Photo of Debbie and Jerry Ivy

On September 11, 2017, Debbie and Jerry Ivy announced their historic $50 million gift, which named the Ivy College of Business. It was the largest gift in the history of the college and paved the path for ours to be the first donor-named college at Iowa State University.

This isn’t the couple’s first donation to the school. They also fund the Debbie and Jerry Ivy Chair in Business.

The Ivy’s commitment is a powerful endorsement of the college, our programs, leadership over the years and vision for the future. Their gift will establish an endowed fund that will eventually provide almost $2 million annually to the college for short and long-term priorities. Most immediately, it will build on momentum in several growing areas at the college, including entrepreneurship, business analytics, and supply chain management, which is ranked fifth in the world for research. The Ivy gift will provide scholarships, faculty support, and programmatic funding for those and other areas.

We are very grateful to Debbie and Jerry Ivy.

Jerry’s path to Iowa State was one of pure chance.

He grew up in a small farming community in Minnesota. During high school, he had friends who came from families where English was not spoken in the home. “And to give you a little bit of flavor, when it came time for the senior prom, none of us knew how to tie a tie. I don’t think any of us had to tie one. We had to go to three different farmers before we could find somebody that could tie our tie,” he said.

It was a chance meeting with Jerry’s cousin that brought him to Ames.

“Actually, when I graduated, I was signed up and accepted to the University of Minnesota, the Duluth branch,” he said. His cousin was in the Navy, and eventually went to Iowa State to study engineering. During a family visit to Minnesota, his cousin strongly encouraged Jerry to attend Iowa State.

“He said that I needed to go to Iowa State. It’s a bigger college and it’s a better experience. I am forever grateful to this day for that because I certainly wouldn’t have been here if it hadn’t been for him.”

His years at Iowa State were filled with many activities, including being a member of the VEISHEA and Homecoming Central committees.

Because he was involved with the VEISHEA Central Committee, Jerry had the opportunity to meet Cecil B. DeMille, a famous American filmmaker. “That was the guy who produced the Ten Commandments,” Jerry said. “He took the VEISHEA Committee to lunch. He spent about an hour and a half with us. To me, that was one of the wonderful things that happened to me. He was just a dynamic individual.”

Jerry earned his bachelor’s degree in industrial administration from Iowa State in 1953.

Today, he is president and chief executive officer of Auto-Chlor System, Mountain View, California, where Debbie Ivy and son, Ed, are also active members of the executive team. The Ivys and their team have successfully grown Auto-Chlor into a national brand with more than 75,000 customers nationwide. The company provides cleaning solutions to the foodservice, healthcare, and lodging industries.

Their success didn’t happen overnight. It came after many years of dedication to customers and employees.

Jerry’s entrepreneurial spirit started when he was 11 years old. He sold frogs at a tourist attraction.  He quickly learned that he could sell more frogs by hiring other boys to catch the frogs while he sold them at a booth.

He was on to something.

As an Iowa State business student, he learned about customer service while working at a meat market. He started a handyman business that grew to have 10 student employees. During his time in the Navy, he sold suits to his fellow sailors. He started several small businesses and grew them quickly to meet the demand. When customers wanted more, he hired more people to help.

Jerry was an entrepreneur before that word was common.

After an Iowa State experience he called “totally wonderful, academically and socially” and time served in the Navy, Jerry eventually opened an Auto-Chlor franchise and learned the business from the ground up. He hired Debbie, the first woman in the company, and they soon became partners in life and in business. Together, they grew their business knowledge and opened several more Auto-Chlor franchises and purchased other competitor businesses on the West and East Coast. When the conglomerate that owned the franchisor company decided to sell it, the Ivys negotiated to purchase the company, and actually out-negotiated a private equity firm from New York City.

It was an amazing accomplishment.

“They had their Harvard MBAs, and they thought we were dumb farmers from Minnesota,” Jerry said. “We showed them,” he laughed. The Ivys made it happen because they knew, and respected, their customers. They knew the business. Over time, the Ivys have grown the company to become the leading commercial dishwasher business in the United States.

They make good life partners, and good business partners.