Bill Greehey: Fort Dodge personified
From humble beginnings to becoming a professional and philanthropic titan, this story truly inspires
Small-world story time with a Fort Dodge connection.
The Iowa women’s basketball team advanced to the Sweet 16 with a rousing victory over Kentucky on the campus of St. Mary’s University Tuesday in San Antonio. All women’s NCAA Tournament games are being played at gyms and arenas in the San Antonio region this season due to the COVID-19 global pandemic.
Hawkeye freshman sensation Caitlin Clark, who scored 35 points, talked about the friendly confines of the complex at St. Mary’s — a private liberal arts college of nearly 4,000 students. “I really liked the court, obviously. It was a shooter’s gym … I thought that was totally on display.”
The name of the facility? Bill Greehey Arena.
If you don’t recognize the name, you should. Greehey is arguably Fort Dodge’s most accomplished native son. His fascinating story is one our community needs to know by heart.
Hopefully, this column helps. Given this week’s Hawkeye connection to the Alamo City especially, now seems like a perfect time to tell it.
Greehey was born in June of 1936, and grew up on the southeast side of Fort Dodge. He was the son of William, a mechanic at United States Gypsum, and Mildred, a housekeeper.
Bill’s two older sisters, Evelyn and Mildred, were long-time Fort Dodgers. Evelyn Waggoner was married to Richard Waggoner, who founded, owned and operated Waggoner Radiator Shop. Evelyn passed away in 1996.
Mildred “Keeka” Lynch, who turns 92 years old this month, was married to Dick Lynch for nearly 60 years. Dick passed away in 2013. Keeka currently lives at Friendship Haven.
Bill Greehey graduated from Fort Dodge High School in 1954.
“I grew up relatively poor in a working-class neighborhood in Fort Dodge,” Greehey said. “Most of the families around us had dads at the mill. I worked there myself (part-time from the age of 12 on). Mother did housework to help make ends meet.
“I was a good student and I wanted to go to college, but it wasn’t really an option (financially upon graduation). So I joined the service and was stationed in San Antonio.”
After four years in the Air Force, Greehey enrolled at a junior college in San Antonio thanks to the G.I. Bill. He then attended St. Mary’s — becoming the first of his family to ever go to college — and graduated with an accounting degree in 1960.
“I parked cars at Nix Hospital in San Antonio on nights and weekends to support my young family,” said Greehey, who has five children and has been married to his wife, Louree, for over 60 years. “When I got started (in college), I loved math. My freshman year, I was thinking about math and physics. Then I took accounting as an elective course.
“I figured I’d be better off (pursuing that career) due to the steady income. So I concentrated on accounting for my major and getting my CPA.”
Greehey quickly established himself as a savvy Texas businessman who succeeded not only because of the decisions he made, but the working environment he cultivated for his employees. He became senior vice president at Coastal State Gas Corporation in 1968 at the age of 32.
In 1973, the courts appointed Greehey the CEO and vice president of the struggling LoVaca Gathering Company — a subsidiary of Coastal States Gas Corporation. Under Greehey’s direction and leadership, the organization rose from the ashes and flourished. Valero Energy Corporation was then created as its spinoff successor in 1980.
“From 1974 until 1980, I didn’t have a single day off,” Greehey said. “I took over as CEO of a company that was basically bankrupt. (Six years later when it was founded), Valero began to take off and ultimately became a great success story. It eventually grew into the largest refinery in North America (with Greehey as the founding CEO).”
By the time Greehey retired in 2006, Valero ranked 15th on the list of Fortune 500 companies, with $82 billion in revenue and around 22,000 employees. Under his tutelage, Valero was twice recognized as the best “big company” to work for in the United States.
As Chairman of NuStar Energy to open the new millennium, Greehey helped forge a new path from Valero. Under his leadership beginning in 2001, NuStar also experienced dramatic growth, exploding from 160 employees in 2001 to 1,600 by 2014; from less than $400 million in assets to $5 billion; and from $100 million in revenues to $3.1 billion.
In 2013, Harvard Business Review listed Greehey among the top CEOs in the world.
“I took all of the values from growing up in Fort Dodge with me, and still rely on them to this day,” Greehey said. “When I was a kid, we were poor. But I didn’t know we were poor. That didn’t change the way we treated others. Neighbors supported neighbors. Everyone went to church and looked out for each other. Maybe we weren’t blessed with financials, but we were blessed with friends and love.
“I’ve always made sure that was the culture we had in our company. Caring about our employees and their families. Investing in our community and each other. The more you do for your employees and the community, the more you will ultimately be repaid and rewarded.”
Greehey’s business acumen became famous in executive circles, but so did his passion for giving back. The Greehey Family Foundation donates over $10 million annually to various causes, and has donated nearly $200 million total since its inception in 2006.
In 2005, Greehey’s $25 million gift to his alma mater, St. Mary’s, resulted in the naming of the Greehey School of Business while funding academic and scholarship programs to attract world-class faculty and students.
Greehey also founded “Haven for Hope,” a 23-acre campus that provides a full range of services to the homeless population of San Antonio. The center provides medical, dental, vision, mental health, child care and detoxification services. More than 400 people live there.
Haven for Hope is a public-private partnership with a budget of about $30 million a year. Greehey fueled a $61 million fundraising campaign through San Antonio-area businesses to get Haven for Hope off the ground beginning in 2006. Four years later, the dream was a reality as the $101 million facility opened.
According to its website, Haven for Hope has helped 13,000 individuals transition from being homeless to living in permanent or supportive housing.
“Haven for Hope is my most satisfying achievement,” said Greehey, the Horatio Alger Award winner in 2001 given by the Horatio Alger Association to “Americans who exemplify dedication, purpose, and perseverance” in their personal and professional lives. “I’m very proud of everything we’ve done. At Valero, we never had a single layoff. Employees always came first. People always came first. So during my transition (into retirement), we’ve prioritized the needs of those less fortunate and really emphasized the support of educational endeavors.”
Even at age 84, Greehey still serves as Chairman of the Board of NuStar Energy L.P., and NuStar GP Holdings, LLC, in San Antonio. He’s usually in the office a few days a week, while also keeping up with the inner-workings of his myriad philanthropic projects.
“To me, age isn’t a factor,” said Greehey, who is in the Texas Business Hall of Fame. “As long as I’m physically capable and mentally sharp, I’ll be involved and doing the work. When I ‘retired,’ I wanted to prioritize two things: giving back financially through our Family Foundation, and giving my time. It’s the least I can do, being active and present in the community after how good it was to me for all these years.”
Greehey still gets back to Fort Dodge at least once a year to see Keeka at Friendship Haven. His visits were more frequent in the past, when he was regularly traveling the country with Valero.
“My sister’s 92, so we’ve tried to make sure we see her as often as we can. Time, unfortunately, isn’t on our side anymore,” said Greehey, who is hoping to be in Fort Dodge again sometime this spring.
In the fall of 2018, Greehey helped break ceremonial ground on the Greehey Family Student Success Center at Iowa Central Community College. A $3 million donation from the Greehey Family Foundation helped fund the $6 million center, which formally opened in 2020.
“Junior college was an absolutely critical time in my academic life,” Greehey said. “I couldn’t afford the tuition to go to a (four-year school), so I wouldn’t be the man I am today without that experience and opportunity. I’m forever grateful for that.
“If (the Iowa Central which exists today) was around when I finished up high school in Fort Dodge, I probably would’ve gone there. Iowa Central is an invaluable resource to the kids in and around the Fort Dodge community, and our Foundation is proud to support it.”
Greehey emphasized that “the key to success, aside from of course working hard, is to have a good attitude.”
“Attitude is everything, regardless of what you’re doing or where you’re going,” Greehey said. “It has to start there.
“And…never stop learning.”
It’s hard to imagine a better representative of Fort Dodge’s relentless spirit. From humble beginnings to the top of the business world.
This isn’t just the journey of a successful professional, though. Bill Greehey has also prioritized taking care of people with a kind heart and a benevolent soul. The kids of Fort Dodge — our future leaders — should use his story as a template for making a difference in the areas of life that matter most.
Eric Pratt is Sports Editor at The Messenger. Contact him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @MessengerSports