|Princeton Personality by Jean Stratton|
Venture Capitalist, Investor, and Philanthropist Gordon Gund Is This Week's Princeton Personality
Gordon Gund is an expert venture capitalist and investor. As chairman and CEO of Gund Investment Corporation in Princeton and Gund Business Enterprises in Cleveland, Ohio, he oversees diverse holdings which have included hotels, apartment and office buildings, and Network Advertising Services, a recruitment advertising firm that was the largest in its industry.
He is the principal owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers National Basketball Association team and of the Cleveland Rockers Women's National Basketball Association team, and he also established and is responsible for the state-of-the-art Gund Arena in Cleveland.
Much of the year, he is on the road, traveling across the country on business trips. Mr. Gund serves on the board of such major corporations as the Kellog Company and Corning, Inc., also on the U.S. Olympic Committee, and he is an active and committed philanthropist.
He is an enthusiastic skier, expert fly fisherman, and experienced amateur sculptor. And for the last 33 years, Mr. Gund has been blind.
Rather than let this condition impede his hopes and plans, he saw it not as an obstacle but as a challenge to be met and surmounted.
"It made me focus on what really mattered to me, and what I value, and the challenge is a big part of it," explains Mr. Gund.
Challenges have always energized him. He has been much more of a participant than a spectator. As a boy growing up in Cleveland, Ohio, Gordon was something of a daredevil, testing himself, pushing his limits, and skeptical of authority.
"I was mischievous," he recalls. "As a child, I was undisciplined and reckless. I didn't have good grades because I didn't study. I was just not that excited by it. My father sent me to Culver Military School in the summer for discipline."
The second son of George and Jessica Gund, Gordon was one of six children. Siblings included George, Agnes, Graham, Geoffrey, and Louise, and they had a happy childhood: movies on Saturday afternoons, summer camp in Maine, and memorable visits with grandparents on Long Island Sound.
"I think I've been very lucky to have had two great parents and many good times with family and friends," says Mr. Gund. "Another thing we did was to go to the Cleveland Museum which had a special introductory art program for kids on Saturdays. We spent several hours there, and all of us have an interest in art. I got involved in sculpting then, and I continue to sculpt today.
"My father was a very good businessman," continues Mr. Gund. "He ran the Cleveland Trust Company, and he was also an entrepreneur. He built the first business to commercially extract caffeine from coffee. He definitely influenced me."
When he was 11, Mr. Gund attended the Groton School in Massachusetts. "My mother died when I was 14, and that was very difficult," he says. "Because she was ill for some time, that's how we came to go away to school. I was young for my class at Groton, and I wasn't used to the eastern way of dressing, and I was not nearly as well-prepared as the others."
Gordon was active in sports, playing hockey, football, and rowing for the crew team. He was also a member of the Missionary Society which helped out in the community.
It wasn't until his sophomore year, however, and through the efforts of the headmaster and faculty members, that he began to take an interest in academics. "The headmaster, Jack Crocker, and a number of others got me to believe in myself, and I learned how to study. I'm a late bloomer some say I haven't really bloomed yet," he says, smiling.
"My father had gone to Harvard, and I would have liked to, but I was told my grades weren't good enough, and I was slated to go to another college. However, the headmaster came to me and said, 'I believe because of the job you've done and the turn-around you've made, you should try for Harvard, and I will speak on your behalf.
"Harvard ended up taking me, but since I was so late in applying, there was no room for me in Harvard Yard, and I lived off-campus. I liked Harvard, and I went there determined to prove that the headmaster and the faculty at Groton were right in believing in me."
Their faith in him was indeed well-founded. He majored in the physical sciences, with concentration in physics, math, and chemistry.
"I had great teachers," he recalls. "The best course for the future for me was economics, but I especially enjoyed an experimental social relations course on human group behavior. Physics didn't involve people, and since I had finished my requirements for my major, I could take some other courses I was interested in. I also took another course on child behavior.
"My interest in those courses made a huge difference for me later," continues Mr. Gund. "When you don't see, you are so dependent on other people. You need to listen carefully to them. I like to think I have good people judgement. Without that, you can't go very far."
Also while at Harvard, he played hockey and was on the crew team, and he became interested in photography.
After graduation in 1961, Mr. Gund spent the summer working on a ranch in Colorado, and then in the fall went to Naval Officers Candidate School in Newport, R. I.
"I found that I had some leadership ability, and I served for three years on a destroyer in the gunnery department and as legal officer, having gone to Naval Justice School. I learned a lot about myself, and I learned how to motivate people. I became officer of the deck when I was still an ensign, and I loved the confidence and responsibility it gave me."
The ship was stationed in Japan, and Mr. Gund was intrigued by Asia, and contemplated extending his tour with the Navy.
"I was asked by the Navy Bureau of Personnel in late 1964 to go to Vietnam to advise Vietnamese commanders. They would have jumped me in rank from Lt. jg to Lt. Commander. I had 30 days to decide, and I thought about it. But then I just happened to receive a letter from a former shipmate, who had served in that position, and he said it was very frustrating."
Mr. Gund decided against it, and served the remainder of his Navy tour in California, where he earned his private pilot's license.
"The Navy was a very good experience for me," he says, "and I made good friends, long-lasting friendships."
Then in 1965, he headed east to New York, where he went to work for the Chase Manhattan Bank. That career choice came naturally, he recalls. "My dad loved banking, and we all grew up with it. You could get a good training program with New York banks, and I ended up with Chase Manhattan, then the largest bank in the country. I also went to NYU at night for an MBA, but I never finished that."
Nineteen-sixty-five turned out to be a crucial year on two fronts. He met his wife, Llura (Lulie) Liggett, and he was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa (RP), a progressive degenerative disease of the retina.
"I really met my wife, a native of Florida, in New York when we were both working there. I had known her briefly at Harvard, when she was dating a friend. But we seriously got together when we were asked to be godparents for a friend's baby."
They were married in 1966, and went to live in an apartment in Brooklyn Heights. Two sons, Grant and Zachary, were born in 1968 and 1970.
At that time, Mr. Gund's vision had begun to deteriorate, but it was gradual, and he could still live his life without interruption. "I was experiencing vision problems at night, including loss of peripheral vision," he explains. "I found it difficult to go from light to dark; for example, from daylight into a dimly-lit restaurant.
"When I was diagnosed with RP, the doctors said I would probably have my sight until I was in my sixties. I wasn't too worried because when you're 25, 60 seems pretty far away."
Mr. Gund continued to live as normally as possible, and in 1968, he and his wife and son Grant moved to Princeton. He and partner Peter Danforth had just established Gund Investment Corporation and Gunwyn Ventures in New York, which were later headquarted in Princeton in 1970.
"When I was at Chase, I became a lending officer, and my territory was in the north central part of the country Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, and Colorado. During this time, I really became enamored by the idea of the entrepreneur. I was more attracted to the entrepreneurial spirit," he explains.
"Rather than lending money to businesses that didn't really need it, I preferred venture capital giving people opportunities to start new businesses and develop new concepts. I learned a lot from Peter Danforth and other entrepreneurs. Life is really about entrepreneurs who do different things, and in doing them, make a difference."
Mr. Gund was about to find a way to make a difference himself, one that he had not planned on. Nineteen-seventy was a turning point in his life, when contrary to the doctors' prognosis, he began to experience more rapid loss of his day vision.
"I had already given up flying and driving at night and had to face that," he recalls. "My day vision from March of 1970 to October of 1970 just went. It kept closing in more every day. I looked for places doing research on it, and there was very little being done."
He talked to many people, including the late Peter Putnam, Princeton resident and author, who had also lost his sight.
"Another person who was very helpful to me was Jim Wheat, who also had RP, and who ran a regional investment banking operation in Virginia, and advised the governor," says Mr. Gund. "In 1970, I was in Virginia talking to a doctor, asking if there was any research being done, and he said we had really run into a dead end. I was thinking to myself, 'What am I going to do? What will it be like for me?' Then the doctor said, 'There's this fellow up the street, and I think you should meet him.'
"I went immediately to see him. He sat me down on a couch, and while I was there, the governor of Virginia called for Jim's advice. I was impressed, and it gave me great encouragement to see what he had accomplished."
Down to Bedrock
Later that year, Mr. Gund approached another doctor, who also said he didn't know of any significant research, but that the Russians were claiming they had a treatment.
"At this point," explains Mr. Gund, "you want to turn over every stone, even if something is off the wall. It was the height of the Cold War, but I got a visa, and my brother Graham went with me. But the treatment was six weeks, and he couldn't stay that long. So I found myself alone in Odessa. I didn't speak Russian, and you really get down to bedrock. Then, a few weeks later, I met a student who was at nearby Odessa University, studying French. I had taken French at Groton and Harvard, so we could communicate, and he'd translate for me. He helped me a lot."
Unfortunately, the Russian trip did not provide answers for Mr. Gund's condition, but, as he says, it did provide a lot of the basic foundation for living without sight. "I realized it didn't do me any good to be angry, and I couldn't deny it. In fact, what really stuck with me was what I really cared about my wife, children, and people I worked with. I was tremendously lucky to have these people around me. And I was very lucky to have seen my sons before I lost my sight and to have that memory.
"The loss of sight has also been a factor in learning to listen to people and to be willing to ask for help. Initially, that was a hard thing to do."
Taking positive steps became very important, and he received mobility training from the New Jersey Commission for the Blind, and he also learned to read Braille. He was indefatigable in his resolve to move forward both personally and professionally, and in his effort to further research.
Since so little was being done, Mr. Gund and his wife decided to co-found and raise funds for a foundation to support research into RP and related eye diseases, such as macular degeneration. The Foundation Fighting Blindness was established in Baltimore in 1971, and now has chapters in 35 states, including New Jersey.
"The way we looked at the foundation was very much like a venture capital investment company," explains Mr. Gund. "What we're doing is investing in new research, trying to get new ideas going at different laboratories. We provide seed money for this, and we now have 55 grants.
"Many wonderful people in Princeton were very supportive of the foundation in the beginning," he reports. "In the spring of 1972, Lulie headed up a chapter here in central New Jersey, and she continues to run the New Jersey effort. Not only does she live with it and help me to get around, but she does this work as well. She's been at it 31 years, and this is pretty wonderful and remarkable.
"The late Bill Stewardson and his wife Betsy were involved, too, and also the late Tom Jamieson. All were early supporters of the foundation, along with Leighton Laughlin, Mary Murray, Chuck Travers, Jay Regan, and Alan Landis. "One thing about Princeton is that there is a real sense of community here. People care about it in a way that is appealing. There is a real sense of wanting to help a worthwhile endeavor."
He adds that a number of events, including golf and tennis tournaments, the Big Apple Circus, and the opening of the movie Jaws at the Garden Theater in Princeton, have been held to benefit the foundation. He is very encouraged at the progress being made.
"These are genetic problems, and it's just a matter of time. Just down the road, I think there will be real steps forward. For example, there are dogs with the same genetic disposition that exists in the severe form of RP. These dogs have been born blind and have had a therapy that has reversed their condition. Since the dogs have exactly the same defect, it will have relevance to humans. We are very anxious to move on to the treatment trials.
"I look forward to further progress with the foundation and ultimately to help make real inroads into these diseases," he continues. "There are already nutritional treatments to slow macular degeneration, and the whole next level of research is moving from laboratories to clinical trials. I think one day the Foundation will change the face of the world. It will eradicate diseases that affect millions.
"It's very exciting. I don't envision it for myself, but I think the foundation and its work demonstrates that from a negative, you can create something positive, something worthwhile."
Helping others, both personally and professionally, is another way to contribute positively, and Princeton resident and foundation supporter Betsy Ford recalls an incident in the early 1970s, which has stayed in her memory.
"My first husband, Bill Stewardson, had died and a few months later, Gordon took my young children and me to an exhibition of Remington western art at the Squibb Gallery. Gordon is a sculptor himself, and with his hands, he went over these sculptures, and described to my kids what they were all about. It was just superb, and my children have never forgotten that day and his kindness."
Achieving a positive impact is also an important part of Mr. Gund's entire business operation. As his colleague Warren Thaler, president of Gund Investment Corporation, points out, "Gordon encourages all the business leaders we work with to relentlessly consider ways to make products and services better, to ask questions, test assumptions and ponder possibilities. Gordon calls this 'constructive imagining.' He balances this effort with keen attention to prioritizing objectives and focusing on attainable results. Our group has had a lot of fun together and done some special stuff.
"I've known Gordon since I was in high school," adds Mr. Thaler, "I was captain of the crew team at Groton, and he gave us a boat. I really got to know him when I was at Princeton, and I consider him a special friend. I learn a lot from every interaction with him, and I've grown a lot working with him."
In addition to spending 30 percent of his time with the Foundation Fighting Blindness, of which he is chairman, Mr. Gund looks forward to continuing to oversee the holdings of his corporation, as well as getting new companies started. One of the aspects of his business that Mr. Gund enjoys most is the association with the Cleveland Cavaliers basketball team, which he acquired in 1983. Always a sports enthusiast, he was very happy recently when the team added the 18-year-old basketball whiz, LeBron James to its roster.
"We look forward to having him with us as we rejuvenate the team," says Mr. Gund. "We have a lot of good new young players and a new coach, Paul Silas. LeBron is from nearby Akron, and I think he'll be a real shot in the arm for the team."
For an energetic person like Mr. Gund, activity is a must. He is not one to be a spectator. His Harvard classmate and friend, author and Princeton resident Peter Benchley, has always been impressed with Mr. Gund's energy and desire to participate.
"The first I knew of Gordon's problem with his sight was in 1969. He and I were playing a game of Capture the Flag somewhere in New Haven, and he said, 'Could I tag along with you? I've lost my peripheral vision, and I could get off course.' It was so typical of Gordon to continue to play. It's also amazing to be in a canoe with Gordon when he's salmon fishing!
"We've stayed in touch, and Gordon is and always has been an inspiration. What he has overcome and managed to achieve despite this significant handicap, which he has turned into a minor inconvenience, is remarkable. He is a wonderful guy."
Mr. Gund also enjoys fly fishing in Colorado and Canada, and according to his friend of long-standing, Princeton resident Chuck Travers, he is an expert.
"He becomes part of the rod! The guide tells him where to throw the line, but Gordon does the rest, and the fish come right to him! Gordon is just a terrific guy. We met when he moved to Princeton, and we played golf together. I think he has a way with people and a great management style. He's very sincere, obviously a very bright guy, very charismatic, and is able to glean facts that he needs to make business decisions, and of course, he's a great listener. "He is also president of our "PIG" group the Princeton Investment Group. 25 of us meet every month for lunch at the Nassau Club."
Mr. Gund is also an enthusiastic skier, and has been skiing for many years. "I had skied for five years before I lost my sight," he notes, "but now when I ski, I am very focused and much more aware of the feel, how I'm positioned, what's happening with my feet, and the rhythm of the mountain.
"A friend and guide skis behind me, and gives word signals. We have frequent voice contact. He'll say 'go' frequently, 'okay', and tells me to turn only if there is an obstacle ahead. I'm not really being told what to do, which I like. Skiing gives me a real sense of freedom and independence and the feeling of motion."
As he reflects on his career, Mr. Gund is justifiably proud of his wide-ranging business interests, financial success, and the opportunities he has set in motion for new businesses and new ideas, but he emphasizes that his proudest achievement is his family.
"I have a wonderful family. I feel very lucky to have two great children and a wonderful partner. Both of my sons are married and live in New England. One is a venture capitalist, and one is just about to buy a business. I see them and their wives, and my three-year-old twin grandchildren as often as possible."
His long-time friend and associate, Leighton Laughlin has noted the importance, especially, of Mr. Gund's wife in his life. "I'm sure Gordon would be the first to say that a big part of what makes his life so rich and broad is his wife, Lulie.
"Gordon is a multi-talented fellow with a host of interests, and most of all, a loving, concerned spirit."