Trailblazer Series Welcomes Gerald J. Ford '69

Gerald J. Ford, one of Dedman School of Law’s most successful graduates, never practiced law, but his career is a shining example of the choices available to Dedman graduates through the robust education they receive.

“SMU was huge for me,” said Ford, who spoke to the SMU Dedman law community on October 10th as part of Dean Nance’s Trailblazer Speaker Series. “Whatever success I have enjoyed in life, SMU has been a large contributor for that, and I will never forget that.” During the student luncheon, Ford shared the lessons of his experiences that led to his success in business, offered real-life advice, and engaged the curiosity of many students fascinated by his path after law school.

Born in 1944, Ford was raised in Pampa, Texas, and attended Pampa Senior High School. As a teenager, he worked alongside his father in an auto-body shop and dreamed of careers in the law and in business.

SMU was the only school to which he applied. He graduated with a B.A. in economics in 1966 and earned his J.D. from the SMU School of Law in 1969.

Ford said he planned “early in life to go to law school,” but through a series of career choices following his graduation from SMU Dedman, he decided to learn the construction business and, notably, the financing mechanisms that fueled it. A six-month stint in Bolivia, where he saw firsthand the benefits of construction and infrastructure improvements, cemented his desire to pursue a career in business and financing.

After working as a general counsel for a group of closely held corporations, Ford decided he wanted to be his own boss and build his own company.

So, at age 31, with two partners and some borrowed money, he paid $1.2 million for 64 percent of First National Bank of Post, Texas, in 1975.

“I wanted to run something, a business,” Ford said. “After we got it, one was good, two were better.

He said, “I learned a lot by sitting in the corner and just watching. And things have worked out well.”

An accomplished entrepreneur, Ford has successfully acquired, managed, and operated holding companies, banks, and other financial services companies for more than 40 years. He and his business partners are keen shoppers, and they have taken a conservative approach to buying troubled banks and scrutinizing customer loyalty and defaults to limit their risk.

They avoid firms that have lost more than 10 to 15 percent of deposits. They also shun buyouts if they expect defaults to rise to the point that they eat into potential returns.

An excellent credit history is the cornerstone of his business philosophy—and it has served him well.

Banks get into trouble when they make bad loans, he said.

“We’ve had excellent relationships with the regulators. Their job is to keep safe banks. Our job is to keep us with safe banks. We’re on the same side of the street, and that has worked well for us. We operate [all our banks] like we did the First National Bank of Post.”

Ford is former Chairman of the board and Chief Executive Officer of Golden State Bancorp, Inc., headquartered in San Francisco. It was a holding company for the nation's second largest thrift institution and California's fourth largest bank. In 2002, he sold it to Citigroup for $6 billion.

He is currently Chairman of the Board of Hilltop Holdings, a bank and insurance holding company that acquired PlainsCapital Corporation in 2012. Ford’s son, Jeremy, is the President and CEO of Hilltop Holdings.

Gerald J. Ford is also the co-general partner and principal investor in Ford Financial Fund II LP and Ford Financial Fund III LP, successful private equity firms headquartered in Dallas that own Mechanics Bank, which is based in California.

In a 2010 interview on entrepreneurship with Forbes, he suggested reading The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Financier by Theodore Dreiser, The Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe, Too Big to Fail by Andrew Ross Sorkin, and The Big Short by Michael Lewis.

In addition to business, two other passions occupy his time: family and philanthropy.

He is married and has six children. His wife, Kelli, is an interior designer. They live in Dallas and have homes in Manhattan and the Hamptons, a working ranch in New Mexico, and a thoroughbred farm in Kentucky.

And, he is a long-time dedicated Mustang.

He has been a member of Southern Methodist University's board of trustees since 1992 and on the executive board of the Dedman School of Law. He is a former member of the executive boards of Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences, Cox School of Business, John Goodwin Tower Center for Political Studies, and Willis M. Tate Distinguished Lecture Series.

He has also served as a regent for the Texas A&M University System.

With a generous heart for philanthropy, he made the lead gift of $20 million to build the new football stadium at SMU, named the Gerald J. Ford Stadium, which opened in 2000.

In 2013, he committed an additional $15 million to build the state-of-the-art Gerald J. Ford Research and Innovation Building, with the mission to ignite and inspire world-changing solutions to 21st century problems through interdisciplinary inquiry and access to the emerging digital world.

More recently, Ford played a role in SMU's impending 2024 move from the American Athletic Conference to the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC). He was one of a group of roughly 15 boosters who committed to donating enough to the SMU athletic program to allow the school to forego any ACC media revenue for its first nine years as an ACC member.

While college athletics are important—he said he’s super excited about ACC basketball opportunities for the Ponies—academics are a higher priority for SMU, he said.

“The mission of this university is to provide a good education. It’s not to provide a good football team or a good basketball team. Now, you want students to come here, so they enjoy a social life, and SMU does a good job at providing a social life.”

In the greater Dallas community, Ford is an honorary trustee of Southwestern Medical Foundation, a former director of the Children’s Medical Foundation and the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Dallas, and a former member of the Dallas Citizens Council.

In closing, he told the assembled SMU Dedman community: “My dad didn’t go to high school, and he didn’t go to college. He took me for a drive the day before I drove up here [to college]. I asked him, ‘What do you have to recommend?’

“‘I don’t have anything to recommend,’” he remembered his father saying. “‘Just don’t forget where you came from and where you want to go.’ And, I have thought about that a lot. I can’t think of a better place for me than right here at SMU and [doing business in] Dallas, Texas.”