Brothers in Giving
When Rick Diermeier (BBA ’81) was a high school student visiting his big brother Jeff (BBA ’74, MBA ’75) at UW–Madison, the two rented a canoe to paddle around one of the city’s lakes.
They were well across the water when a wicked wind came up and blew straight in their faces as they tried to return. With each stroke forward, the waves seemed to take them backward until little by little they returned to shore.
“The guy who rented us the canoe just looked at us and said, ‘I didn’t think you would ever make it back,’” Rick says.
Years later, the Diermeiers are doing what they can to create smooth sailing for students and faculty at the Wisconsin School of Business. Their generous support has endowed two faculty positions at WSB, and Jeff and his wife, Julia, also have supported numerous initiatives throughout campus. The brothers’ careers took divergent paths to success, but what they have in common is how they acknowledge and support the source of that success―the University of Wisconsin–Madison and the Wisconsin School of Business.
“Giving to the university is payback,” says Jeff, who has had a distinguished career in finance. “Our work ethic fits Wisconsin. We’re so proud of Wisconsin, and when we go elsewhere we meet many people who feel the same way.”
His younger brother agrees.
“It’s a cornerstone,” the longtime manufacturing executive says of his time at WSB. “If I had gone anywhere else, would any of my life be happening this way?”
Philanthropy designed to make a difference
Jeff is former president and CEO of the CFA Institute, a nonprofit educational organization for investment professionals that offers the prestigious Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) designation. Prior to that, he was global chief investment officer for UBS Global Asset Management. He was also a founding managing partner at Brinson Partners, a Chicago-based asset management firm, and is an award-winning published financial researcher.
He serves on the Wisconsin Foundation and Alumni Association Board of Directors, as well as on the advisory board for WSB’s Hawk Center for Investment Analysis.
“I always knew the university had talent,” he says of serving on various boards, “but to get more exposure to that just reinforces that this is a great university.”
Rick had a long career at Menasha Corporation, leaving in 2004 after serving as general manager for three divisions to become president and chief operating officer of L.B. White Co. in Onalaska, Wisconsin. He and Jeff, along with another partner, bought the company in 2010. Rick was CEO until the brothers sold their interest in the company in 2017.
Now philanthropy plays a major role in their lives.
“You get to a certain age and you need to ask yourself, ‘What are you going to do?’” says Jeff. “Do you want to leave something behind or do you want to make a difference now?”
— Jeff Diermeier,
(BBA ’74, MBA ’75)
Generosity throughout UW–Madison
Jeff’s commitment to WSB began with gifts to the Hawk Center. He is also on the board of visitors for the UW–Madison Astronomy Department, and he and Julia founded the Julia Diermeier Social Transformations Fund in the School of Human Ecology to help combat human trafficking. He also established a fund for the Jeffrey J. Diermeier Distinguished Chair in Finance and Faculty Director of the Investment Analysis Program.
Rick and his wife, Julie, recently established the Richard G. and Julie J. Diermeier Professorship in Business. “Faculty is where it all begins,” Rick says. “I had success in my career because of the education I received at the Wisconsin School of Business. Without it, none of this would have happened. It was an easy decision and automatic that we wanted to make a gift to recognize that.”
Rick and Julie’s professorship is not restricted to any one academic field, a flexibility that is vital to help the School recruit and retain top faculty talent.
“Our decision was based on the pragmatic idea that the university would be a much better judge of how the money should be used than we could ever be,” Rick says.
Parents set strong example
The Diermeiers grew up in Appleton, Wisconsin. Their grandfather and father both worked at Riverside Paper Company, where the brothers saw their dad forge a career.
“He started as a third-shift helper and worked himself up to be a vice president,” Rick says of his father, Clair “Buzz” Diermeier.
Jeff and Rick made it to the top at that company, too, literally―with summer jobs spent working on the roof of the converting plant.
“We learned we really wanted to study harder because we didn't want to do that for a living,” Jeff says.
They saw their dad’s work ethic firsthand but also learned a great deal about life and how to treat people from their mother, Mary Helen.
“She would say, ‘You can cut corners or you can do things the right way. You’re going to have bumps along the way, but just deal with it,’” Jeff says.
WSB proves to be an advantage
Jeff, six years older than Rick, headed to Madison first. Early on, he took a macroeconomics class that piqued an interest in learning how the world worked, which led to studying economics and finance. Then during his junior year, he saw an announcement for students to be part of WSB’s seminal Applied Securities Analysis Program, which invests real assets. Right away he was interested and marched off to meet Professor Stephen Hawk.
“That was the most important day of my life in terms of my career,” Jeff says, adding that connections with professors such as Hawk and Robert Haugen motivate his financial commitment to faculty.
After graduation Jeff headed to Chicago to work in First National Bank’s trust department. Surrounded by other recent graduates, he quickly learned what his WSB education had done for him.
“I must have been there all of about four weeks when I realized a lot of these guys had no clue what they were doing and I had a big leg up because I had invested real money in school,” he says.
By the time Jeff retired from UBS, he was managing $470 billion in worldwide investments.
An eye for manufacturing
Rick’s education and career were driven by a fascination for manufacturing.
“I always wanted to know ‘Why do things work the way they work?’ and ‘Why do people make the decisions they make?’” he says. After majoring in marketing and management at WSB, Rick got an offer from Menasha Corporation at graduation. He stayed 22 years, and still thinks fondly of his time at the packaging manufacturer that has been in business since 1852.
“It was a fantastic training ground,” he says.
Rick and his family moved around the country as he worked for a number of divisions. Besides being exposed to a variety of industries, markets, and manufacturing methods, he absorbed the company’s culture of employee development. It proved to be the perfect preparation for leading and then owning his own company.
— Rick Diermeier,
Together as business partners
At L.B. White, a heating equipment manufacturer, the brothers’ careers merged. Rick had been with the company for six years when an opportunity arose to buy it if he could find a partner. He knew the perfect person: his brother. The brothers met at the Fluno Center on UW–Madison’s campus, halfway between their homes in Onalaska and Chicago, to study details of the acquisition. After crunching the numbers, they decided to go into business together.
“As soon as the deal was made, I called my dad and he was pretty pleased,” Rick says. “He liked seeing his boys together in the business.”
It was a chance for Jeff to see his younger brother in action, and he was impressed.
“I saw a lot of different management styles and brought in a lot of management experts to talk to our analysts in my career,” he says. “And I liked Rick’s style very much.”
Rick got to listen to his brother’s counsel, too, and learn.
“I’ve always been impressed by him,” Rick says. “Not just because he is my older brother. He’s the smartest guy I know.”
Now the brothers are giving back, helping those who want to chart their own path to success. In doing so, the words of their mother echo when they think about why they give back and why they want to lend a hand.
“You only have one life to live,” Jeff says. “Why not do it the right way?”