Smithburg: From DePaul Golf Pioneer to Corporate Giant
March 1, 2013
CHICAGO - Little did Bill Smithburg ever imagine that he would go from teeing it up at DePaul to becoming the CEO of Quaker Oats and going for the green against Michael Jordan.
Smithburg ushered in the inception of DePaul golf in 1958 and 1959 before skyrocketing to the pinnacle of the business world in being named president of Quaker Oats in 1979 and CEO two years later.
The acquisition of Gatorade resulted in Quaker Oats signing Jordan to a 10-year sponsorship deal in 1991---the same year the Chicago Bulls won their first NBA championship.
It wasn’t long before the former Blue Demon golfer and the superstar from North Carolina hooked up on a golf course.
“Michael is so funny on a golf course,” Smithburg said. “He is also the most competitive human being I have ever played with.
“I hit a drive on this one hole that was of my best shots, and people were admiring it. Michael looked over at me and smiled. Then he said: ‘My ball will be in the air when it goes over yours.’ He always had a big smile, but that guy never wanted to lose.”
Smithburg still remembers the time Quaker Oats conducted a big management meeting in southern California. Jordan brought his wife and children along and they went to the amusement parks.
Jordan attended the meeting, but was more focused on hitting the fairways. One day, Smithburg, Jordan and a couple of Quaker Oats executives played a round of golf before heading back to the hotel for some tennis.
On the way, they passed Venice Beach and noticed all the hard-core playground hoopsters going three-on-three. Somebody in the car suggested they pull over and join the competition. Jordan said he couldn’t do it, that it wouldn’t be right.
After some spirited tennis matches back at the hotel, Smithburg had to get ready for that evening’s dinner and a speech he would make. Jordan looked over at a middle-aged, Quaker Oats sports marketing manager and his friend.
“Let’s go back to Venice Beach,” Jordan said. Smithburg chuckles as he recounts the tale.
“So, these two middle-aged white guys walk over by the playground courts full of athletic, mostly African-American guys going at it strong,” Smithburg said. “They say we got next, and we have Michael Jordan on our team.
“Everybody started laughing until Jordan came walking over. Next thing you knew, the game was on. They won game after game and kept the court. If the score got close, Jordan would tell his teammates: ‘Just get out of my way and let me have the ball.’ I was told that an hour or two later, several thousand people had gathered to watch Jordan play.
“When I saw Michael later that night, he told me the day of golf, tennis and pickup basketball was the most fun he had the whole year.”
The good times for Smithburg at DePaul really got going after Father Austin Minogue, C.M. threw out the idea of starting a golf team during Smithburg’s junior year.
“We had six guys on the team, and the program wasn’t anything like it is today,” Smithburg said. “The farthest we traveled for a tournament was South Bend, Ind. There were no golf scholarships like at Notre Dame and Northwestern.
“Father Minogue recruited me. He was a golf-playing priest and a great guy. Our golf program back then was like an entrepreneur starting up a business with a very low budget. But it was so much fun, and so great to play competitive golf.
"Being in a sport is so exhilarating. It invigorates you. It keeps your brain and your body going. I wasn’t big enough to play football or basketball. But playing golf at DePaul, you felt like you were doing something for your school.”
Smithburg said he attended DePaul to get a business degree and not to become a golf pro.
“What did you want out of this period in your life?" Smithburg said. "I wanted to get an education, study for a successful career in business and round out my personality as a person.
"Playing golf inspired me to do well in all those areas and was an added amount of fun and a challenge. It was a chance to play against some top college golfers.
“It’s too bad everyone can’t have the same experience we had on the golf team. Fifty-four years later, I still talk about it to my friends and family. My oldest son, Tom Smithburg, was walking through the hallway at the Athletic Center when his friend saw the photo of our golf team and said: ‘Hey, that’s your dad.’"
Smithburg has been a staunch advocate of the Blue Demon golf program, recently endowing a scholarship with a gift of $100,000.
“Some of the money I give to the team helps with facilities and to enable the golfers to improve their fundamentals,” Smithburg said. “It helps them out with golf and with their entire life.
“The DePaul golf program has come a long way from our modest beginning, and the primary credit goes to Blue Demon coach Betty Kaufmann. She has turned the program into a really successful, competitive golf team that travels around the country playing in major tournaments.”
Smithburg’s passion for the game came from his father, Pearl Smithburg.
“My dad didn’t take up golf until he was 40 years old, but he absolutely loved the game,” Smithburg said. “He was a vice-president of Burlington Railroad and entertained clients on the golf course. He always invited his kid along to golf outings and told people how good I was going to be.
“I’d come home after a meet and he would ask how I did. My dad and I had some wonderful times on the golf course. Now, I have a 16-year-old grandson (Keaton Sullivan) who can outdrive me.
“I still play tennis, golf and ski at the age of 74. I’ve been blessed with good health. I train every week and do Pilates. Next month, my sons (both named Tom Smithburg), grandson and I are going helicopter skiing. A helicopter will take us to untracked back country in British Columbia.
“I really enjoy skiing. Remember the time Michael Jordan retired from basketball and played baseball for two seasons? Little do people know that he also tried to take up skiing. Imagine Michael sitting in a chair lift going slowly up a bunny hill.”
After graduating from DePaul, Smithburg earned an MBA at Northwestern and spent five years working in advertising. In 1966 he became the brand manager for Quaker Oats. He was named president in 1979 and president and CEO in 1981.
“The biggest challenge for a CEO is getting the right people in the right jobs,” Smithburg said. “I really enjoyed my time there running the business. I retired from Quaker Oats in 1998.”
Smithburg sat on the board of directors for Abbott Laboratories, the Northern Trust Corp., Corning Inc. and three other corporations. Corning created the glass for iPhones and iPads.
“Serving on other boards got you out of your own conference room,” Smithburg said. “You exchanged ideas with some smart people who shared your same view of the world. It was good to get a different perspective.
“In some ways, the various board members were like your teammates. We’d all work towards a common goal just like we did playing golf at DePaul.
“It’s so important for us to continue creating an environment that encourages the entrepreneurial spirit that helped make our country so great. We have to provide opportunities for risk-taking and creativity.”