Depot, Ken Langone funded Ken’s Krew, a program that trains young adults with special needs between the ages of 18 and 21 to take on valuable roles in the workplace through employment with Home Depot and other corporate partners. Ken’s Krew hires full-time coaches to train members of the programs in the stores. Today, “Ken’s Krew” is a registered nonprofit program that has helped dozens of young adults with special needs to live more independent lives.