This story appears in the April 2021 issue of Business Alabama magazine.
In the fall of 2018, as chairman of Birmingham-Southern College’s board of trustees, Denson Franklin III was doing due diligence, having lunch with a fellow trustee to discuss one of the leading candidates.
“He knew pretty well one of the candidates we were talking to, and I wanted to get some perspective from him,” Franklin recalls. “He said something like, ‘This is going to be a tough job. This particular person is phenomenal and has a real bright future, but this candidate hasn’t been through the wars, and I have.’ I saw an opportunity and asked him if he’d be interested.”
Daniel Coleman, who had retired after a successful career in the financial industry, was interested. He discussed it with his wife and family, wowed the trustees with his plan for the future and, in December 2018, became Birmingham-Southern College’s 16th president.
Wall Street Beckons
Coleman’s Wall Street career was about as unlikely as his transition to college president. After graduating from the Altamont School in Birmingham, he attended Columbia University and transferred to Yale, where he earned a degree in English.
During his senior year, while filling out graduate school fellowship applications, a roommate suggested something else. “He said, ‘You want to be a trader, you don’t want to do this,’” Coleman recalls. “I asked, ‘What’s a trader?’ He said, ‘You go to work for six hours a day, and by the time you’re 25, you make $100,000 a year.’ I looked at Andy and said, ‘I can do anything for six hours a day.’”
In 1986, Coleman took a job as an option clerk for O’Connor & Associates in Chicago, and a year later, he called his former roommate. “Andy, I’m making 20 grand a year, my bonus was $500 and I’m working 75 hours a week,” Coleman told him. “This is nothing like you said it was.”
But Coleman was hooked and quickly moved up in the ranks. O’Connor was acquired by Swiss Bank, which eventually became the Union Bank of Switzerland (UBS), and Coleman stayed with them until 2010. Along the way, he earned his MBA and became a star in the finance world, dealing with both highs and lows.
“In 2005, I became co-head of global equities, making about $8 billion a year, with 4,000 employees,” Coleman says. “It was exciting, everything you’d want in a career. Then the bank blew up all around us with the financial crisis. I stuck around, because I cared about the people who worked for me, and when things stabilized, I thought, ‘I can’t do this anymore.’”
By then, Coleman had met Brooke Hartzog at a party in Birmingham, and they had married. She was in graduate school in Chicago, but they vowed to someday return to Birmingham to raise their children. In 2009, the family moved into the historic Swann House atop Red Mountain, and Coleman commuted to Chicago for the next six months before quitting his job in March 2010.
Coleman took some time off, but he wasn’t done, yet. He went to work for GETCO, eventually becoming CEO of the firm that was a leader in the evolution of automated trading in global financial markets. That led to becoming CEO of KCG Holdings, a public company and another leader in the financial arena, until 2017.
Coleman, who had been commuting between Birmingham and Chicago and later between Birmingham and New York, was home for good. “My Wall Street career was over, and I had to do something,” he says.
So, Coleman went back to school, teaching an investments class as an adjunct and taking a math class and programming class at BSC. “I really got a sense of what this college does in a way that I didn’t appreciate growing up here,” he says. “This college opens up the world to its students. They come here and they really blossom. Watching that happen was pretty cool. I knew this college was pretty special.”
“I Believe In It”
At the behest of James Stephens and Franklin, Coleman joined BSC’s board in 2011, and his first board meeting was eye-opening.
Longtime President Neal Berte, who retired in 2004 after 28 years at the helm, “left the college in pretty good financial shape,” but the financial crisis in 2008 was devastating, Coleman says. “The school was a mess financially. The upshot is that by 2010, our debt was bigger than our endowment, and that’s difficult to recover from.”
Gen. Charles Krulak became president in 2011 and began to right the ship financially, followed by Edward Leonard from 2015-2016 and Linda Flaherty-Goldsmith, who served from 2016-2018, before retiring for health reasons.
Coleman left the board in 2013 but returned in 2018, just in time to be named BSC’s fourth president in four years.
“I took the job because the college is really important to my hometown and for me,” he says. “It’s a way to reintegrate into this community. There’s no better way to integrate yourself into a community like going around asking people for money. They asked me if I had ever raised money, and I said, ‘Sure, I raised $850 million in 10 days once, but I promised to pay it back.’ Asking for money and saying I’m not giving it back is very different. The only thing that allows me to do it is that I believe in it.”
What Coleman believes in is this — that BSC’s liberal arts education is valuable both for the college’s students and the community.
“I think about three dozen nonprofits have BSC grads running them; 10% of lawyers in Birmingham went to BSC; about 250 doctors and dentists in the metropolitan area went to Birmingham-Southern.”
Growing the workforce is important, Coleman says. “So how can we create the future leaders of Birmingham by getting a workforce that can make an economic impact in Birmingham right after they graduate?”
Coleman is betting on programs like one in data science that BSC will present this summer with Flatiron School, a New York educational organization, for BSC students and others. “I chose data science, because for me, over a 30-year career, I saw how it changed the industry I was in and changed my job, and I really feel like it’s going to change everything within the next decade.”
In addition to growing BSC’s endowment, increasing pay for faculty and staff is a priority.
“Over time, as we stabilize things, I would want to move their compensation closer to other Associated Colleges of the South schools,” Coleman says. “We’re at the low end now, but that reflects our situation, not the quality of our faculty, for sure.”
And then there’s the pandemic, which BSC has managed well, so far. During the fall semester, BSC had 70% face-to-face classes, and about 90% of students returned to live on campus.
“What they have done to have students on campus and in classes during this pandemic is amazing,” Franklin says. “I’m thrilled we have him.”
BSC won’t have him forever, and Coleman thinks that the college might be well-served to have a more traditional president after he leaves, but he thinks he came along at the right time.
“This is not high finance, but there are a few business principles that are really important from time to time that colleges need someone running them to reinstill,” he says. “I think the person after me should not have my background, but from time to time, colleges should have a person like me come in and ask certain questions and challenge things in a way that higher education just doesn’t look at things.”