Benny LaRussa is a leading backer of entrepreneurship efforts at Harbert. It’s a subject close to his heart; in fact, you could say entrepreneurship runs in his veins. His father and grandfather were successful entrepreneurs. So is he. And his daughters are continuing the family tradition of entrepreneurism. The 1982 finance graduate, president of Sterling Capital Management Inc., is giving back to Harbert through generous support of entrepreneurship programs for students pursuing business dreams, whom he urges to “chase it and see where it leads you.”
Harbert Magazine: You’re both the grandson and son of successful entrepreneurs. How have these men, Joseph Bruno and Benny LaRussa Sr., influenced you and your approach to business?
Benny LaRussa: I’m very fortunate, very lucky. I was born into a family of unintended entrepreneurs. My grandfather and father have been great examples to my siblings, my daughters, and myself. My grandfather graduated from high school at the age of 16. He was the oldest of eight children and couldn’t afford to go to college. He had to provide for his family so he went to work for a local grocer. In 1932, he ventured out on his own and started Bruno’s grocery store with his family’s life savings . . . all in an effort to provide a better life for his family.
He grew the company into a very significant grocery chain, with 254 stores located throughout the southeast when the company was sold in 1995. In 1982, my grandfather had a vision to spin out the pharmacy and health & beauty component into a drug store chain called Big B Drugs. Big B grew to 389 stores and was sold in 1996 to Revco. If you asked my grandfather at the age of 80 after all his successes, “Was this what you expected?” he would say, “I was just trying to make a better life for my family.”
My father also grew up in the grocery industry but made a decision later in his grocery career to make a change. He decided to buy a fast food franchise under the Jack’s hamburger brand. ten years after purchasing the franchise, he proceeded to buy out the franchisor. In 2015 after establishing 140 Jack’s corporate-owned restaurants in the southeast, my father decided to take on an equity partner to scale the business to the next level. So it’s in my blood to think entrepreneurial.
My two daughters are both very entrepreneurial with their own respective businesses, so I think we come by it honestly.
HM: It certainly sounds that way. When you were young, did you work at the fast food places or the grocery stores?
BL: Like most teenagers, cutting grass and manual jobs were the norm in the summer. I did work in the grocery store, mostly bagging groceries, unloading trucks, and mopping floors.
HM: What did you do there?
BL: I’m the oldest of six children. We’re all within eight years of age. My parents did a great job of raising us. We were not privileged by any stretch of the imagination and working from a very young age was expected.
When I was 13, I worked on an egg farm. I rode in an 18-wheeler truck to Boaz, Alabama, and stayed the whole summer working on the egg farm. It was unlike any job I had ever done. It certainly began my understanding of supply chain management. It was a great learning experience.
I never worked at Jack’s only because I was away at college when my father acquired the company from the franchisor.
HM: Please talk a little bit about the role that entrepreneurship and innovation have played over
the course of your career.
BL: I’ve been fortunate to have entrepreneurship around me most of my life. My grandfather was awarded the Horatio Alger Award in 1980. My family and I had the opportunity to travel to Detroit when the award was bestowed upon him by Dr. Norman Vincent Peale. At that event, past recipients of the award were in attendance; most of them were very well-known entrepreneurs.
Provost Hardgrave and I were recently having a conversation about entrepreneurship. It’s not just the vision to go start something new that makes an entrepreneur.
We are all familiar with entrepreneurship; however, there is intrapreneurship, which seems to be gaining greater recognition. Entrepreneurship usually resonates with the vision of one or two people that come up with a better concept than is currently offered. This vision creates risk but great opportunity for the entrepreneur. Intrapreneurship is equally important because an individual or a team who reside within a company are challenged to establish or innovate a better process, procedure, or protocol. As an example, a graduate of the Samuel Ginn College of Engineering works for General Electric and is a part of the innovation team to design a more fuel-efficient aircraft engine. The outcome is intrapreneurship. In this example, GE benefits from intrapreneurship.
HM: Along that line, why do you think an entrepreneurial spirit is important and should be encouraged by a university?
BL: Under President Leath Auburn University is taking on a greater focus in research. Auburn must continue to innovate to remain relevant to students, parents, corporations, and globally. Students who are attracted to higher education want to be involved with programs that are going to give them greater opportunities, whether it’s with employers or exposure to a craft that they have a strong interest in. This is the reason research, innovation, and entrepreneurship are gateways to creating something different than what we know as “just getting an education.”
HM: You talked a little bit about your father and grandfather, but are there some other people who influenced you early in your career? And how did that influence contribute to your business success?
BL: Entrepreneurship for me started not just with my grandfather and father. When I graduated from Auburn, I had the opportunity of working for The First National Bank of Birmingham as a trainee and credit analyst. One of the individuals who I had the opportunity to work with was Richard Anthony, president of The First National Bank of Birmingham. He, along with John Oliver, President of The First National Bank of Jasper, decided to start a new bank. They asked me if I would join their team, which I accepted.
When given the chance to start a new bank, it began my own path of entrepreneurship. I had a conversation with my grandfather, and he said, “Don’t you want to come work for our company?” I said, “You know, this is an unbelievable opportunity.” After a day or two he said, “You know what? You’re absolutely right. When will you ever have a chance to start a new bank?”
I have great admiration for Richard Anthony and John Oliver, and the vision they had in starting First Commercial Bank. This was in the mid-80s, when a new bank charter in Alabama had not been issued in years, so it was very entrepreneurial.
That was a great influence for me in my early career. Then I look at the Harbert College of Business.
Raymond and I are good friends. What he has done is absolutely phenomenal, not just for his own company, his family, but for Auburn University and for the state of Alabama.
He is a current example of what entrepreneurship means.
HM: Are there any other current business leaders that you point to as examples of an entrepreneurial vision, and how that can lead to great things?
BL: There is so much change occurring in technology, business solutions, and supply chain management, and Auburn is poised to be a player. What Bill Smith has done with Shipt has been remarkable. But there’s more. There’re countless other entrepreneurs who are building the next best mouse trap.
HM: What is a business day like for you? How does entrepreneurism and innovation shape the way you spend your time at the office?
BL: I’m very lucky to work with a lot of very bright people. We operate three different investment platforms out of my office Fenwick Brands, a consumer-packaged goods fund strategy; StoneRiver Company, a real estate development and acquisition company; and American Pipe and Supply, a pipe valve and fitting distribution business.
One day is never the same as the next. The teams within each platform are very entrepreneurial and think about continuous improvement. They understand you’ve got to find ways to be better than before. Otherwise, you’ll get passed.
HM: Those seem to be three pretty different
business settings . . .
BL: And that’s intentional. All three platforms, I’m very familiar with. I’ve grown up around real estate and construction, the food industry, and consumer packaged goods. So those were areas I knew well and it creates diversification.
My grandfather would say, “People have to eat.” So grocery stores have to survive, even with e-commerce. You still have to make sure you provide high quality food at a competitive price and give great service. My father did the same thing with Jack’s by providing quality food at a good price and great service. Our companies are the same way.
We have to provide great service, innovative products, and competitive pricing. So it’s what I know.
HM: Speaking of knowing, what are some things you know now that you wish you had known when you began your business career?
BL: It didn’t take me very long to know that I needed to surround myself with quality individuals. I was fortunate to have great mentors in my father and grandfather, and others. But one thing I wish I had known then that I know now is it never goes as fast as you want it to go, and it’s never as easy as you want it to be. You have to understand there are times when you stub your toe, and that’s part of it. It’s how you recover and move forward, because not everything works exactly the way you want it to. I think part of entrepreneurship is that if you’re really committed to something, you’ve got a vision, a plan, and then go execute. But understand that it’s not going to always work exactly the way you intended it.
HM: We’ve got more than 5,000 students in Harbert College who are preparing themselves for business careers. What pieces of advice would you offer them?
BL: It’s maybe cliché-ish to say, but whatever you want to do, do it with a desire to be good at it. Good sometimes leads to great. You have to be passionate about what you want to do, and you have to be committed to it. There is no easy route. As people often say, if it was easy everybody would do it.
I think my one bit of advice would probably be chase it and see where it leads you.
HM: Let’s turn to philanthropy for a moment. What motivates you to give back to Auburn, and more specifically, to its entrepreneurship programs and initiatives?
BL: Auburn was good to me. As a student, I got a great education —probably not a great student, but I got a great education. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve seen the product that’s come out of Auburn and have been impressed by it. I’m very excited about President Leath’s vision and the leadership of Provost Hardgrave. I think they are a dynamic pair that will lead Auburn to new heights.
Because I’ve been exposed to philanthropy most of my life, President Leath’s vision is easy to get behind. Entrepreneurship has and will continue to play a key role in the President’s vision. Having world-class engineering, building science, business, and veterinary medicine, etc., Auburn will provide a catalyst in delivering President Leath’s vision.
Auburn University is at a point where it needs to strike. The public-private partnership which has created the Research Park gives Auburn a great head start.
HM: What advice do you have for others who may be considering philanthropic giving in support of Auburn’s entrepreneurial efforts and its vision?
BL: It’s the future. For anyone who has been exposed to building something or been a part of building something, we all know we have to give back to create a better future. The state of Alabama is in a unique position because of Auburn University. Auburn provides learning experiences that give students the opportunity to be exposed to global experiences.
HM: One final question on philanthropy. You’re involved in a lot of other philanthropic endeavors. How do you and Mrs. LaRussa make your philanthropic giving decisions?
BL: Carefully. Lynn and I have a very strong commitment to our community. We support the arts, health and human services, and education. We’re very conscious of the social needs of those less fortunate. We also know that it takes programs and people committed to improving lives. We like to invest in things where we can see our dollar produce impactful outcomes that lead to a better life.
We like to participate in things where we can play an active role.
The Tiger Cage program and the Harbert College of Business entrepreneurship and innovation efforts give us an avenue to be active. We are involved with the Joseph S. Bruno Study Abroad program in Italy through the College of Human Sciences. Juniors and seniors from the College of Human Sciences and students in other colleges throughout the university can spend a full semester at a dedicated campus in Ariccia, Italy. The students get a full immersion of the Italian culture while earning a semester’s credit as well as an international minor. We like to invest in things where we can change lives, where we can see an impact.