Henry Tippie grew up during the Great Depression on a farm in Benton County, Iowa, a difficult place and time to grow up, so his mother urged him to find a different way of life as an adult.
She wasn’t sure how he would do it, but he found a way. He left to fight a war, attend the University of Iowa, and eventually, help build a business empire.
But while he left the Iowa farm, the Iowa farm never left him. That was clear as soon as you met him.
The folksy drawl.
The well-tailored but not flashy suits.
The eagerness to learn more about you instead of talking about himself.
He left Iowa in 1953 but always remembered the place he came from, sharing his good fortune with the state that provided so many of the lessons he used to amass it. Those lessons started as a child, growing up poor and helping his parents run the family dairy farm during the depths of the Great Depression. He attended a one-room schoolhouse and then Belle Plaine High School, where he played fourth-chair clarinet in the band, instilling an enduring love for swing (especially “Chattanooga Choo Choo”).
The Army and the University of Iowa
He graduated in 1944 and like most everyone else his age, enlisted in the military. He joined the U.S. Army Air Corps and was shipped to Guam, where he quickly caught what he called the jungle crud that required a lengthy stay in the hospital. Once recovered, he spent the war’s final months working as a hospital records clerk, serving honorably and learning lessons about organization, discipline, and leadership that would help him later in life.
It also gave him the experience of meeting people from vastly different backgrounds than his own, working side by side with people he never would have met as an Iowa farm boy. From that, he learned to understand people, and that the easiest way to understand them is to simply listen to what they have to say.
His service also gave him the GI Bill, so when he came home after the war, he enrolled at the State University of Iowa to study business. His grades were only OK, he acknowledged. He joined no clubs. The only evidence he was ever a student is his yearbook photo and transcript. He focused on his education, taking classes year-round so that he could graduate in two years. He was in a hurry to get going with his life, after putting it off so long to fight the war.
And like so many GI Bill recipients, he said he never could have afforded a college education without that landmark legislation that allowed him to go to the UI.
“The University of Iowa is where I got a foundation to build on,” he once said. “I don’t know if any of my success in life would have happened without that foundation.”
He worked for a time in Des Moines and Omaha after graduating before eventually making his way to Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, for a job interview with a small broadcasting company. Without asking for directions, he impressed the owners, finding his way from Iowa to their small, isolated beach town serviced by only a single daily Greyhound bus. The company owners, brothers John and Wayne Rollins, were hiring a controller. They were new to the business world and weren’t really sure what to even look for in a controller. They were impressed with Henry, though, who seemed like a pretty sharp 26-year-old, and hired him.
The office was above a drug store and had no air conditioning. They were 100 miles from anything. Nobody really knew what they were doing. Henry said that turned out to be a good thing.
“We didn’t know what we couldn’t do,” Henry said.
He gained experience in mergers and acquisitions, financing, litigation, taxes, sales, marketing, people management--all parts of running a business. When he and the Rollins brothers decided in 1962 that their $9 million Rollins Inc. would try to acquire $64 million Orkin pest control, they thought, why not?
They made the acquisition with a leveraged buyout, a financing mechanism so new and little-used at the time it wound up a case study at Harvard Business School. Under Henry’s guidance, Rollins added more business lines to became Rollins Corp., and in 1968, Henry was on the platform the first day it was traded on the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE).
Fifty years later, Henry returned to the platform on the anniversary of that first listing. By the time he retired from the company’s board in 2021,
Rollins had grown into a $2 billion firm with five companies listed on the NYSE and Henry had earned himself a spot on the exchange’s Wall of Leaders, one of only 16 to earn the distinction. He was a director for 53 years, longer than anyone else in the company’s history, including the two founding Rollins brothers.
"Without the financial knowledge and leadership Henry provided, Rollins Inc. would not be where it is today,” Rollins Chairman Gary W. Rollins said on Henry’s retirement. “His expertise and meticulous eye for detail have allowed Rollins Inc. to become the largest pest control company in the world. We are appreciative of Henry B. Tippie and for everything he has done for our company. We will continue to honor his legacy and the example he provided of hard work and dedication as we continue to grow and succeed in our company."
Henry found more than a career in Delaware. He also found the love of his life. Patricia Bush was a student at Allegheny College when the two met in 1955. She had a summer job waiting tables at a diner in Rehoboth Beach. The Plantation Restaurant was just down the street from Rollins’ offices and a frequent lunch destination for Henry. Their first meeting did not go well. Patricia had never waited tables before and Henry grew impatient with her inexperience. After barking his order at her, she refused to wait on him again.
But later that summer, when he took a late lunch and she was the only waitress on duty, they struck up a conversation. She was majoring in accounting at Allegheny, she said. That’s what I majored in at the University of Iowa, he said. Here’s my card. I can help you if you need it.
They started dating and married a year later, shortly after she graduated from Allegheny. Their children—Henry II, Helen, and Linda—came along in the next five years.
“I can’t think of a better partner I’ve had in my entire life,” he said.
Salt of the earth. Loyal. Trustworthy.
Henry left Rollins in 1970 and the family moved to Austin, Texas, where he kept making deals. He bought an outdoor advertising firm and a building material and concrete company. He built a group of radio stations and a ranch that brought him back to his farming roots. When Rollins experienced a financial crisis a few years later, he returned to help the family dig out and save the company. How could he not, after all the Rollins had done for him early in his career? He was friends with the family, he was loyal, and this is what loyal friends did.
Talk to anyone who’s known Henry for any length of time and the same words keep coming up. Salt of the earth. Loyal. Trustworthy. He listened. He understood others’ perspectives and learned more about them to create a connection, something that helps people trust each other. That’s where he found the truth, with his philosophy of management by walking around and listening to what people told him.
“I like to move around and see what's going on, and not make any critical comments, but ask: Is there anything we need to know? How can we help you? Do you have any ideas that we need to know about?” he told the Journal of Accountancy. “That's very important. It's getting the bottom-up approach.”
Business, he learned, was simple, at least if you let it be. Surround yourself with people smarter than you and reward their good work.
“There’s nothing complicated about business unless you make it complicated,” he would say.
A Horatio Alger story
He invested in companies that needed work, fixed them to build value, then sold at the right time. He had a knack for knowing when to sell and when to build, an instinct to dive in or jump out. When he left Rollins the first time, he sold his stock when the price was at its peak, then bought more when he returned, when it was at its low. He helped the company spin off Dover Downs racetrack and entertainment complex in 1996, as NASCAR was growing into a national sensation. He sold his broadcast interests when they were at their high, before the internet, streaming services, and satellite technology took a cleaver to radio’s audience.
For his business accomplishments, he received the Horatio Alger Award in 1996, an honor presented to people who rose from modest means to become successful in their fields, joining the likes of Maya Angelou, Ray Kroc, and one of his favorites, Lawrence Welk.
He said his success came because he never left Iowa City far behind, and that a day didn’t go by when he didn’t think of something he learned at the University of Iowa. Every time he did, he became more and more grateful for the education he received. He knew also that he needed to repay the university for what it gave to him. He felt that if he was ever in a position to help those in need of a UI education, he would try to do something as repayment. He started in 1953, just four years after graduating, the same year he started work for Rollins, with a $5 donation to the Chester A. Phillips Scholarship Fund in honor of the first dean of the college.
That first gift sparked decades of loyal giving to support a wide range of programs that benefit UI students and faculty. Those gifts supported a 175-seat auditorium in the Pappajohn Business Building, a student lounge, and Pat’s Diner, a café named in honor of the place where he and Patricia met.
More than 900 University of Iowa students have received a Henry B. Tippie Scholarship. The college currently has six Tippie family-related faculty chairs, eight Henry B. Tippie Professorships, and 17 Henry B. Tippie Fellowships.
He also created endowed scholarships for student-athletes and made numerous other gifts to the UI Department of Athletics.
He shared his good fortune with others, too, including Allegheny College, Kirkwood College, and Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where he did some of his Army training before shipping out to Guam. In Belle Plaine, he helped build the library and the municipal airport, which made it easier for him to fly home and see his mother, who encouraged his ambitions. A section of Belle Plaine’s museum is devoted to his life, and the town named a street after him.
In 1999, the university renamed its business college as the Henry B. Tippie College of Business to recognize his contributions, marking the first time that a UI academic division was named in honor of an individual.
He helped establish the Tippie Society in 2014 to recognize those who make an extraordinary impact on the college with an individual gift agreement of $1 million or more. He and Patricia created a $15 million matching challenge that resulted in $30 million in gifts to the college.
Henry was an original member of the college’s Board of Visitors, now the Tippie Advisory Board, and he was a lifetime honorary director of the University of Iowa Foundation, now the University of Iowa Center for Advancement. He received the university’s Distinguished Service Alumni Award, the Hancher Finkbine Medallion, and the Outstanding Accounting Alumni Award. In 2009, the university awarded him an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters and he was named Hawk of the Year in 2013.
A wise man
But the most important thing Henry gave was his advice and his friendship. Dean George Daly was the first to seek out his expertise, and his successors Gary Fethke, Curt Hunter, Sarah Fisher Gardial, and Amy Kristof-Brown have all benefited.
Fethke said he took Henry’s advice frequently when the Pappajohn Business Building was under construction in the mid-1990s, especially his admonition to avoid change orders that added enormously to costs.
“He knows the facts of all these activities and keeps track of everything using the simplest set of tools, usually a pad of paper,” Fethke told the Cedar Rapids Gazette. “Henry can be counted on to keep his word.”
And he provided his wisdom to thousands of students over the years during his frequent visits to campus, who responded by treating him like a rock star. They sang to him, danced in a flash mob to “Chattanooga Choo Choo,” and lined up to pose for selfies.
“When I asked him for advice, he just chuckled and said, ‘I never give advice. I just make observations,’” said Kristof-Brown.
This article first appeared in a special print edition of Tippie Magazine memorializing Henry B. Tippie. Alumni are invited to update their contact information with the college to be placed on the mailing list for future print editions.