The dental-industry and aviation businessman and angel investor reflects on his Booth education and looks forward to the changes a new generation of students can bring.
- January 10, 2019
- Social Impact
Ron Tarrson, ’72 (XP-31), helped build Chicago-based toothbrush manufacturer John O. Butler Co. into a major player in the dental industry. He went on to join angel investment group Hyde Park Angels and to own and run aviation facilities in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and Scottsdale, Arizona. In 2010 he created an endowed professorship at Booth, the Ronald E. Tarrson Professor of Economics, and in 2017 he established the Tarrson Social Venture Fellowship, which provides funding and support to graduating students and recent alumni who are committed to startups that help solve social or environmental problems.
Why was the Executive MBA Program the right step for you at the right time?
Right out of college I started working in our family business, which was notable for manufacturing the Butler toothbrush. It was very small at the time—we only had four employees. For the next 10 years the company grew, and we began to get involved in a lot of areas that we had really no prior experience in. At the time we had an office manager who had attended Booth, and he said, “Ron, I really highly recommend this University of Chicago Executive MBA Program. It will give you business knowledge, and you'll be able to move forward with more confidence.”
How did your Booth degree help you to grow your business?
Studying at Booth was really a transformational experience. Every course I took was brand-new to me. The content, the professors, the instructors, even the teaching assistants were just phenomenal. With the help of the program, our company started to focus on things we knew existed but hadn't previously known how to approach.
For instance, as we got established at chain stores–Walgreens, in particular–we noticed that dental products were spread around the store. Toothbrushes were in one aisle, toothpaste was in another aisle, and mouthwash was in another. We pioneered the whole concept of having a preventative dentistry section.
I learned in the Executive MBA Program how to ask the right question to solve particular problems, whether in marketing or manufacturing. It actually changed the way I thought.
“I learned in the Executive MBA Program how to ask the right question to solve particular problems, whether in marketing or manufacturing.”
You own aircraft service centers in Santa Fe and previously owned an aviation facility in Scottsdale. How did you make the leap to aviation?
I started learning to fly in the early 1970s. My wife and I used to land at the Santa Fe airport when we visited her brother, and eventually I inquired as to whether they had any business opportunities there, so I could combine my interests in aviation and business. They did, and I ended up majority partner in a business at the airport.
Why did you want the Tarrson Social Venture Fellowship to focus on social impact?
Back during the 1970s through the time we sold [John O. Butler Co.], I had been focused on social impact in corporate strategy: the social responsibility that a company has to the community. We did a lot of philanthropy with the dental schools—we established the Bud and Linda Tarrson Fellowship for academic periodontists and an endowed Tarrson Family Professorship of Periodontology at the SUNY Stony Brook School of Dental Medicine. We were interested not just in making a profit, but in making a contribution to the livelihood and health of people. And doing the right thing, in my experience, has always resulted in getting the right return.
That was the foundation for my gift. My education changed my life. I just felt compelled to give back in whatever degree I could. This felt meaningful. One student who focuses on solving a social or environmental problem can, over his or her lifetime, affect hundreds of others.
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