Getting More Than They Give

Five business leaders share their philanthropic passions and experiences in charitable giving.

March 11 2013 by Patricia O’Connell


Community Conscious

“It’s been a conscious decision to focus on organizations that have a lot of impact on the community,” says Roell. “My predecessor as CEO made the very strong case with me that because we were so fortunate with our results and compensation, it was our role to help others less fortunate.”

Roell says he gets a great deal of satisfaction from his nonprofit work, but he also sees it as an opportunity to influence the kind of company Johnson Controls is and to attract like-minded employees with a shared value system. “How I use my time and set an example is critical to the culture we want to create,” he says. “My involvement helps our brand, but more importantly, when we or our people get acknowledgement for what they are involved in, it gives them a sense of pride.”

He cites his experience as community chair for United Way’s campaign in 2009 as particularly telling. “I had a chance to meet with a number of CEOs and get a sense of their commitment to the Milwaukee community,” he says. “Those who were philanthropic were able to create a culture that permeated through their entire organization. Those who weren’t then had a hard time getting their employees engaged relative to philanthropy.”

Roell has no such problem. He encourages the senior leadership at his company to follow his example and they do. “Between us, we are on 60 different boards locally,” he says proudly.

A Personal Appeal

Often the most fulfilling philanthropic endeavors are those motivated by a personal connection to a cause. That proved the case for John Bardis, the CEO of MedAssets, a $578 million supplier of supply-chain and revenue-cycle management solutions for the healthcare industry. A chance encounter with an injured Iraqi war veteran in 2007 stirred feelings in Bardis about the role the military has played in his family’s life and lingering guilt over the fact that the draft ended before he was called up to Vietnam. Later that year, Bardis founded Hire Heroes USA, which works to train and help find jobs for returning military personnel and their wives. Hire Heroes is housed at MedAssets’ Alpharetta, Georgia, headquarters, and Bardis serve as the chairman.

“A man came up to me when I was in Washington and reminded me that I had hired him 20 years ago when I was recruiting at Morehouse,” recalls Bardis. “Behind him I saw a young man without a leg sitting on a bench, and I struck up a conversation with him.”

The private had been injured five weeks earlier by stepping on a landmine. “You could tell he felt bad physically and had a tremendous amount of apprehension, yet he still had the dignity and humility to call me, ‘Sir,’” says Bardis. “I was the one who felt humbled.”

Bardis arranged to see the soldier the next day at Walter Reade Medical Center, where he would be doing five weeks of rehab. “That day, I met many men and women who had been wounded in service of our country, and I called my wife and told her, ‘We have to do something.’”

Bardis and his wife come from a long line of service people. His grandfather, a native of Lithuania, got American citizenship by serving in the U.S. Army. His own father served in both WWII and Korea and suffered from post traumatic stress disorder for the rest of his life. Numerous uncles on his mother’s side also served in the military.

His wife’s father lost a leg in the war, and Bardis calls him “the greatest man I ever knew, a source of inspiration.” Says Bardis, “That generation sacrificed to make this country great. In 1974, I had a high draft number and expected to be in Vietnam but the draft ended.” As a result, he says he always felt “a void” compared to what the men in his family had done to serve the country.

“When the opportunity came to do something about it, it became as much of a spiritual issue as it did a mission or a cause,” he says.