Meet Robert Turner ’77 MBA ’78, widely respected investments professional, chairman and chief investment officer of Turner Investment Partners Inc. Meet Robert Turner, benefactor, who with his wife Carolyn endowed the Turner Center for Entrepreneurship at Bradley University in 2000.
Meet Bob Turner, the guy who takes his turn loading the dishwasher at work and wouldn’t have it any other way.
When asked how he would define “entrepreneur” for Webster’s next dictionary, Turner describes an individual who has a true passion for what he or she does and who has the desire to live out that passion through those endeavors.
The definition of entrepreneur
He and his brother Mark Turner ’80 have created an investment company that now manages more than $13 billion in assets. At the core of this impressive enterprise is a man who subscribes to every belief he has about the spirit of entrepreneurship.
“Almost by default, you become an entrepreneur because you’re pursuing what you really love to do,” Turner says. “A lot of times it’s hard to do that within a structured environment in a big organization. You have to want to deliver something better to the end-user than what is out there. I worked for banks and insurance companies for 10 years prior to starting the business. I felt I could offer more by doing it myself versus others in a big organization.
“Some people are born to rise on the corporate ladder and be successful in organizations. Some are born to do it on their own. I don’t want to say I rebelled against authority, but I remember my first job, going to management and saying I don’t agree with what was being done,” he says.
Bradley supports Turner’s passion
After earning his degree in accounting, Turner remembers talking to Dr. John Wholihan, head of the MBA program. He bemoaned his fate after being offered a position in the tax department in a public utility at the tender age of 20. Wholihan offered him a graduate assistantship if he wanted to stay at Bradley and pursue an MBA. “That was great, because I didn’t have excess funds to pay for school. Earning that advanced degree was critical,” Turner says.
He thanks Bradley for “bailing me out,” for allowing him to explore what would be his career, his passion, his calling. Though the University didn’t offer a specific investments program, he studied under Dr. Joe Alber, former Bradley professor of business administration, to complete an independent study in investments, a financial field that had been tugging at him, and that would serve him well as he began his own business.
“The influence of the professors at Bradley was quite strong,” he says. As a graduate assistant for the late Dr. Kalman Goldberg, professor of economics, Turner developed a love for learning. He has retained his strong ties to Bradley through the years, from graduate to member of the Board of Trustees. He’s quick to credit Bradley with its emphasis on small business development and its potential. And that made Bradley a natural choice to be the recipient of a $1.5 million endowment to create the Turner Center for Entrepreneurship. The Center emphasizes what he loves about being in business for himself, the realities and excitement of controlling one’s own destiny and that of others. The Turner Center for Entrepreneurship was a natural focus and evolution.
The hungry entrepreneur
“There’s a reason why entrepreneurs are young. They don’t have the experience to know better. The great thing I had going for me 14 years ago was that I was naïve to the challenges that this does bring forth. You really do have to have that hunger to do well and willingness to understand that there will be pitfalls along the way, bumps in the road, and how the problems can become possibilities, and acknowledge it’s a long race, it’s not a sprint,” he says.
“Persistence and patience pay off over time, and you have to acknowledge you’re not going to have this instant success.”
“Persistence and patience pay off over time, and you have to acknowledge you’re not going to have this instant success.” Add in patience in dealing with employees and with everyday setbacks. However, entrepreneurial settings can be nurturing environments in which employees can be brought up to the level the company wants. “We were a start-up entrepreneurial company, and now we have the best of the best coming to us for jobs. Our really good employees now were young and inexperienced at the time, so we had to make sure we were patient with them. My brother Mark was one of the first people to come to work for me. You really need to convince people that this is a great opportunity. Success in any organization is letting people feel as if they’re participating in the growth.”
Turner Investment Partners Inc. now boasts 95 employees and 62 owners. Anybody who works for the company three years can become an employee-owner.
Leadership and ethics
What are the best and most difficult parts of all that responsibility?
“The easiest part is that you get to see the direct result of your efforts. The most difficult part is knowing that you have a lot of people ultimately depending on you for their livelihood. Of course, in our business, as in any business, the client relies on you, as well.”
That was even tougher in his business in recent years with the economic downturn.
That was even tougher in his business in recent years with the economic downturn. Clients had a difficult time, but he also had to look out for the well-being of his employees. “We did not let anybody go, and it would have been real easy to do. As a result, profitability dropped precipitously. As an employee-owned organization, without public shareholders or a parent company to answer to, we were willing to let that happen because we knew the bear market wouldn’t last forever. We knew we would come out on the other side and have a more loyal, focused, and dedicated workforce.”
Stressing that leadership by example is the key, he says, “We are very, very sensitive to anything that would be perceived as favoring one group of employees over another…. The investment team knows that my bonus structure is the same as theirs.”
Turner focuses on pleasing both customers and employees. He delivers strong investment returns for his clients in a volatile industry over the long term and provides a comfortable lifestyle for the people who work with him. He occasionally hears, “This is the best place I’ve ever worked” and “I’m so happy to be here.” Though modest, he hopes he’s had some favorable impact on his fellow employees. He hopes they rise to the height of their capabilities and are duly recognized. He also trusts his employees to get the work done.
But it’s not all work and no play. Turner leaves the office behind when he walks out the door and makes family time a priority. He learned to plan ahead for his children’s ballgames or special events. What was sacrificed was playing golf. “Free time was for the family, not individual pursuits.” He smiles. If he could don the hat of academia and teach one class in Bradley’s entrepreneurial major, what would it be?
“Ethics,” Turner says, adding it’s vital to successful business. He concludes, “Being an entrepreneur is hard work. You see the people who are in trouble now, and they didn’t have that moral compass. There are a lot of temptations in life overall, especially in business.”
Edification for entrepreneurs
The Robert and Carolyn Turner Center for Entrepreneurship was established at Bradley University. The Turner Center extends Bradley’s strength in entrepreneurship by bringing together educational, research, and related programs and services to help entrepreneurs and family business owners create more successful business.
The following are among the programs and services offered through the Turner Center:
Entrepreneur practicums involve MBA and MSA students and faculty in conducting projects for local entrepreneurs.
Senior Consulting Projects program utilizes teams of senior-level business students as consultants to businesses and organizations on projects including market research, international trade, eBusiness, and organizational and operational issues. Turner Center Lecture Series brings prominent entrepreneurs, authors, and academics to Bradley to meet with students and interact with the campus and local business communities.
Small Business Development Center provides counseling, training, and other resources to assist entrepreneurs interested in starting or owning their own businesses. The SBDC also assists small business owners to develop their business, marketing, and financial plans.
International Trade Center and NAFTA Opportunity Center help companies develop and expand their international trade through a program of counseling, training, and market research. Services include foreign market identification, export documentation, export financing, and international marketing.
Center for Business and Economic Research is the premier source for business indicator data in Central Illinois, providing quarterly household consumer confidence surveys. Utilizing the resources of the Business and Industry Data Center, the Center conducts entrepreneurial research projects to identify business trends and assist entrepreneurs in researching potential markets for their products, services, and new technologies.
An additional $250,000 in funding from the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity was announced this summer. The funding allows the Turner Center to expand to a regional hub that will coordinate small business development, entrepreneurship training, and entrepreneurship development activity in the north central Illinois region. Partial funding for some of the programs and services offered through the Turner Center also is provided by the U.S. Small Business Administration, the Illinois Department of Commerce and Community Affairs, and the Rural Economic Technical Assistance Center.
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