September 11, 2017 — the day history was made at Iowa State University. It’s not every day two loyal friends make a commitment to give a $50 million gift to the college. That’s exactly what happened at the College of Business last fall.
On the day it was announced that Debbie and Jerry Ivy made that historic gift, the Richard and Joan Stark Lecture Hall in the Gerdin Business Building was packed with all 299 seats filled, and another 100 or more were watching from a large screen TV across the hall. The announcement was also streamed live on the Internet.
Reporters from all over Iowa attended and covered the big news.
Students, faculty, staff, and guests knew something big was happening. They just didn’t know what. The anticipation could be felt in the room. When Interim Iowa State President and former College of Business Dean Ben Allen made the official announcement, there were some audible gasps of surprise, followed by a short pause, before the crowd burst into a long round of energetic applause and a standing ovation.
“The Ivys’ commitment is a powerful endorsement of the college, our programs, leadership over the years, and vision for the future,” said Raisbeck Endowed Dean David Spalding. “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. “We are proud to have internationally known scholars leading these programs,” Spalding said. “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.
“Our skillsets are complementary,” Debbie said. “We each bring different perspectives to the business. He comes up with the kooky ideas, and I’m usually the one who figures out how to make them happen. But our goals and our values are aligned, so when we come to the same decision, it’s usually the right one.”
Debbie, originally from Kansas City, grew up in Seattle after her family moved there when she was young.
“I couldn’t afford to go to a university, but I went to community college for a couple of years, and then I started my continuing education when I got hired at Auto-Chlor,” Debbie said.
She describes Jerry as her instructor, mentor, friend, and eventually her husband.
“I really feel that I’ve gotten my education on the job and not in the classroom so much,” she said. “When life happens, you learn. You’ve got to be open and curious.”
That passion transfers to the support Debbie and Jerry want to provide to students and programs at Iowa State.
Both Jerry and Debbie knew they wanted to do something impactful for others.
“We believe everyone has a purpose in life,” Jerry said. “When we reconnected with Iowa State and learned about the economics of education and how important donor support is, it kind of hit me that this is what it’s all about. I feel like our faith put us in a position by associating us with the wonderful people who work for us, to make enough money to be able to do this for Iowa State. We feel good that this gift will be a benefit for many people, for many years to come.
Looking back on the experience of becoming the first named college at Iowa State, Spalding said he’s so grateful for the way it all worked out.
“There’s a real spirit of entrepreneurship at Iowa State and especially at the Ivy College of Business, so it’s only fitting that we name it after an entrepreneurial couple such as Debbie and Jerry. It’s absolutely perfect.”
A new name warrants a special celebration
On a beautiful fall afternoon, students, faculty, and staff at the newly named Ivy College of Business gathered on central campus to celebrate the historic $50 million gift from Debbie and Jerry Ivy.
The celebration included lunch, music, and an opportunity to socialize.
Special guests included Cy and members of the ISU drumline, which happened to include a few business students.
“This was a wonderful opportunity to enjoy the company of our students, faculty, and staff while also honoring the Ivys for their incredible generosity,” said Raisbeck Endowed Dean David Spalding. “This would not have been possible without the assistance of our marketing team, who planned every detail to ensure that this would be a special day for the college.”