Charles Lillis arrived on the University of Oregon campus in 1970, a 29-year-old doctoral student with a bushy red beard wearing jeans, hiking boots and a plaid shirt. His resume included being in the Army twice and getting thrown out of the University of Washington (UW) once (although he persuaded the school to readmit him on academic probation, and went on to earn his bachelor's degree and M.B.A. there).
"At first glance," observed Del Hawkins, Professor Emeritus now but then a brand new assistant professor at the college, "one did not envision an executive."
Lillis didn't envision himself becoming an executive either. After earning his PhD in 1972, he went to work as a professor of business at Washington State University (WSU). But Lillis, who described himself as obsessed with complex business problems, was drawn to challenges outside the classroom.
"I just found the business world was better for me," he said simply.
Roger Best entered the doctoral program with Lillis and is now a Professor Emeritus at the UO. From the start, he recalled, it was clear Lillis loved the game of business, especially if the stakes were high.
"Chuck is not an incremental person," Best explained. "He likes to play for something important."
After his stint at WSU, Lillis worked for General Electric as a director of corporate marketing and research, returned briefly to academia to serve as dean of the University of Colorado Business School, and then joined US West in 1985 as vice president of marketing. He became executive vice president and chief planning officer in 1987.
In this role in the early 1990s, Lillis had the vision and foresight to see that cable television lines could and would be used to provide broadband Internet and phone services to individual homes. In 1995, he became CEO and chairman of MediaOne, a company spun off of US West to pursue the business opportunities available in delivery of broadband over cable. He began acquiring bandwidth, coalescing hundreds of different organizations and businesses, and moving everyone forward with a common strategic vision to deliver high-speed Internet access to homes throughout the world. And he did it a very short time.
By 1997, MediaOne was a Fortune 100 company, employing 16,000 people in ten countries and generating more than $7 billion in annual revenues. That feat compelled The Wall Street Journal to call him a visionary, and to be named Financial World's CEO of the year in 1997.
The Deal of a Lifetime. But Chuck wasn't done. Known as a brilliant deal-maker, he made the deal of a lifetime two years later when in 1999 AT&T agreed to acquire MediaOne Group for $62.5 billion, an increase of $50 billion in value since the spin-off from US West. AT&T subsequently sold the MediaOne division to Comcast. To this day, a major part of Comcast's success can be traced to that acquisition.
Today, Lillis continues to be actively involved in shaping the strategies and directions for numerous companies. He is cofounder and principal of Lone Tree Partners, a private equity investing group, a managing partner of Castle Pines Capital, and he is on the board of directors of SUPERVALU, Washington Mutual, Williams Companies, Medco Health Solutions, and SomaLogic. With his wife, Gwen, who holds a Ph.D. in business from Northwestern University, he established a family foundation. Gwen is chair of the Lillis Foundation as well as a board member on the University of Oregon Foundation.
Primed for Success. A native of Overland Park, Kansas, Lillis came from a lower-middle-class family. His father left the family when Lillis was two, and his stepfather was a mechanic. Lillis attributes much of his success to his mother, who was a source of great encouragement as well as a pragmatic teacher. Starting in about sixth grade, Harriet Love required her son to give a book report once a week to the family before everyone could eat dinner. He was the first person in his family to attend college.
More than anything, however, Lillis was motivated by fear of failure.
"I've been terrified of failing for as long as I remember," he said, noting that fear can be a positive factor in life. "I still wake up with dreams that I've forgotten to do an assignment for class."
Far from failing, Lillis was primed for success. Even in his UO days, Lillis impressed colleagues with his vision, charisma, and confidence. Although soft-spoken and humble, he is not the least bit shy.
"As a graduate student he would tell faculty what was wrong with their courses," Hawkins recalled. "He's very sure of himself. He's the same in the business world."
Always highly motivated and a good, solid thinker, Lillis evolved into a leader.
"He's the only true, inspiring leader I've ever known," Hawkins offered. "He can articulate a vision that others can't see, and can get you fired up about it."
And although Lillis reached the elite level in the corporate world, he has never forgotten how he got there. Lillis credits public universities with opening doors to him.
"My personal experience was that the education I got both at the UW and the UO was more important in my future success than almost anything else," he said. "A sophisticated public education was a ticket to opportunities that I wouldn't have had any other way. So I'm a big fan of public education at the university level; it's critically important."
That view is prompted Chuck and Gwen Lillis to make a $14 million gift to the Lundquist College of Business to help finance construction of college's renowned learning environment, which opened in 2003 and was named in their honor.
"Gwen and I believe an outstanding business school requires an outstanding physical facility," said Lillis.
Today's Opportunities. After years in the executive suite, Lillis has an insider's knowledge of how business works. In his view, today's business leaders are exceptionally bright, well educated, hard-working, street-smart people who operate under corporate ethical standards that are as high as ever.
"But it is more competitive, so in that sense it's more cutthroat," he added. "It's faster. It's harder to make money. But I don't think the basic ethical fabric is much different. What's different is that the wealth created by business is in more and more people's hands."
To students striving to make themselves attractive to recruiters, Lillis offered some advice. Above all, performance matters.
"We still think that how you do in school is a reasonable predictor of how you're going to do in business," Lillis said, adding "We look at how you do academically, and we like to see people who lead a balanced life and have taken a balance of rigorous courses."
Additionally, prospective employers are impressed by students who started businesses while still in college. Knowledge of new technologies is a plus.
Over his 30-year career, Lillis has honed his philosophy of business to a couple of insightful nuggets: Pick the right business to be in, and then focus on the people side.
"You will only be as successful as the people you surround yourself with," he advised, "and to surround yourself with good people you need to treat them how you want to be treated. You have to be open, honest, and you can't hoard information. Once you pick the right business, then it's about people."