Deer Run Fellowship: Rite of passage for Terry College’s best and brightest

Former Coca-Cola CEO Doug Ivester (BBA ’69) operates a mega-sized farm in south Georgia, and twice a year he invites a select group of eight students to Deer Run, where they soak up time-honored wisdom amidst the clarity of nature
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Once upon a time, a young, gifted, hard-charging Ernst & Ernst executive learned a lesson the hard way.

It was early in the career of this high-potential Terry grad. He was responsible for bringing in the numbers for an accounting operation in Greece, and he burned to impress the right people. One afternoon, his blood pressure surged. An international accountant had missed an important deadline.

He picked up the phone.

“I gave the fellow unmitigated grief,” the Terry alumnus recalls, “for missing that deadline.”

The accountant in Greece politely apologized. It wasn’t enough. Determined to make sure such an error never happened again, the caller continued his tongue-lashing. Finally, after more blistering criticism, the accountant offered an excuse for the late report.

“My son died.”

Doug Ivester (BBA ’69), today age 64, paused on a rainy morning in south Georgia.

“That young executive who called the accountant,” he confessed, “was me.”

Ivester’s audience — a group of exceptional Terry students, the spring 2011 Deer Run Fellows — sat motionless. Ivester’s point was, of course, perfectly clear. These Fellows will soon be young, gifted, hard-charging executives themselves.

Ivester’s candor stunned his audience. Before these select students stood a great commercial chieftain, a man smart and hard-working and lucky and politically adroit enough to have climbed clear to the top of a corporation many consider the Everest of enterprise, The Coca-Cola Company. Now this leader stood before them, sharing a personal failure with brutal honesty.

Some of the students dropped their eyes.

“It would have been really easy for me to get some data, get some facts,” Ivester went on, his face darkened, “instead of jumping to conclusions and thinking this man’s priorities were the same as mine at that moment. It was a huge, hugely impactful mistake.”

Ivester took a deep breath.

“When he said those words — my son died — there wasn’t a hole anywhere deep enough for me to disappear into.”

Another breath.

“I had four years of college and a fine Terry College education. But there weren’t any classes that taught what I learned that day.”

True enough.

Until now.

Imparting wisdom, story by story

A few miles from Albany, at Deer Run, where this story unfolded, Ivester and his wife, Kay, operate a diversified business, farming and selling various crops.

It’s a place where stories run as free as the bobwhite quail that make it a destination for bird men.

Wisdom has passed from elder to student for centuries here, for as long as humans have settled this fertile piece of earth.

Early wilderness explorers and frontiersmen collected lessons and lore, then shared their information — sometimes life-and-death advice — around campfires and hearths with wide-eyed strangers, with their own children.

Native Americans even left stories in absentia — riddles and revelations in the cuneiform of arrowheads, pottery, and burial mounds.

“Storytelling is how we pass along our culture,” says Ivester. “It’s one of the most important things we do as leaders and as human beings.”

Today, at a beautiful spot in the woods, on two magical weekends in the spring and fall each year, newly-minted Terry College Deer Run Fellows soak up time-honored knowledge from a handful of men and women who have blazed trails beforehand. These students receive, almost ceremonially, the shared communal wisdom of an elite tribe . . . a tribe called successful people.

The tribe imparts its wisdom through storytelling. Ivester, for instance, spins his cautionary tale of the earnest Ernst executive.

Chuck Lingle, a beloved retired veterinarian from Albany, contributes charming family and animal reminiscences from a rural lifetime.

Robert Guido, former vice chair and CEO of Ernst & Young’s assurance and advisory practice, describes the importance of ethics, detailing quandaries faced by business people who conducted their affairs with not enough awareness, with not enough attentiveness, or with worse.

The stories told here spark awareness, attentiveness. During the three-day download of acquired wisdom, you see new lights come on in already bright young eyes. The stories come from leaders who have earned the right to tell them.

Charles “Pete” McTier, past president of The Robert W. Woodruff Foundation, one of the world’s great philanthropies, makes a strong case for service to community and the greater good. In a talk the first night of the weekend, McTier explains why giving back is an obligation, especially for Deer Run Fellows, gifted as they are with a little extra ability.

Deer Run manager Mack Kimbrel adds his notes, advising Fellows to “keep it humble.” (“Mr. Ivester and I hold a lot of board meetings on horseback,” he says.)

Dennis Blanton, curator of Native American archaeology for Atlanta’s Fernbank Museum of Natural History, walks students over an archaeological site that he suggests might be “the Pompeii of Georgia” — possibly a Native American village burned by the Spanish conquistador Hernando De Soto.

Jason Kimbrel, a service veteran, gives a riveting eyewitness report of other kinds of destruction, from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Finally, fittingly, in a sermon worthy of a Sunday morning, Terry College Dean Robert Sumichrast ties it all together, showing how past, present, and future interlock at this special place . . . and every place. Sumichrast synthesizes the weekend’s stories and activities, discusses their meaning, gives benediction to the event and to the young students.

Bree Randall, a junior from Macon, nicely captures the experience. “This program is not about spending time at Deer Run,” she says. “It is much deeper. It is about being removed from your daily routine — friends, technology, etc. — and being given the chance to think and question the business world in a whole new setting.

“For 72 hours, you are a sponge, learning all you can from the wise people around you.”

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Doug Ivester at Deer Run in 2011.

Business principles in row crops

“Deer Run is designed to give promising students a unique chance to learn about real-world challenges from people who have lived them,” says Sumichrast. “We want students to leave Terry not just with business knowledge, but life knowledge. We want to give the world better citizens, not simply better business people.”

Each semester, Terry taps just eight Deer Run Fellows from among 3,500 business undergraduates at the college and 35,000 students at the University of Georgia. Faculty and staff nominate 90 to 100 candidates. A selection committee carefully screens these, looking for intellectual prowess and a commitment to learning, as you’d expect, but also for intangibles.

“The Deer Run Fellow is more curious,” says Ivester. “It’s the student who is a little bit more adventuresome, who is probably a little more accepting of others.”

Once selected, Deer Run Fellows spend a semester at Terry in special coursework, with an emphasis on commercial and historical events and how leaders meet challenges of the day. Semester’s end brings the big pay-off — the bonding Deer Run weekend, choreographed by Ivester.

Why the venue?

Why meet in the flatlands of south Georgia instead of colorful, convenient Athens or bright lights, big city Atlanta?

For one thing, Deer Run LLC is where Ivester has now staked his claim, settling into his golden years without the coat and tie and PowerPoint presentations and Wall Street conference calls. For another, Deer Run offers a full view of life.

“We want students to have the experience of seeing business principles they learn at Terry in operation in an actual working environment,” says Sumichrast. “We believe this place helps connect the dots between past, present, and tomorrow in ways that create a fuller, more socially conscious executive.”

The ultimate learning laboratory

The community nearest Deer Run, little Leary (population 618 in the 2010 census), proudly holds an annual holiday parade. The Ivesters and their Deer Run team sponsor the event, and many of the locals who line the parade route cheering Santa have candy in their stockings, thanks to Deer Run. The Ivesters give permanent and seasonal employment to a number of Leary-area citizens, and the Deer Run policy of buying locally whenever possible helps keep the town on the map.

Deer Run itself dwarfs Leary. It comprises 30 square miles of coastal plain in an area known as The Wiregrass, for a tough ground cover that once grew abundantly here. Folks also know the region simply as “Down Home.”

Deer Run is a patchwork of holdings gradually bought by Ivester and brought together under Deer Run LLC management. In all, Ivester counts about 6,000 acres in crops, including about 1,700 acres of pecans. About 150 miles of roads crisscross the estate, connecting alligator-haunted cypress swampland with the manicured pecan groves and long-leaf pine stands. Deer, turkey, bobwhite, and wild hogs roam. In spring, flowering white dogwoods in the woods look like waiting brides.

“Back in the day,” says Ivester, “the railroad stopped in Thomasville, and the northern industrialists who came south to fox hunt discovered the bobwhite quail and started to buy properties. Most have been carefully managed and conserved, almost like a national park in private hands.”

Ivester runs a serious business. Last year, he sold tons of pecans to fast-growing markets in China. Pine stands show the charred signs of prescription burns that are a hallmark of energetically managed tree-growing operations. Every farm is a working farm. Horses must be exercised, bird dogs trained, buildings kept in good repair. Fences and roads need 24/7 maintenance.

When Ivester talks to the Deer Run Fellows about his guiding cash-in, cash-out philosophy — in a nutshell, never let financial obligations grow so large they limit choices — the advice is fundamental, rooted in the very earth.

Deer Run is a safe setting for students to experience business outside a classroom, out here where a minor error in judgment or a missed deadline has implications you see with your own two eyes — a punctured tire or a vehicle bogged to the axles or an infestation of web worms in prized pecan trees.

Call Deer Run a learning laboratory.

Or simply call it the real world.

“We expect that Deer Run Fellows through their experiences here will be challenged to develop a deeper understanding of the risks and rewards of leading a business,” says Sumichrast. “It’s also a great opportunity, and a great setting, for students to explore their own goals in life.”

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The road to Deer Run.

Deer Run Fellows (in their own words)

Students begin self-examination the instant the Deer Run Fellows weekend opens — literally with a bang — at the skeet shooting range. There’s a welcome from Ivester and his excellent staff, an overview of the Deer Run operations, and handshaking with the faculty.

From there, stories unspool and students ponder. Fellows swallow stories with forkfuls of potato and corn and sausage and lobster at a low-country boil. They chase stories through the woods on the backs of horses.

They hear stories atop a centuries-old Indian mound that still sprouts yaupon holly, a ceremonial plant of Native Americans.

Who are these students? What does the Deer Run Fellows program mean to them? Here they are — the spring semester 2011 Deer Run Fellows — discussing their experiences on Doug Ivester’s land.

Mathieu Van Asten
Senior. International Business/MIS. Autres-Eglises, Belgium.

Mathieu will work as a consultant for Pricewaterhouse-Coopers.

“I believe in learning through other people’s stories and struggles. The lessons shared with us gave me a good business tool kit for my career. I see the importance of having guiding principles in your personal and business life. They work like a compass in a storm. Most importantly, the Deer Run Fellow program emphasized the importance of doing what you love in life — and knowing good will come from it. Mr. McTier said it very well: ‘Love what you do, and you will be successful.’”

Jonathan Bradley Gibson
Senior. International Business. Plains, Ga.

Jonathan will work in the supervisor leadership program in the claims department of GEICO in Macon, Ga.

“Having heard from various speakers about building communities as a responsibility of companies, I am more certain than ever that philanthropy and business can produce positive changes. The experience at Deer Run has changed me in a way that is difficult to articulate. It is a shared experience with a few close classmates that we will forever hold in our hearts as invigorating, setting us all on the journey to be better business people and better citizens of the world.”

Alice Patterson Hymson
Junior. Accounting. Columbia, S.C.

Ali plans to join a Big Four accounting firm, eventually becoming a venture capitalist focused on investing in women-owned or -operated growth businesses.

“Deer Run gave us direct, personal contact with extraordinary business and community leaders in an almost surreal physical environment. It was really remarkable and it took my leadership exposure and understanding to a totally different level. Deer Run Fellows is the capstone of my experiences here at UGA and Terry.”

Anne Helene Karam
Senior. Finance. Baton Rouge, La.

Anne will work as a business analyst at Target’s corporate headquarters in Minneapolis.

“Deer Run instilled in me a desire to find a career that will allow me to make a positive impact on the world. The speakers were incredibly passionate about their careers; I hope to be able to say the same thing about my own. My most vivid memory of the weekend was riding horses around Deer Run. There is no better feeling than to be out in the open air, riding through beautiful scenery, surrounded by kind and inspiring people. This program is truly a gift to Terry students.”

Jean Y. Lu
Senior. Marketing. Alpharetta, Ga.

Jean will work for Coca-Cola Refreshments as a sales leadership associate.

“I took away countless professional and personal lessons from this program. The speakers shared invaluable lessons, such as ‘closing the gap’ between your expectations and your efforts. The speakers and Deer Run Fellows embody leadership; they all exude perseverance, discipline, confidence, and passion for what they do. They all make their philanthropic work a priority. It inspires me to always give back to the community.”

Wadrick Jamar McCluskey
Junior. Accounting. Rome, Ga.

Wadrick interns at KPMG every summer.

“Deer Run is one of the most rewarding and fulfilling activities I have ever taken part in. I took away valuable lessons, such as standing behind my personal values or ‘guiding principles,’ and how to present myself in the best light once I enter my career. Deer Run provided an invaluable network of friends and professional ties that I would not have been able to attain elsewhere. I will be forever thankful for this.”

Brianna Lane Randall
Junior. Marketing. Macon, Ga.

Bree interned last summer with Procter & Gamble in customer business development.

“Deer Run exposed me to different career paths and allowed me to learn from the experiences and crucibles of successful businessmen. When you are young, it is so easy to focus on material wealth and status. But after this weekend, I have full confidence that following my passions and committing to them will bring rewards.”

Robert Darnell Sinyard III
Senior. Biochemistry & Molecular Biology/Finance. Athens, Ga.

Trey plans to attend medical school and work as an infectious disease doctor.

“I will never forget Chuck Lingle pouring out his heart at the covered bridge. His struggles as a veterinarian, father, and grandfather induced compassion from the group and pushed us to search for the same substance and fortitude. Deer Run left me with a desire to explore different professions and to interact with individuals who are working in sectors completely different than mine. It was thrilling to see so many students dedicated to changing the world.”

Sumichrast planted program seeds

Credit the persistence of Terry College dean Robert Sumichrast for cultivating the Ivester relationship. (“Your dean just wouldn’t take no for an answer,”Ivester tells the Fellows.)

Sumichrast first approached Ivester in February 2008 with an invitation to join five other business leaders as a Terry College Executive-in-Residence, a position that entails mentoring students, assisting in developing new Terry curricula, and instructing or guest-lecturing Terry courses. One of the Executives-in-Residence (and another former Coca-Cola executive), Earl Leonard, wryly comments on Ivester’s first response to Sumichrast.

“We were hoping that Doug Ivester would become an Executive-in-Residence,” Leonard quips, “but he wasn’t interested in becoming a resident anywhere other than Deer Run!”

“I had entered a new chapter in my life,” Ivester says. “I didn’t want to go back to being corporate. I wanted something broader.”

So Ivester made a counteroffer. In March 2009, he invited Sumichrast and his wife, Carol Ann, to Deer Run to meet a few hand-picked thinkers and doers. “The program looked a lot like Deer Run, except without students,” Sumichrast recalls. “It gave us a chance to see if this would be a good model.”

Ivester’s concept for the Deer Run Fellows springs from his experiences at a New Mexico think tank, owned by a friend, that he visited often. He found himself part of “an interesting compound,” as he puts it, a shifting collection of people from all over the cultural spectrum. John Denver dropped by. So did Stewart Udall. Ivester found himself stimulated by artists, writers, businesspeople, thinkers, lawmakers, actors. He patterned the star power and diversity of his Deer Run Fellows faculty on this Santa Fe salon. In April 2009, Sumichrast announced Ivester as Terry’s first Executive-at-Large. The new, unpaid position allowed Ivester to take the duties of the Executive-in-Residence position south — to Deer Run.

Long-term, the Deer Run founders see the seeds of their program growing into mighty oaks. The first Deer Run Fellows reunion has already brought together two years’ worth of Fellows this past May, a bedrock layer of capable and energetic Terry talents shaped by the program and its unique rite of passage in the south Georgia woods.

“These students are going to be among our most successful,” says Sumichrast. “Deer Run helps bond them to the college and gives them more support even after graduation. It’s our hope that they’ll be especially active in helping other Fellows that come behind them — and other Terry graduates in general — to get jobs, get mentors, get guidance. Perhaps they’ll even give some financial support for Terry along the way. But the main thing is that we’ve created a community here, with bonds between Fellows that we hope will last the rest of their lives.

“It’s certainly a legacy we’ll all be proud of.”