Selling the Ivory Tower

By Hannah Wallace March 31, 2005

Sitting on a leather sofa in his New College of Florida campus office, John Cranor, the president and CEO of New College Foundation, looks the part of a Wall Street titan. He's wearing his trademark button-down blue pinstripe shirt with starched white collar, gray flannel trousers and wire-rimmed glasses-a stark contrast to the parade of baggy pants, dreadlocks and bare feet he sees outside his windows.

Cranor, a Harvard MBA grad and Vietnam veteran as well as a former president and CEO at such iconic international companies as KFC Corporation, Long John Silver's, PepsiCo and Wilson Sporting Goods, seems to be an odd choice to sell a tiny, left-leaning liberal arts school where many students head into the social services rather than to Wall Street. But Cranor understands these brainy kids. In fact, he was one of them. As a National Merit Scholar from Fargo, N.D., he was one of the first students to set foot on what was a scruffy, barren campus near the Sarasota Bradenton Airport when New College opened in 1964. British historian Arnold Toynbee was on the faculty back then; and New College-even for the radical '60s-was "cutting edge," Cranor says. Young and idealistic, Cranor was enamored. "New College taught me to be insatiably curious, to seek creative and innovative answers and solutions to vexing questions and problems," he tells everyone over and over. "And those qualities have driven my focus in the business world on new brands, new products, new markets."

After graduating from New College in 1967 with a BA in economics, Cranor, 58, became a devoted alumnus and 20-year trustee. While still a graduate student at Harvard at the age of 20, he was drafted in 1968 and served a tour of duty in Vietnam. He joined the Army's Psychological Operations battalion in Da Nang, dropping propaganda leaflets on villages, encouraging the Viet Cong to surrender.

When he resumed his studies and received his MBA, he entered the corporate world. It was not a popular choice in the '60s. Big business was a villain to many of his peers. "But it was also a time of complex growth opportunities," Cranor says, "and I was intrigued by the psychology of the consumer."

Cranor spent his 30-year career mastering that psychology, leading people, businesses and brands at the cream of America's consumer-focused corporations. "John was leading KFC during the time when Kentucky Fried Chicken was turning into KFC," remembers Kyle Craig, who was head of KFC's domestic operations while Cranor was the worldwide president and CEO. It was 1990, and KFC needed to update its brand and move away from fried food. "He had to sell both sides-PepsiCo, which owned KFC, and all the franchise owners-on the wisdom of this change. He's just an excellent communicator," says Craig, who now runs a consulting company in Denver, Colo. Cranor's introduction of healthier products was enormously successful for the company.

Later, Cranor assumed leadership of Long John Silver's and capped off his corporate career in the late '90s, founding The Yearling Fund I, L.P. and Medici Group, LLC, developing highly profitable investments in early-stage companies. He also created a model executive education program for Louisville's Bellarmine University, called the "Center for eWorld Education," in which he addressed the importance of leadership in times of rapid technological change. "I went into e-commerce after I sold Long John Silver's in 1999. I sold myself out of a job and was at liberty," he says self-deprecatingly. "After the dot-com bubble burst, it was smart to focus on leadership."

In 2003, he led the search for a new president of the New College Foundation after Lt. Gen. Rolland Heiser stepped down after 24 years. The committee vetted more than 250 applicants and narrowed it down to four "exceptional candidates." But the board of trustees came to the conclusion that the very best person to run the foundation was right under their noses all the time. Cranor, with his wife, Kitty and sons Jake, 14, and Luke, 9, was coaxed out of Louisville, Ky., where he had been chairing a task force for New College, developing a 10-year plan to raise $100 million. Cranor says he made the leap to serving his alma mater full-time without hesitation.

"My wife said, 'You've been so passionate about this place for so long that I think you owe it to yourself to do this,'" he recalls.

He will need every ounce of that passion. Raising dollars for New College of Florida may be his most challenging assignment yet. New College wants to expand its enrollment from about 700 to 800 or more, add dorms, classrooms and faculty, all of which will require a chunk of the $50 million Cranor wants to raise in the not-to-distant future. While the school has consistently made it into some of the most elite college rankings, from recently being ranked No. 1 public school value in The Princeton Review, to being designated the state's honors college (applicants have an average SAT score of 1350 and an average GPA of 3.8), and one of the nation's top producers of Fulbright Scholars, it is not well known in the boardrooms of America, among bright college-bound students and their parents, or even among the residents of Southwest Florida.

"We need to make New College more of a household name-starting right here in Sarasota-Bradenton," Cranor asserts. "Our community is home to one of the very finest liberal arts and sciences schools in the worl-and too many of us don't know about it."

He likes to remind people that 400 alums remain in Southwest Florida today because of New College, "and form the fundamental support structure for our extended community. Business, education, government, law and services."

Cranor has never been hesitant to tell anyone who will listen that New College is a hidden gem. "Here's a guy who went to a school that no one in the Northeast ever heard of, and he mentioned it frequently in boardrooms and meetings. He was proud of having gone there," says Michael Feiner, a former senior vice president at PepsiCo and now a professor of management at the Columbia Graduate School of Business. Craig, his KFC colleague, agrees: "He was prouder of New College than Harvard."

But Cranor says selling higher education to potential donors requires a mental shift from his background of marketing consumer products and turning companies around. Raising great gobs of endowment for a college is "a huge business that's personal and emotionally based," he explains. It's not like selling Pepsi, Kentucky Fried Chicken or Doritos.

"It requires a different sort of relationship," he explains. "We're selling donors an idea and a concept. At the core of the transaction is the personal relationship with that individual. When you're raising business capital, you're the boss. When you're fund-raising, the donor's the boss."

What isn't new for the veteran businessman is laying out a strategic plan and tweaking it annually. Also familiar: keying into consumer motivation and influencing behavior. In the philanthropy business, Cranor has discovered, people give money for a lot of reasons. Some to get their name on a building, as in a business transaction where there's a tangible benefit. Others want to reward the institution that had a major impact on their life. Still others give for the gratification of helping, or out of a sense of obligation. Understanding the motivations and identifying why a particular wealthy individual wants to give is crucial.

With no exact time period in mind, Cranor intends to raise $50 million to fund half a dozen new initiatives, including making the environmental studies program an internationally recognized center of excellence. He's recruited advisory councils, tapping 40 to 50 local, national and international advisors to give money and identify other prospective donors. Cranor plans to have six different councils with as many as 200 to 300 people by the time he's finished.

He's also put the endowment management "on a much sounder footing." "We were receiving a 2-percent return in late '90s and early 2000s. That was not acceptable," he says. "As of August 2004, we had an 11-percent return."

He and New College president Gordon Michalson, Jr. have also gone on goodwill tours to cities across the country where clusters of New College alums have relocated. Many alums thought their college had disappeared, Cranor says, and only 11 percent were writing checks to their alma mater. Now giving is in the 30-percent plus range, Cranor says, almost on par with the Ivies, and about double the giving at most state schools around the country. In Florida, only New College reaches double-digit giving by alums.

Cranor thinks the climate is "basically good" to raise money for higher education. The stock market has recovered, 9/11 isn't coloring every thought and the economy is solid. And New College's recent status as an independent institution within the state university system rather than as a college folded into USF (as it was from 1975 to 2001), gives it greater identity and more fund-raising clout.

Still, it's not always easy to explain the value of a liberal arts education to those in the nuts-and-bolts business world, even though Cranor says he would love to hire Novo Collegians if he were still helming large corporations. "Significant corporate contribution is not realistic," he admits. "The connection is not that obvious." Luckily, say those who work with Cranor, he is a great communicator and is unabashed about asking people for money and suggesting an amount.

And he insists he has "a marvelous, perplexing opportunity from a marketing standpoint. Marvelous because it's not like everything else out there. This isn't just another brand of detergent. It is different. But because it's different, it's much harder to explain to people. You almost have to do it case by case.look at this alum and what he has done. This is what a New College education does for you. Our product is solid and distinguished and we wouldn't want to change it significantly because we occupy a unique niche in the market."

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