When Chicago Booth alumnus Charles “Mike” Harper, ’50, worked as an executive at food giant ConAgra, he was known for wearing short sleeves in the dead of winter and for his no-nonsense approach to acquisitions. Once in a while, he wore a lapel pin inscribed with “E3,” which was rumored to stand for the three things in business that mattered most: “Earnings, earnings, earnings”—a mantra he would repeat to colleagues.
It worked, and the food conglomerate was worth $20 billion once he retired in 1992, a steep turnaround form the struggling $600 million grain company he took over in 1974, and an unshakeable legacy for the 88-year-old who passed away in his Omaha, Nebraska, home on May 28, 2016.
But for Boothies, one of the country’s most respected CEOs wasn’t simply a tough, earnings-minded executive. Instead, he was an alumnus who made it a point to mentor classes long after completing his own MBA, and widely credited his own success to the courses he took while at the business school. His generosity lives on in the light-filled Charles M. Harper Center, Booth’s main campus building in Hyde Park.
“Throughout his remarkable career, Mike was an extraordinary alumnus,” said Sunil Kumar, dean and George Pratt Shultz Professor of Operations Management. “Even in retirement, he remained a generous and engaged supporter of Chicago Booth.”
ConAgra’s former top executive rose through the company ranks in the ’70s and ’80s. He later used his experience for turning around what was then a failing food producer, inspiring other executives. Outside the company, he’s widely known for his brainchild ConAgra’s Healthy Choice, which was one of the first mainstream brands to encourage nutritious diets. Harper’s own heart attack provided the inspiration for the healthy food line and was what company executives jokingly referred to as the “motivational moment” to get the brand off the ground.
At the company’s Omaha headquarters (which is relocating to Chicago in 2016), Harper is credited with contributing to the city’s urban renaissance, and was a trumpeter of state tax incentives for drawing new businesses to the region.
Outside of work, he took on more mentorship opportunities throughout the Booth. He sponsored his namesake Road to CEO series, served on the Council on Chicago Booth and received a Distinguished Alumni Award in 1991. His 2007 gift to the school was the biggest in its history at the time, and led to the renaming of the renaming of the Charles M. Harper Center.
But he was always quick to remind others how his own experience plays into the Booth community at large: “I’m just one slice of the [school], and that is teaching somebody how to run a business,” Harper said during the dedication of the Harper Center in 2007. “Another slice is research, which creates a whole new body of knowledge. And another slice is creating people to better teach someday.”
An industrial engineer by training, Harper also served in the US Army and launched his management career at General Mills after he graduated from Booth. The multifaceted experience left him in a position to succeed. A former work associate, retired Gleacher and Company CEO and Gleacher Center namesake Eric J. Gleacher, ’67, put it best: “He understood the accounting better than the accountants. He understood the tax tradeoffs better than the tax lawyers. And he’s a marketing genius.”
—By Alina Dizik
July 22, 2016