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The Giver that Keeps on Giving

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For Wake Forest alumnus Ben Sutton, giving back is in his DNA

Ken Bennett, Wake Forest University Photographer

On Thursday, April 20, 2017, Wake Forest Athletics held a ceremony to commemorate the groundbreaking of the Shah Basketball Complex and the Sutton Sports Performance Center on campus.

Alumnus Mit Shah (‘91) donated over $5 million to make the Shah Basketball Complex possible, becoming the youngest person ever to give a gift of that magnitude to the university.

Ben Sutton (’80, JD ’83) stepped up once again and gave $15 million for the Sutton Sports Performance Center. This is in addition to the money he had already given recently for the Sutton Center on campus, a welcome addition to Reynolds Gym that added two more full size gyms, and allowed campus recreation to continue operating during the facility’s renovations.

I was fortunate to be given the opportunity to cover this event for BloggerSoDear, and through an arrangement with Ben’s nephew (who is a student at Wake), I had the opportunity to speak with Ben after the event.

The first thing I asked him is what he loves so much about Wake Forest that makes him want to continue to give back so much to the university.

Sutton responded, “It’s just an incredibly special place that has played such an important role in my family’s life. My parents were first generation college students and went to Wake Forest at the old campus. I went to school here, I had a cousin who went here; my daughter has taken two degrees at Wake; as have I. My son is a sophomore here now. It’s just inextricably woven into the Sutton fabric of life. We’re particularly fond of the athletic programs, so we’ve wanted to try to help put Wake Forest in a position where they could better compete with the other schools in the Atlantic Coast Conference. So, we feel like these are huge steps in that direction.”

I told him how much everyone---fans, students, alumni, athletes, etc. appreciated it and he said, “We’re delighted to be able to do it-it’s a real privilege, actually.”

Having one of the finest athletic performance centers with offices for all sports, meeting rooms large enough for the entire football team, smaller rooms for breakout sessions, and one of the largest dedicated training centers in the country certainly gives Wake Forest more than one step in that direction.

I next inquired about his starting ISP Sports and his involvement there. I asked if he ever envisioned it growing into what it is now.

Sutton: “You know I’ve always been a big dreamer. But I have to say that it might have exceeded my wildest expectations. It certainly exceeded what I thought we could do with it in the beginning. We started that company 25 years ago April 1st. I was actually together with a lot of my original core team a few weeks ago at the Final Four. We started with one school-Wake Forest-and one business, the multimedia business doing radio and television broadcasts, and lots of other things commercially with the athletic program on the campus.”

“We built that into 65 schools, and then had a stadium seating business that became a market-leading business. We had a secondary ticket business that became the market leader, and when we sold to IMG they had a licensing trademark business, and we were able to roll in with that group and bring all that together to build a really formidable national enterprise that could compete with the National Football League, ESPN, and others in the media and pro sports bases.”

I remarked how amazing it was that the business had grown that much, to which Ben casually and humbly responded, “Yeah, it was a lot of fun.”

ISP Sports became IMG College and today is one of the largest sports media properties in the world. If you’ve ever listened to a Wake Forest football or basketball game on the radio, you have Ben Sutton to thank for that.

Ben is very creative and still very much an entrepreneur, so I took this opportunity to ask if he had any other ventures in the works. And being Ben Sutton, of course he did.

“Yes. I recently stepped down as chairman emeritus of IMG. I was chairman for a year and then chairman emeritus as I transitioned out. I started my own private equity fund with some buddies of mine who are great investors, and we are looking for companies that we think are great lifestyle brands needing to be professionalized, and which we can help put on a faster growth trajectory. We’ve bought eight companies in the last four months, and I suspect we’ll buy 15-20 by the time it’s all together. This time around I’m just chairing boards and coaching CEOs instead of running the companies myself, but it’s really a lot of fun. I feel like I learned a lot “dos and don’ts” as a CEO, and if I can share that with some young budding entrepreneurs; that would be a lot of fun for me.”

If I was running a startup business, I can’t think of too many people who would be ahead of Ben Sutton on the list of those I would want coaching me on how to run my business.

If you’ve read any of my other interviews with Wake Forest people you know that I love to ask them for a favorite memory involving Wake, so I closed my time with Mr. Sutton with this.

“There are two or three I would say right now. I mean, I always talk about the fact that I was so privileged to get to know the great Arnold Palmer, whom I consider to be the most humble, grateful, and accomplished sportsman in the history of sports. And I tell people that getting to know Mr. Palmer, getting to know John Wooden at UCLA in the twilight of his life---those kinds of people and the kind of impact they had on me and my life---that I knew them---was really profound, and so I point to memories like that.”

“I have to say there are a few ballgames that stand out as well, but it’s always hard to put your finger and say ‘Well, just this one’. We certainly played Auburn here one time and were down 38-20 at halftime, and came back and won the game 42-38. And that team in 1979 ended up going to a bowl. And it was the first time since 1949 that Wake Forest had been to a bowl game. So it had been 30 long years.”

“There are just so many indelible memories, and so many young student athletes whom I have been privileged to meet, to know and mentor, and to be around---supporting their growth and development, just as people did for me when I was here. I think that’s what Wake Forest is all about---it really epitomizes Pro Humanitate, and it’s really about paying it forward and then paying it back.”

I know that I’ve certainly had many people who have helped me in my time here at Wake to whom I’m very grateful, and just as Ben said, I hope to be able to pay it forward someday.

Mr. Sutton couldn’t have been nicer in agreeing to be interviewed, and even thanked me for my time and for reaching out to him to ask about interviewing him.

We at BloggerSoDear, and all of the Wake Forest community are thankful for Ben Sutton’s contributions to this great university that holds such a special place in our hearts. Wake Forest is a better place because of Ben Sutton.