(Editor’s Note: The GAA’s Distinguished Service Medal citations, such as this one, are read to the audience at the Annual Alumni Luncheon and then presented as a keepsake to the recipients.)
Point guard Kendall Marshall earned the nickname “Butter” for how smoothly he passed the ball and spread the points among his teammates. Bill Harrison ’66 has a similar reputation in the corporate world for the way he comes into a corporation and sets it up for success before smoothly passing the title onto someone else and going on to his next challenge. So unusual is that capability in the big-ego world of global banking and finance that we considered engraving his Distinguished Service Medal to Bill “CEO Butter” Harrison.
Bill smoothed the transitions as Chemical Bank merged with Manufacturers Hanover, then with Chase Manhattan, then with J.P. Morgan. When he passes the ball, he passes along the glory so his successor always looks good.
Over the past few years, many global banking and financial corporations showed the effects of poor succession planning. Bill’s leadership made sure that JPMorgan Chase was not among them. As chair and CEO of JPMorgan Chase, Bill built a succession plan that provided security and continuing strong performance for shareholders and employees during a tumultuous and scary time.
“Billy applied his astute and thoughtful leadership not just to what he did every day but to what was in the long-term best interest of the bank,” said Peter Grauer ’68, his longtime friend from their Order of the Gimghoul days. “He combined lots of disparate cultures. He motivated his team of senior people. And he has a level of humility and groundedness that is unusual in someone with the responsibility he has.”
Bill’s success is rooted in his analytical mind and very clear understanding of the banking industry. Peter Coclanis, director of the Global Research Institute, a think tank whose budget for its first three years was funded by Bill, recalled recruiting Bill to chair a committee to develop a pan-university international strategy. Bill had asked for some background material, then he came to Chapel Hill for a one-on-one meeting with Peter.
“He peppered me with very insightful, analytical questions about aspects of our international programs, portfolio strengths, weaknesses, our competition,” Peter said. “It was like taking my PhD comps. He was very gracious throughout the four hours, but I came out of it totally drained. I could see why he had risen to the top of the world of finance.”
Bill can out-think most of us, yet he’s not a know-it-all. He’s not a glad-hander or a fast-buck kind of guy. He’s not likely to greet you with a hug. Rather, he’s known as a man of the utmost integrity and probity. In a quiet way, he commands respect, bipartisan respect that has brought Republican Henry Paulson and Democrat Larry Summers both to give talks at UNC.
Erskine Bowles, who roomed with him in New York, said, “Bill honed his leadership skills at Chapel Hill. His time at UNC stretched his imagination and expanded his horizons. He began to think about banking in his sophomore economics classes, and maybe even daring to move to New York for a short period of time to start his career. Sure enough that’s what he did, but every time he tried to come home to North Carolina he got another big promotion.”
Even with all of his other commitments, Bill, a Rocky Mount native, makes time to serve on UNC’s Endowment Fund board and its subsidiary board, and he’s a member of the Kenan-Flagler advisory board. He recently ran a task force to recommend globalization strategies to the chancellor and was asked to chair the Global Research Institute advisory board created in its wake. In the past, he served on the GAA’s Board of Directors and was named an honorary member of the Carolina First Campaign steering committee. Among the honors he has received over the years are the William R. Davie Award in 2004 and the University’s Distinguished Alumnus Award in 2006.
Though not at all pushy, he keeps people around him working. Once, on a road to connect UNC administrators with people at Columbia, Brown and Yale, Bill literally chauffeured a group from UNC among the Ivy League schools. When he was late leaving a morning meeting at Yale in Connecticut and closing in on an afternoon appointment at Brown in Rhode Island, the group had to hurry. Yet Bill said they needed to stop for lunch. Those in the car asked him where he’d like to stop, and pictured a nice bistro in picturesque New England.
It was to be, of course, fast food. Bill pulled off the Interstate at the next exit, and the group ate sandwiches while he kept driving. Needless to say, they got to the meeting on time.
“He’s not a hard taskmaster,” Peter Coclanis said. “But you don’t want to disappoint him. His respect means a lot to you.”
That’s kind of the feeling that Bill said he has toward his alma mater — something he learned from his late father and namesake, the former mayor of Rocky Mount and a past volunteer leader of the GAA board.
“The University has meant an awful lot to me for my whole life,” Bill said. “It’s natural to think about how I can give back and participate in ways that are satisfying and constructive and fun.”
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.