Two came from the far-away places of Zimbabwe and Denmark. Two hail from nearby states of Kansas and Iowa — and only one is homegrown.
But all five Omaha business leaders share the common ground of having contributed so much to the city's job and economic growth that they were inducted Tuesday into the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce's Business Hall of Fame.
About 700 people showed for the ceremony at the Holland Performing Arts Center that honored: Mogens C. Bay, chairman and CEO of Valmont Industries Inc.; Marshall E. Faith, vice chairman of the Scoular Co.; Susan M. Jacques, president and CEO of Borsheims Fine Jewelry; William M. “Willy” Theisen, president of Business Ventures; and James R. Young, chairman of Union Pacific Corp.
Each was spotlighted in a video laying out their journey. Each, in turn, spoke fondly about the community that boosted their careers.
Theisen, who early on had been California-bound, quipped: “Maybe I was fortunate that my car broke down and I was forced to stay here. Omaha is the key to what I've been and what I've done.”
Selected by their peers, Theisen and the others will join 122 previous hall-of-famers in a permanent display at the Durham Museum.
Young, the native Omahan and a South High graduate, finished his acceptance talk to a standing ovation. He remains board chairman of Union Pacific but has been on medical leave since announcing last year that he's battling pancreatic cancer.
In his video, Young shared why his work ethic was planted at an early age. “Being the oldest of six, you learn pretty quick you better get out and work if you want anything.”
From hauling newspapers at age 9 for $2.27 a week, to rising to the top U.P. executive spot in 2005, Young said he emphasized building trust with customers and co-workers. “It doesn't take very long to lose it,” he said.
Young was noted for leading a shift from an “internally focused” company to one that stresses safety and customer service.
Of his family and his ride with the great big rollin' railroad, he said: “I'm a lucky man — no other way to say it.”
Valmont Industries' Bay, who grew up the son of an entrepreneur in a small Denmark town, told of his early interest in a legal career that turned to architecture and, later, international business.
He was working in Beijing when he met Valmont founder Bob Daugherty, who recruited him in 1979 to launch a Valmont office in Hong Kong. That started his chain of global positions with the firm that manufactures irrigation systems, infrastructure poles and windmill support structures.
Bay recalled special times with his friend and mentor, who died in 2010.
“I always think the reason Bob Daugherty hired me was twofold. One, we have the same birthday. Two, I got him a bottle of Canadian Club at a time foreign liquor was not to be found in China.”
Jacques — who grew up in Rhodesia, now known as Zimbabwe — said that if someone had asked her at the start of her Borsheims career where she'd be in 10 years, Omaha would not have been the answer.
She praised the staff around her, and said she's been privileged to have worked with Warren Buffett, who named her Borsheims CEO in 1994.
“I was 34 years old. I had a young child at home. I never went to college. I was a female in a very male-dominated industry.''
Jacques brought worldwide prominence to the Omaha store. Now, Jacques describes her Omaha life as “wonderful and blessed,” both personally and professionally. “I couldn't have asked for a better one.”
The Chicago-born Theisen, who moved as a child to Clinton, Iowa, came to the stage Tuesday punching his fist in joy.
Best known for starting the Godfather's Pizza chain in Omaha that grew to more than 900 restaurants nationwide, he said successful entrepreneurs “see things that possibly others don't see.”
Mostly, he said, “You've got to have that fire in your belly.”
Theisen sold his interest in Godfather's in the mid-1980s and later became the first franchisee of Famous Dave's barbecue. He now owns Pitch Coal-Fire Pizzeria in Dundee and hopes to open Pitch franchises in other Midwestern cities.
Faith's career at Omaha-based Scoular spans more than four decades — and that time has not been without a few challenges.
For instance, after the Salina, Kan., native bought a majority interest in the agribusiness company in 1967, he purchased an IBM computer that nine months later still had not been installed. So he did it himself.
“I had to pick up the books, learned how to program, ended up over the next two years with a lot of almost 24-hour days.”
Today, Faith's son and grandson also are with the Omaha-based company that, under Faith's leadership, grew from a three-grain-elevator operation to the fourth-largest grain warehousing company in the United States.
As did others in the Hall of Fame Class of 2013, Faith complimented Omaha's work ethic and community spirit that allowed his career to flourish.
“I was a stranger,” he said, “You invited me in.”
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