(Editor’s Note: The GAA’s Distinguished Service Medal citations, such as this one, are read to the audience at the awards dinner and then presented as a keepsake to the recipients.)
John Ellison studied Buddhism for 15 years, but you’d never know it when he gets behind the wheel of a car. His longtime employee Elaine Roberts, who used to ride with him regularly from The Ellison Co. headquarters in Greensboro to one of his companies in Charlotte, noted, “He’s not a very good Buddhist driver.”
John keeps moving forward, despite impediments, in everything he undertakes. That’s one reason he was able to move his dad’s textile business into more profitable industries as the North Carolina textile market waned, and one reason then-Chancellor James Moeser put him in charge of compiling a strategic plan for the University that laid the groundwork for the five-year academic plan.
For nearly 40 years, John has been working to keep Carolina at the top of its game. He was co-chair of the campaign to build the Kenan Football Center, and he served on the chancellor search committee that selected Holden Thorp ’86. A former member of UNC’s Board of Trustees and the GAA’s Board of Directors, John was a successful fundraiser for UNC’s last capital campaign, leading by example, as he does in other areas of his life.
John, who also got his MBA at Carolina, had just begun a career in investment banking in New York when his father suffered a heart attack and asked him to return to run the family textile business. Over the next 20 years, John steered the company in other directions and created The Ellison Co. as a holding company. He piloted the company’s expansion into diverse industries such as real estate development and two manufacturing entities: bus safety equipment and residential doors and windows. By 2001, the company expanded abroad through the acquisition of businesses in Europe and Malaysia.
All the while, John devoted considerable time to strengthening the University. He worked on the strategic plan with then-Student Body President J.J. Raynor ’09 for more than a year, interviewing about a thousand people, individually and in groups, to uncover from a variety of sources the challenges facing the University.
“He’s very perceptive and very willing to lend an ear to anyone, regardless of rank,” Raynor said. “Here’s a man at the top of his profession, and he was painstaking about listening to so many people across a wide spectrum.”
John appreciates quality, and he also has a keen perception of value. He can look at underperforming companies and select which ones will thrive with some redirection. He applies that same ability with people. Elaine Roberts came to work for him as his executive assistant. He recognized her acuity with numbers and gave her ever more challenging assignments. When she left to stay home with her children for a few years, he inspired her to return to school for a degree in accounting and a CPA accreditation. When she was ready to return to her career, John hired her as a controller for one of his operating divisions. She is now The Ellison Co.’s CFO.
“He got me doing things I never thought I’d have an interest in,” she said. “He sees possibilities in people they may not see in themselves. You want to rise to those expectations and end up surprising yourself, too.”
His insight is backed by hard work, said Tim Burnett ’62, who served with John on the Board of Trustees. John never missed a board or committee meeting, and he always did his homework.
“When John decides he wants to be involved in something,” Burnett said, “you can count on him to carry his share of the load.”
In 2009, he received the Dean’s Award from UNC’s Graduate School for his strong advocacy of graduate education. In his community, he has turned his attention to improving the quality of education in Greensboro public schools, and funds a charter school.
“John understands what a critical role education plays in changing lives,” said Karol Mason ’79, who served with him on the Board of Trustees for a number of years. “He knows that what he learned at Carolina gave him the tools to build his family business into an international company. He understands that having a Carolina degree opens doors. He feels a love and a responsibility toward UNC, and he wants to do right by the University.”
The GAA’s Distinguished Service Medal has been awarded since 1978 to alumni and others who have provided outstanding service to the GAA and/or to the University. The award is presented at the annual Alumni Luncheon on the weekend of reunions and Commencement in May. Recipients of the 2012 Distinguished Service Medals are Shirley Ort, associate provost and director of scholarships and financial aid; John Ellison Jr. ’69, a former member of the Board of Trustees who helped guide UNC’s academic planning; William “Bill” Harrison Jr. ’66, who helped steer the University’s global aspirations; and Randy Jones ’79, former chair of the alumni association.