2011 Horatio Alger Award Winner
"Learn to embrace change. If there is no change, there are no opportunities."
Jim Rohr was born in 1948 in Cleveland, Ohio, the fourth of five children in his family. His father owned a small restaurant in downtown Cleveland. “My grandfather was an immigrant from Alsace-Lorraine,” explains Jim. “He started as a cook in a hotel and later bought a small restaurant with a partner. By the time I was born, my grandfather had passed away, and my father ran the restaurant, which was referred to as a fish house. My dad worked long hours and usually didn’t get home until two in the morning. But he was a great father to me and whenever he was home, I made sure I was near him.”
Jim describes his parents as being religious and dedicated to family. “They taught me to respect others and to adopt a strong work ethic,” he says. Catholicism was central to the Rohr family, and Jim served his church as an altar boy. He also helped out in his father’s restaurant, working as a busboy and dishwasher.
Jim’s father had suffered from rheumatic fever as a child, which weakened his heart. He survived a heart attack in his twenties, but when Jim was 10 he had a second, fatal heart attack. “My dad’s death was devastating for our family,” says Jim. “My mother and I became very close. For the rest of my youth she served as my advisor and confidante. But without my father, our livelihood was in jeopardy. My mother, who had never even written out a check before, tried to run the restaurant with my older brothers, but it just didn’t work out. There was an economic downturn, and our restaurant suffered along with the rest of Cleveland. My mother closed the restaurant and sold some other small real estate holdings my father had, and that was enough to secure my education.”
Jim was active in Boy Scouts and became even more so after his father’s death. He enjoyed the comradeship of his adult leaders and participated in scouting for many years. He also enjoyed school. He was a decent student and active in sports. He attended St. Ignatius High School. “It was a challenging school,” he says. “The Jesuits instilled strong discipline in me, and I received a very good education. The students there were from all walks of life—both rich and poor. I think that experience taught me how to get along well with all people.”
Jim planned to attend Notre Dame, his father’s alma mater. “In my family it was God, family, and Notre Dame,” says Jim. He started at Notre Dame in 1966, and to help pay his way he worked in the school’s dining hall and at a pizza shop. He had different jobs during the summers and worked in a steel mill, an engineering firm, and for his older brother who is an accountant. His time at Notre Dame had a lasting effect on him. “It is a values-oriented school,” he says. “My college roommate got me involved in the Council for the Mentally Retarded, and we worked there in our free time. It was my first opportunity to give back to my community and that experience laid the foundation for my future philanthropy.”
Following his graduation in 1970, he accepted an offer from Ohio State to teach statistics in exchange for free graduate tuition and $300 a month. He also married Sharon, his sweetheart from Cleveland. As he was finishing his MBA, he began a series of job interviews. He received several offers, and finally accepted a job from a small bank called Pittsburgh National, which eventually became PNC. “My first job title was assistant secretary,” he says. “Next, I became assistant cashier. That doesn’t sound like a lot of progress, but it took me several years to get there. I became an assistant vice president when I was still in my twenties. I hadn’t set out to make banking my career, but I was fortunate to be given different assignments that kept me interested in the industry.”
Once he became a part of the bank’s management program, Mr. Rohr was given more and more responsibility. He was elected vice chairman of PNC in 1989, named a director in 1990, elected president in 1992, and named chief operating officer in 1998. He became chief executive officer in 2000, and chairman in 2001. “Thirty-eight years is a long time to be at any one place,” he says of his steady rise through PNC. “A bank is really people. I joined PNC in the beginning because I liked the people. They were dedicated to their customers and their community. Their integrity level was extremely high. The respect they had for one another was evident in their conversations. I think that is the culture the bank has tried to maintain over a long period of time despite a number of acquisitions and growth.”
Mentors have played an important role in Jim Rohr’s life. He identified his parents as his first mentors. “They had definite expectations of integrity,” he says. “They were very kind, giving people and that was instilled in me at an early age. I also had several teachers and professors that influenced me. One professor at Ohio State taught me that showing up is an important part of success. My first boss at PNC was a stickler for detail, which was something I needed to learn at the time. Another boss I had for a number of years who preceded me as CEO taught me how to treat people with genuine care and concern. And yet another colleague helped me develop my work ethic and dedication to goals. My wife, Sharon, and I have been married for 40 years. Our relationship has endured through lots of hard work. She has certainly been a positive influence on my life. So I have been very blessed by mentors throughout my life.”
Jim Rohr is often asked about his thoughts on success. He says, “I think you have to redefine success often in your life. As you begin to have accomplishments, you develop new opportunities and challenges. From a business point of view, I’ve been very lucky. I have also been successful in my family. I think when you are able to do the things you love with people you love and help others to do a better job, then you are successful.”
Mr. Rohr’s advice to young people is to embrace change. “This is an exciting time for young people,” he says. “Some people worry about the fast pace of change, but I think it’s important to embrace it because if there is no change, there are no opportunities. My grandfather came to this country 130 years ago. It was a huge change for him, but he embraced the change and was able to create a wonderful small business and a wonderful family.”
Jim Rohr serves in a number of civic, cultural, and educational organizations. He is the immediate past chairman of the Allegheny Conference on Community Development and The Pittsburgh Cultural Trust. He is a board member and former chairman of the Greater Pittsburgh Council of the Boy Scouts of America. He has also chaired the local Salvation Army and United Way. He is a director of the Committee Encouraging Corporate Philanthropy, Carnegie Mellon University, and the University of Pittsburgh’s McGowan Institute for Generative Medicine. He is also trustee of the University of Notre Dame.
Mr. Rohr has led the way for PNC to be an active partner in the communities it serves. “About 10 years ago,” he says, “we asked our employees what we should focus on in our philanthropy, and the answer was education and children. We launched a $100 million program called Grow up Great. We also partnered with Mr. Rogers, Sesame Street, and PBS Kids. Consequently, we now have 25 percent of our employees giving their time at childcare centers. We pay them up to 40 hours a year for volunteering there. And for the past three years, PNC has been a finalist for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Philanthropy Award. We serve our community because that is where our customers and employees live and work.”
Over the course of his career, Mr. Rohr has helped raise or contribute more than $300 million for charitable organizations.
For his leadership in the community and of PNC, Jim Rohr has earned high honors. In 2006, he received the Woodrow Wilson Award for Corporate Citizenship. In 2007, he was named American Banker’s Banker of the Year. Accolades continued in 2010: PNC was named Bank of the Year in the U.S. by The Banker magazine, the longest running international banking trade magazine. Mr. Rohr accepted the award on behalf of PNC at a ceremony in London.