Robert H. Smith: Investing in Potential
H. Smith [1928-2009] saw a great investment where others saw a bare piece of
ground. Among his successful ventures as a builder-developer was the vast,
interconnected, underground Crystal City complex in Arlington, Va. "I love
taking a raw piece of land and coming up with a vision and a project that is
beneficial for the developer and the consumer," said Smith.
He saw potential in the University of Maryland's business school led him to
make a landmark gift that changed the course of the school's future.
"Fifty years ago when I graduated from the business school, technology was a
vague term about who knows how to use what machine. Today we have much more
information available to us," said Smith. "Today's technology can give people the ability to make
better decisions, and in this very competitive age, the ability to make better decisions
is what helps people to succeed."
"I am a firm believer that life is a two-way street.
Giving back to institutions you believe in is part of that philosophy. You
don't have to give millions of dollars. The important point is to participate
at the level you are comfortable with."
"Financial success is not a destination; it is only
part of the journey, enabling you to reach your ultimate fulfillment, and
that is to give something back to help make a difference."
Robert H. Smith
The Drive to Succeed
Smith succeeded beyond his own wildest dreams. By the time he was 15
or 16 years old, Smith knew he wanted to be a builder-developer. So he enrolled
in the university's School of Engineering, thinking that would be the best preparation
for his future career. A mechanical drawing course soon proved that his gifts and
talents lay elsewhere. He did have an aptitude for accounting and finance, though,
so he transferred to the business school. "I figured a background in business would
serve me well, and I could always hire engineers," he said. "I'm very glad I majored
in accounting; it was a terrific financial background to build on."
Smith remembered The Dairy fondly. "They had fantastic ice cream and milkshakes.
It was kind of a hangout for kids. But I was a commuter, so I didn't participate
in many of the campus activities. I studied a lot. I came in and parked and went
A Grateful American
"My grandfather came to America
in 1908; he was a carpenter and then a carpenter-contractor. My father came
over with his mother and siblings in 1911. He didn't speak the language;
he just knew that he wanted to learn English, to be an American and to succeed."
"I consider myself a grateful American. I'm very interested
in the Founding Fathers and the period between 1770 and 1790, when these
outstanding men came together with a common vision to create our society
through documents like the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights,
the Constitution. They created a country that has given people more opportunity
and hope in the past 230 years than any other type of government in the
history of man."
"My family has had tremendous opportunities
because we live in this free, democratic society, for which I am thankful.
One who has forgotten to be thankful has fallen asleep in the midst of life.
It isn't a calamity to die with dreams unfulfilled, but it is a calamity
not to dream. When you cease to dream, you cease to live."
Robert H. Smith
Seeing the Business Schools Potential
Being a developer gave Smith a certain measure of foresight; he loved looking
at an empty piece of ground and imagining its potential, seeing its future. This
made him perfectly suited to seeing the potential that lay in University of Maryland's
"Robert Tardio (former chair of the University of Maryland Foundation)
came to me 15 years ago and asked if I was interested in making a naming gift. I
wasn't ready then," said Smith. "I also knew that if I was going to associate my name with
an institution, I wanted to be sure it had the potential to be outstanding."
Several years later Smith received a visit from then-University of Maryland President
William Brit Kirwan and newly minted business school Dean Howard Frank. They, too,
were hoping to interest Smith in investing in the future of the business school.
The businessman made them an offer: if the school produced a credible business plan
to make the school one of the top 15 in the country, he was in. Frank and Kirwan
came back with a detailed, year-by-year plan showing how the school would attract
the best faculty and students and build the best physical plant. They described
how Smith's gift would be used, and how the school would be supported with increased
funding from the university and the state. Smith was impressed with Frank's vision
to build a globally recognized institution with the best faculty, the best and brightest
students, and the most up-to-date physical plant in the world. In 1997 he gave $15
million, the largest gift the school has ever received, to help make that vision
Making the Vision a Reality
"When you bring together the best faculty and the best students, and a dean
who has a vision, exciting things happen," said Smith. "The changes in
the last five years have been so dramatic. It is axiomatic that progress depends
upon the belief that things can always be better."
Smith went beyond his initial gift to keep the school moving toward its vision.
"This isn't just a short-term commitment on my part; its up to me to do whatever
I can to keep motivating the school to exceed its own expectations. Excellence is
everything. I'm willing to keep investing in the school because I can see the results."
Robert H. Smith was a 1950 alumnus of the College of Business
and Management (major: Accounting) and was married to Clarice Smith, who attended the University from 1952
Smith was Chairman, Charles E. Smith Commercial Realty, a division of Vornado
Realty Trust, and Chairman, Charles E. Smith Residential, a division of Archstone-Smith.
His family company is best known for developing and building the Crystal City complex
in Northern Virginia.
He was active in civic affairs, lending his energy and expertise to a variety
of local, national and international organizations. His philanthropic efforts include
the University, as well as such organizations as the National Gallery of Art, the
Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation (Monticello), Mount Vernon, Montpelier, Mayo
Foundation and Hebrew University in Jerusalem.