Stephen F. Gormley ’72, of Chestnut Hills, Mass., was recently elected chair of the Bowdoin College Board of Trustees. Co-founder and managing partner of the Boston-based private equity investment firm Great Hill Partners, Gormley and his wife, Lucinda, have sent three daughters to Bowdoin. He spoke recently with the Bowdoin Daily Sun about his undergraduate years, his experience as a Bowdoin parent, and his thoughts about leading the Board.
BDS: How did you end up at Bowdoin?
Gormley: I went to high school in Houlton, Maine, and needless to say, Bowdoin has a fabulous reputation in Maine. I applied to Bowdoin and a bunch of other schools and, fortunately, was accepted at Bowdoin and decided to go there.
BDS: Do you have a favorite memory from your time at Bowdoin?
Gormley: I can’t say that I have a particular favorite memory-I have a lot of wonderful memories. It was a difficult time to be in college in those days with the Vietnam War. I think during my junior year everyone was preoccupied with things they probably shouldn’t have been. It was really an unusual time.
BDS: You’re also a Bowdoin parent, with two daughters-Margaret ’06 and Kate “˜09-who have graduated and a third daughter, Caroline, who will be a senior this year. Did it surprise you that they all wanted to go here?
Gormley: It didn’t really surprise me so much with Kate, but it did surprise me a little with Margaret. Margaret had no interest in even going to see Maine schools at one point in her deliberation process. One of the things I’ve observed myself-and through lots of conversations with friends about this subject-is that you take these kids around to schools and, to me, a lot of the colleges don’t feel that different or seem that different, particularly among the NESCAC schools. The buildings are different, the campuses are different, but when you really boil it all down, the orientation videos and presentations you see are very similar. There are a lot more similarities than differences. Yet these kids see things that their parents don’t. It’s amazing. They really look at the students and can tell if they are happy or not, among other things.
BDS: How have your daughters described their time at Bowdoin?
Gormley: They have all loved it. I made it a point-in part because I was on the Board-to get to know a lot of their friends over the years, and I would constantly ask them if they like it. They would always use terms like “˜I love it.’ I think I only knew one student throughout all three of my children’s experiences at Bowdoin who did not absolutely love the school.
BDS: Does it help you as a member of the Board of Trustees to have that very close connection to the students?
Gormley: I think it gives me a little bit of perspective that perhaps some other people don’t share.
BDS: How does Caroline feel about having dad in charge of the Board her senior year? Is she going to try to cut in the line at Thorne Hall?
Gormley: [Laughs] No, I don’t think so. I don’t think she thinks about the Board, and I don’t think most of the people she’s pals with are even aware of it.
BDS: You were a government major at Bowdoin. How did you end up in business?
Gormley: When I entered Bowdoin I thought I would probably go to law school. I took an accounting course-there was an accounting course available then-and I took macroeconomics, but truthfully, I had no idea what I wanted to do when I was at Bowdoin. After graduation, I was fortunate to get a job at the Bank of Boston in their commercial lending training program. I did that for a year and a half or so, and then I became a loan officer assigned to the New England division. I got to travel throughout Maine, among other places, and essentially got to meet a lot of leading commercial bankers in Maine and ultimately their big customers. I had to deal with a lot of lawyers in that job who were writing loan agreements, and I quickly determined that I didn’t want to do that. After about four years at the bank, I was sitting in this very large 3rd floor office and as I looked down the floor I saw about 50 people doing exactly the same thing I was doing, and some of them were 50 years old. I thought, “˜This is really great, but I don’t know how I’ll feel about it in 30 years.’ So, I went to business school and I toyed long and hard about Wall Street and investment banking, but at heart I’m a New England person, and I had an opportunity to join TA Associates, a venture capital firm in Boston. Those were the early days in venture capital and private equity. It worked out, it was a great choice for me and in 1986 four of us spun off and formed our own firm called Media Communications Partners. In 1999 I formed another firm with a couple of other fellows called Great Hill Partners. It’s been great.
BDS: Describe what a typical day is like for Steve Gormley today.
Gormley: Well, I would say now, I’m 80% out of Great Hill, and by the end of the year I’ll be completely out. I’m still active on a number of boards, although some of those are winding down.
BDS: You’re on the board of companies that run radio stations. That’s a pretty challenging business these days.
Gormley: It is now. During my career I’ve probably been involved in about 100 radio stations around the country in almost every market. In the ’80s and ’90s, we invested a lot in various media, including broadcasting and publishing, digital forms of media, and I would say we deemphasized traditional media, particularly in the 2003-2004 time frame. It was becoming clear that the newer forms of media were going to cannibalize some of the older forms of media. I think it’s getting a little bit better as we speak, but the business took a pretty good beating in 1999-2000. Of course in the ’90s it was fabulous. Organic growth and some of the regulatory changes enabled you to amass very large clusters in individual markets, and the operating leverage associated with that was enormous. But the recovery in the 2000s was quite anemic by historical standards. Money at the margin that might have otherwise been spent on radio and TV was going to the Internet, and in 2008-09, dislocation caused industry revenue to drop anywhere from 25 to 40%, depending on the market. The recovery has repaired some of this, but the industry is never going to be what it was.
BDS: You mentioned that you are winding down at Great Hill Partners. What’s next for you?
Gormley: Well, I’m fortunate enough to have this Bowdoin involvement, which occupies some of my time. I’m on some other boards, I have a business that I actually own in the media business, and that takes some of my time. I will be doing some traveling and playing more golf.
BDS: We’re told you played basketball and that you still ski?
Gormley: Not that much anymore. I think we might do a little more skiing. Actually, in my case, it might be snowboarding.
BDS: We also learned that as a junior at Bowdoin, you came in 3rd in the All-Campus Pool Tournament?
Gormley: Oh, I doubt that. I did spend more time in the poolroom than I should have.
BDS: Let’s talk about Bowdoin today. How would you describe the current state of the College?
Gormley: There are two views, the absolute view and the relative view. From my perspective, relative to our peers, we’re in quite good shape. I think we’ve made a lot of progress in the last 10 years under Barry’s leadership. But on a more absolute basis, this is a very difficult time. Bowdoin does not operate in a vacuum. Our economy is in a very bad spot, and, depending on who you talk to, the prognosis for the next few years is certainly not what a lot of people would like to see. What does that mean for a school like Bowdoin? No one has a crystal ball. We could be entering a period as a country and an economy that may not enable schools like Bowdoin to do the things they would ordinarily like to do. We’ll just have to see how that plays out. I think the College has taken the appropriate steps and I have no doubt that as visibility becomes clearer, we will continue to make the right moves. But the world has changed and that may have an impact on our ability to earn the same returns on the endowment that we’ve become accustomed to and to raise the kind of money we’ve become accustomed to, and that creates challenges.
BDS: Do you have any agenda or things you would really like to see accomplished during your tenure as Board chair?
Gormley: The short answer is, no, I don’t have an agenda. I do feel quite strongly that we have been able to make progress, in a relative sense, against some of the schools we’ve identified as places we want to be like and want to compete with. I think it’s very important to continue that progress and that momentum. But it’s also important to understand that’s probably measured in baby steps. There are small incremental things that don’t necessarily mean a lot today, but if we do them continually over three to five years, you turn around at the end of that time and the College is a better place. I think if the Board and the administration continue to maintain that view, we’ll be successful.
BDS: Bowdoin is a national College that still maintains a strong commitment to Maine and Maine students. You were one of those students. Is that commitment still important?
Gormley: Absolutely. Obviously, Bowdoin is located in Maine, and I think that historical relationship has been good for the school at multiple levels. That said, I’m not hung up on a particular number. If it turned out in a year that instead of 12% of Maine kids entering the class it turned out to be 9%, I don’t think that would necessarily upset me. Having an absolute number would be wrong. There will be some years when the kids from Maine will be stronger and some years when they are weaker. I don’t think the College should compromise its admissions standards just because a student is from Maine.
BDS: This week, we are welcoming the largest class in the history of the College. What are your thoughts about the size of the College?
Gormley: Well, clearly this class has created some particular challenges, but I understand they have been addressed. It’s a tough question. Trying to materially increase the size of the school would require an enormous investment if the College was going to maintain the same qualitative characteristics it has today: a nine-to-one student/faculty ratio, dining facilities, exercise machines, etc. There are enormous challenges to increasing the school’s size in a material way.
BDS: Including the challenge of meeting an increased demand for financial aid.
Gormley: That’s correct, and that’s an issue.
BDS: This may be the first time that the president of the College and the Board chair are from the same class? What does that say about the Bowdoin College Class of 1972?
Gormley: [Laughs] I don’t know if it says anything about the Class. Barry [Mills] is clearly very special and has really done a remarkable job by any measure in terms of moving the ball forward at Bowdoin. He has a remarkable set of skills. I think running a school like Bowdoin is an extremely difficult job because the constituencies are so many, and so broad, and so demanding. Barry’s been able to transition from managing a law firm to managing a college in a pretty extraordinary way. He probably remained very involved with Bowdoin since he graduated. I took a little vacation and became more involved in the ’90s, and I am truly fortunate to become part of the Board while my children were here, which is really great for me. I have been really impressed with the quality of the people at all levels who work at the College and with their dedication and enthusiasm. We’ve had a lot of success stories over the years at M/C Partners and Great Hill Partners, but we would have had more success stories if we had had as strong a group of people at our portfolio companies as we have at Bowdoin.
BDS: Since he’s your classmate, are there any secrets you want to share about Barry Mills, circa 1972?
Gormley: No. All I’ll say is that he was what I would call “˜a serious student,’ and I think it’s safe to say that I was not.