CLASS OF 1974
Stephen Ross is excited about retiring from his job as CEO of one of South Africa's blue-chip retailers. But he doesn't just look forward to traveling the world-he wants to learn. "As I begin to contemplate retirement, I am excited at the prospects of receiving more education, this time with the benefit of experience to enrich the learning," he says. This desire is something that Ross attributes to "the respect for education and the stimulation of curiosity that was instilled in me at W&J by professors like Peter Skutches, who helped me understand the importance of imagination."
A fearless imagination has been important to Ross throughout his career. When Ross graduated from W&J in 1974, there were many more graduates than jobs, so he decided to create a job by starting his own small business cleaning boat bottoms.
"It was basically all the work the boaters and sailors really didn't want to do themselves," he says. "It paid well, but neither my partner nor I saw much potential value over time of this 'service' industry, so we decided to grow up. He became a stockbroker; I went into retail."
Ross worked for Macy's, Sears, and Phillips-Van Heusen before being courted to lead Edgars Consolidated Stores Limited in South Africa. Having never heard of Edgars or been to Africa, he did his research and decided to accept the position. This multi-billion dollar company, now called EdCon, is the leading retailer of clothing, footwear, textiles, and accessories in southern Africa. When he took over Edgars, the company's earnings were down 85 percent. In 2004, EdCon reported earnings growth exceeding 70 percent, making it one of the most significant turnarounds in the history of South African corporations. Today, the group has more than 700 stores with more than 3.5 million active customer accounts.
"I work in a business that involves consumers, ideas, and taste, as well as numbers. My well-rounded W&J education enables me to synthesize those disparate components," Ross says. "The benefits of a liberal arts education endure over a lifetime, and some of the benefits are only revealed years after you have left school."