2013 Horatio Alger Award Winner
"Success is the result of repeated failure. Don’t quit."
Jeff Rich was born in Goodrich, Michigan, in 1960. At the time, his father was working during the day as a butcher at the local IGA store and going to the General Motors Institute at night to learn engineering. Jeff’s mother worked in the office of a car dealership. To save money, the family lived in a small three-room house across the driveway from Jeff’s grandparents’ farm. “I had a dog, a pet raccoon, a horse I thought was mine, and barns to hide in— everything a little boy needs,” says Jeff.
Until he was five, Jeff’s grandmother babysat him while his parents worked. When it was time for him to start school, he moved with his parents to a ranch-style house in a better school district. The house was surrounded by large farms, fields, and woods. Goodrich was a town of 2,000 people with a main street and one traffic light. According to Jeff, “It was a great place to grow up.”
When Jeff was older, his mother got a teaching degree at the community college and became a substitute teacher. Eventually, after Jeff was grown, she became an intensive care nurse. “Education was important to my parents,” says Jeff. “They told me from my earliest days that I could expect to go to college.”
Jeff describes his parents as emotional opposites. His father enjoyed speed of any kind and over the years raced cars, snow mobiles, boats, and motorcycles. He was social and talked easily with everyone he met. “He was a good father and very supportive of my sporting endeavors,” says Jeff. “My mother was one of 11 children. Her family was of German descent, and they were stoic. She was focused in her work and calm in any emergency. She taught me how to get through tough things. She was not a whiner. If something needed to be done, then you just did it. She taught me how to not be a victim. She told me to not go through life explaining my shortcomings as a result of things other people did to me. She would tell me if I wanted something, I would have to make it happen on my own. And if things weren’t going the way I wanted, she would say it was probably because of the way I was going about it.”
Sports played a major role in Jeff’s childhood. He played hockey, football, baseball, tennis, and golf. He received nine varsity letters in three sports: football, hockey, and tennis. He made it to regional semifinals in tennis. He captained the football team, played as quarterback and cornerback, and was all- conference for two seasons. He and his friends created a hockey team in Goodrich by convincing the school superintendent to allow it if the team paid for all their expenses. They practiced on the lake and at the skating rink early in the morning, when ice time was cheap. They raised money by cutting wood and selling it for $25 per cord. When they started winning, hockey became the most popular sport in town. “Raising money for hockey became easy after that,” says Jeff.
From the time he was 12, Jeff worked every summer for a local farmer baling hay. “That was an awful job,” he says. “Everything is dry and you have to pick up and stack the hay in the loft, which is 20 to 30 degrees hotter than it is outdoors. That job taught me I didn’t want to be a farmer for the rest of my life.”
After his junior year in high school, Jeff turned in his pitchfork for a tool belt. He learned how to do basic home improvement and worked at changing aluminum siding, hanging windows and doors, and blowing insulation. He also drove a truck for a lawn fertilizer company.
Jeff did well in school. He was able to play sports and work part time and still managed to get straight A’s. When he graduated in 1978 as salutatorian, he was one of only 10 students in his class to go to college. Jeff attended the University of Michigan and majored in business with a concentration in finance. Throughout his college years, he worked. He earned free meals by washing dishes and also worked as a security guard at the university hospital. “Basically, my job was to sit on suicide watch with patients who were at risk,” says Jeff. “It was a good job. It paid well, and I was able to study while I worked. I saw people overcome difficult moments in life, and I always found that inspiring. It taught me to count my blessings.”
Jeff says college was one of the best experiences of his life because it broadened his horizons and helped him to become more open-minded. But during his freshman year, Jeff’s parents separated. That was a difficult time for him emotionally and financially. Happily, his parents reunited a year later and have remained married.
He graduated in 1982 and accepted a job offer from InterFirst Bank in Dallas, Texas, as a credit trainee. He quickly moved through the ranks and became an assistant vice president in charge of small acquisitions finance. He says, “Within two months of moving, oil prices peaked and Texas went into a recession. Oil went from $40 a barrel to $10 in two years. It was a down market, but I thought it was great to start my career. It was a tough environment and I learned what businesses have to do to survive. Three years later, I was hired away by Citibank in New York. My luck at stumbling into this high finance world amazed me. I got to see a lot of great CEOs in action.”
Four years later, in 1989, Jeff made a difficult decision to leave his job. “It’s easy to leave a job you don’t like,” he says, “but I loved my job. My problem was that I refused to commute to work. My first child was going to be born in the summer, and I knew I didn’t want to raise Hannah in New York City.”
When Jeff was offered the position of chief financial officer in a start-up company based in Dallas that would provide computer services to banks, he decided to take the leap and change careers. The new company, Affiliated Computer Services (ACS), had a difficult first year. Jeff describes it as a near- death experience financially. But they were able to expand their scope of business and the enterprise succeeded. In 1994, ACS went public, and a year later, Jeff was named president and COO. In 1998, he became CEO. He retired from ACS in 2005, after building revenues to $5.5 billion and giving it a solid place in the Fortune 500 with 55,000 employees on five continents. Ultimately, ACS was sold to Xerox.
In 2006, Jeff Rich launched PlumTree Partners, a private investment firm that invests in young software and technology firms. He is currently a special advisor to Trident Capital, a Palo Alto growth equity fund, and serves on the boards of directors of five private firms and one public company.
When asked what advice he has for today’s young people just starting their careers, Jeff says, “Make change your friend. The world is changing fast so you have to be adaptive to it. Change is going to happen with you or without you, so you might as well learn to not be afraid of it—in business or in life. The hard part is recognizing when change is happening.”
Jeff agrees with those who say that it’s important to discover one’s passion and then pursue a career in that area. “You’re going to spent most of your waking life at work,” he says, “so it’s good to love what you do. And if you don’t love it, it’s up to you to make a change. It’s good to have a dream you want to achieve, but my advice is to have a lot of dreams, and to pursue all of them.”