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Sept. 9, 2015
By Mark Hornickel • Photography by Darren Whitley
Mike Faust ’74 was looking forward to retirement in February after a 40-year professional career in Omaha, Neb. He had spent the last 36 years with Peter Kiewit Sons’, Inc., most recently serving as assistant to the chairman. His colleagues were making plans for a retirement party at the nearby Midtown Crossing complex.
Northwest President Dr. John Jasinski, however, had another idea for Faust’s retirement. He asked Faust to speak with Provost Dr. Timothy Mottet about accepting an appointment as visiting dean of the Melvin D. and Valorie G. Booth College of Business and Professional Studies.
Faust was recruited to serve on the Northwest Foundation board in 2002, and he served as the foundation’s president from 2008 to 2010. Now, Jasinski and Mottet envisioned Faust contributing to Northwest through both his Foundation and business perspective.
“Of course,” Faust said. He built a career by assisting others and helping to shape the objectives of a variety of organizations. If the university thought he could help advance its mission, he was willing to accept the charge.
When he packed up his Ford Galaxie after graduation day at Northwest, Faust had no idea his accounting major would turn into a career in writing.
The oldest of five children and the first in his family to attend college, Faust decided to attend Northwest after a college night at his Atlantic, Iowa, high school. He heard pitches from multiple college admissions officers, but Faust only remembers the one he heard about Northwest. “I have a picture in my mind of the Northwest presentation, so it must have made an impression.”
With a scholarship to entice him, Faust was one of 12 students from Atlantic’s class of 1970 to enroll at Northwest that fall. After some misfires with other majors, Faust declared himself an accounting major during the spring term of his second year at Northwest – a decision he attributes to Dr. Elwyn DeVore’s intro to business course. “He was a very good lecturer, and all of a sudden the lights went on,” Faust said. “I’m surprised it took me so long to figure that out because when I was a kid I was always involved in making money.”
After all, Faust had invested in his first shares of stock in grade school with money he earned from delivering the Omaha World-Herald. He also earned money by performing magic shows in his family’s garage as a child, charging 5 cents to patrons under age 6 and 10 cents for everyone else.
“I believe it was my younger brother, Bill, who encouraged me to put on a show,” Faust said. “But it was my idea to have intermission. I took my piggy bank money to the five and dime store to buy candy, which was marked up about 100 percent for the concession stand run by Bill and my sister, Patricia. Mom provided the popcorn for free. We’d make about $5 from the admission and $15 from the concessions, and I’d split the profits with my ‘employees.’”
Faust maintained his work ethic as a student worker at Northwest’s Student Union cafeteria. He quickly rose to supervisor, earning about $120 a month – a big help at a time when tuition was about $300 a semester.
Faust worked at the cafeteria until his graduation. On his last day, campus dining manager Del Simmons presented Faust with a plaque that reads: “Mike Faust, all-time best supervisor.” It resides in a prominent place in his home office.
“That’s the most meaningful award I’ve ever gotten in my whole life because I know it’s sincere, and I did do a good job for them, no doubt about it,” Faust said.
Faust accepted his first post-graduate job in a computer sales role at Unisys. From there, he moved to Mutual of Omaha, where he started as an insurance underwriter and later transitioned into the personnel department.
But Faust found the construction industry more appealing. Thinking his college summer job as a welder might be a plus on his resume, he applied for a job at steel structures manufacturer Chief Industries in Grand Island, Neb. That company wasn’t interested but construction and mining giant Kiewit Corporation was, and in 1979 Faust became employment manager for Kiewit’s Omaha headquarters.
“Having to settle for my second choice was the luckiest bit of bad luck ever,” Faust said.
Kiewit, ranked No. 286 on Fortune Magazine’s list of the 500 largest U.S. companies, generates more than $10 billion in annual revenues from operations in most U.S. states, Canadian provinces and in western Australia. Worldwide, the company employs about 25,000.
Faust became one of the employee-owned company’s 3,000-some shareholders, and in 1981, Kiewit promoted him to personnel and training manager, expanding his duties to include some training and teaching duties. Then in December 1983, Walter Scott Jr., who became Kiewit’s CEO after Peter Kiewit’s passing four years earlier, asked Faust to become assistant to the chairman, managing administrative tasks for Scott and other senior executives.
The offer changed the trajectory of Faust’s career. At the time, he was pursuing an MBA at the University of Nebraska-Omaha, but Faust dropped out of the program to focus his energy on the new job. He would gain far more of an education in business and finance by working alongside Scott than what the MBA program could offer.
The next year was Kiewit’s centennial, and Scott was in demand to speak to community groups about the company’s history and traditions. Because his own speaking style was more extemporaneous, Faust had never written a speech when Scott tapped him to write his keynote address for the University of Nebraska’s engineering week.
“I had always excelled on essay tests and term papers at Northwest, so I gave it a shot and learned that once you write a good speech you can never get out of the job,” Faust said. “It turned out to be one of the most enjoyable parts of the job.”
Faust succeeded in the role and took great pride in his writing assignments. Taking minutes at board meetings also allowed him to listen to the CEO and other senior executives. He learned the role of an executive speechwriter is not to put words into a speaker’s mouth.
“If you do it well, you are using their own words and their own thoughts and writing in their own voice,” he said.
Yet, Faust’s most unusual speech assignment was not for Walter Scott or anyone at Kiewit, but for actor Tom Selleck. He and Scott were serving together on a national children’s charity and Scott asked Selleck to help dedicate the new IMAX Theater at Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium.
As Scott told the story to Faust, Selleck objected that he wouldn’t know what to say to an Omaha audience. Scott offered that he had a speechwriter who would draft some remarks for the occasion.
Faust took on other responsibilities at Kiewit through the years. He became an instructor at the Kiewit University training facility, contributing editor to the company’s quarterly magazine, and managed the company’s corporate foundation, which annually donated millions to charities in Omaha and throughout the country.
He also took the lead in the company’s political relations and began representing Kiewit in community affairs, serving on non-profit boards such as United Way and Omaha Community Foundation. For 10 years, he served as a director of the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce, including four years on its Executive Committee.
Faust says his most interesting volunteer role may have been his service on the steering committee for Warren Buffett’s golf benefit, which drew senior executives from Wall Street and other prominent people from around the country – including Boone Pickens, Charles Schwab and Rush Limbaugh – while raising millions of dollars for children’s charities during its 10-year run.
Yet, Faust’s favorite philanthropic interest in Omaha is its world-class zoo, which he became heavily involved with, in part, because Scott’s late wife was the first executive director of its foundation. Faust served as a division leader of the annual membership campaign and capped his service as general chair of the overall campaign. The donor wall at the zoo’s Desert Dome bears Faust’s name for his leadership-level gift to that project.
“Our senior people are getting on a plane every Tuesday and flying off to our field offices, so their time is limited and I often had to support them in their charitable activities, but I also enjoy doing some on my own, too,” Faust said. “Serving on community boards makes you feel connected to the community because all of a sudden, you know what’s going on.”
While the zoo is Faust’s top philanthropic interest in Omaha, Faust calls Northwest his No. 1 overall philanthropic interest.
He began making regular contributions to the Northwest Foundation in the late 1980s, but it had been years since he returned to the campus. In 2001, while returning to Omaha from directing a training video Kiewit was filming in Lenexa, Faust decided to take a detour and visit Maryville and Northwest.
“The latest issue of the Alumni Magazine had arrived, and it noted that Chuck Veatch (the former executive director of the Northwest Foundation) was retiring,” Faust said. “I remembered him from my time on campus so I decided to stop by and wish him well.”
The trip was in vain because Veatch was away for the university’s Thanksgiving break, but Faust left his business card at the Alumni House. That led to an invitation to be guest speaker at the Booth College’s scholarship banquet the next spring. Shortly thereafter, former foundation board president Craig Kelley ’83 and former foundation board member Bill Mackintosh ’76, both fellow Omaha residents, asked Faust to consider joining the foundation board.
Prior to the expiration of Faust’s second term as a board member in 2008, the late Chuck Place ’72 was making plans for leadership transition. Place had asked Jim Blackford ’72 to follow him as foundation president and asked Faust to succeed Blackford. Faust agreed and served as president from 2008 to 2010.
Faust stepped down from the Board in 2012 after completing his term as an officer but was asked to rejoin the Board in 2014 to assist with the launch of the Northwest’s Forever Green campaign, now in its quiet phase. He currently serves as chair of the Advancement Committee.
Faust says his service on the Northwest Foundation Board ranks as his most rewarding charitable experience.
“It takes you back to your youth to be back on campus,” Faust said, adding that he also was influenced by Scott’s interest in education. “Walter would often say that education was the greatest investment you can make in yourself and the greatest gift you could bestow on someone else.”
When Faust joined the Foundation Board, Northwest was in the quiet phase of its first-ever comprehensive campaign, the Campaign for Northwest.
For his gift to that campaign, Faust established an endowed scholarship to assist students who come to Northwest from his hometown. Today, the fund has grown considerably so eligibility has been expanded to graduates of any high school in Iowa.
“The cost of college is not going to go down, and we need to, as alumni, help the young people of today get the same Northwest education we had,” said Faust, who also has helped nieces and nephews with their college educations. “I think the most exciting part of this campaign are the things we’re doing to advance academic excellence.”
For Northwest’s Forever Green campaign, Faust is one of a growing number of alumni who have made a seven-figure commitment, part of which is an additional gift to his existing endowed scholarship fund. “One of my passions for Northwest is enrollment and making sure that freshmen have the opportunity to come here,” he said.
Additionally, Faust offered a gift to support construction on the Robert and Virginia Foster Fitness Center – a contribution tied to Faust’s fondness for Dr. Foster, who was Northwest’s president while Faust was a student. “When I was staffing the faculty dining room in the cafeteria, he would engage me in conversation and ask what I was studying and where I was from. He just genuinely had an interest in students,” Faust said. “You’d see him walking down the Long Walk in front of the Student Union and rather than just hurrying along or talking to the professor he was walking with, he’d be saying hi to the students. I just had a lot of respect for Dr. Foster and wanted to make sure that something with his name on it was really spectacular.”
In June, with a portion of Faust’s pledged gift still undesignated, he asked development officer Teresa Gustafson to look for a need in the School of Communication and Mass Media “because as an accounting major, I basically made my career in communications.” As a result, Faust decided to underwrite the relocation and remodeling of the School’s multimedia lab, which had been housed on the lower level of Wells Hall and was prone to water leaks after significant rainfalls. Faust is covering all construction and furniture costs for the project, which is targeted for an August completion.
Upon accepting the offer from Jasinski and Mottet, Faust began his work as visiting dean of the Booth College of Business and Professional Studies on March 1.
“Due to my respect for both of those University leaders and a deep affection for my alma mater it was an offer I could not refuse,” Faust said.
Faust’s assignment, during a 15-month term, is to employ his outside business perspective and help the Booth College’s academic areas transition from a department structure to professional schools. He also is assisting with an accreditation upgrade for the School of Business, conducting benchmarking studies of peer universities, identifying and prioritizing longer-term private funding opportunities, and helping to strengthen the Booth College’s industry relationships.
The work entails research and relies on Faust’s writing skills to articulate ideas – something Faust is well-accustomed to doing.
“I was fortunate that my originally planned career path didn’t work out,” he said. “Everything led to a far more interesting and successful path, and it all began with the decision to attend Northwest.”
Mark Hornickel, Communication Manager
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