December 2011: Ronald Gidwitz '63
Ronald Gidwitz ’63 is co-founder of the private investment firm GCG Partners, a strategic consulting and equity capital company headquartered in Chicago. Just as significant as his business accomplishments are his decades of service to the city of Chicago and to the state of Illinois and its people.
Having earned his B.A. in economics from Brown University in 1967, Gidwitz was destined to go to work for his family’s company, Helene Curtis. He joined Helene Curtis Industries in 1968, a company co-founded in 1927 by his father, Gerald Gidwitz. The conglomerate, first called National Mineral Company, manufactured just one product, the Peach Bloom Facial Mask. The partners soon began making hair care products, beginning a long line of successful, innovative personal care products. Gidwitz worked in a number of roles, including serving as president and chief executive officer for 20 years. Under his leadership, Helene Curtis revenues increased sevenfold to more than $1.2 billion before its acquisition by Unilever in 1996. Following the acquisition, Gidwitz served as president and chief executive officer of Helene Curtis Business Unit, Unilever Home & Personal Care USA. In 1998, Gidwitz co-founded GCG Partners.
Gidwitz has used his extensive background in business to tackle some of Illinois’ most pressing problems. He is particularly interested in defending the interests of public school children and in transforming the public education system. He is former chairman of the Illinois State Board of Education and as such was instrumental in establishing the Prairie State Achievement Exam – Illinois’ statewide high school assessment that includes administering the nationally normed ACT college entrance exam to all juniors. Gidwitz also helped provide major funding increases for early childhood education programs, expand educational opportunities for students, increase teacher qualification, and raise student achievement in the state. He remains concerned with traditional testing that too often “values what we measure rather than measuring what we value.” For his efforts, Gidwitz received the Distinguished Service Award from the National Association of State Boards of Education in 2003.
That same year, Gidwitz launched Students First Illinois (www.studentsfirst.us), a non-partisan, statewide grassroots coalition of private individuals and community organizations working together to help put Illinois’ 2.2 million children first in state policy. He notes, “I want to provide every child with access to equal, high-quality public education. I recognize that the problems are less educational and more political. State legislators, in most states, have a major hand in education, so you must tackle issues at the state level to achieve permanent, systematic change, and we are not seeing that. Too often, politicians want to maintain the status quo.”
A longtime advocate for economic growth and development, Gidwitz believes that jobs are the key to building the economy and keeping America competitive. He has given his time, energy, and expertise to the Chicago business community and has served on the Chicago Workforce Board, the Governors Human Resources Investment Council, the Illinois Council on Economic Education, the Small Business Illinois Advisory Council, and the Illinois Business-Education Coalition. He has served as chairman of the boards of the Governor’s Task Force on Human Resource Development, the Committee on Business Development, the Economic Development Commission of the City of Chicago, and the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce. For his efforts he was named the Greater North-Pulaski Development Corporation’s Man of the Year (1986), Crain’s Chicago Business Executive of the Year (1988), and was the recipient of the American Enterprise Award given by The Prairie Institute for Economic Growth and Freedom (1997). In 2010, Gidwitz was named Laureate, Chicago Business Hall of Fame, by Junior Achievement of Chicago.
Many other Chicago area civic organizations have benefitted from Gidwitz’s involvement. He is currently active on the boards of the Rush University Medical Center, the Lyric Opera House of Chicago, and the Museum of Science and Industry. He particularly enjoys his work on the Field Museum of Natural History board and notes, “The Field Museum is one of those places where you are exposed to individuals of very high intellect. It is exciting to see people of this caliber studying such a great diversity of subjects.”
Particularly proud of his work with the national organization Boys and Girls Clubs of America, Gidwitz notes that his 38-year affiliation makes him the longest-serving board member. He adds, “For more than 150 years, the organization has been helping kids to reach their full potential. But there remains much to be done. We are working with 4.1 million disadvantaged young people. The same problems facing kids in Chicago are found in other cities. It is systemic.” The Boys and Girls Club recognized Gidwitz in 2006 with the Herbert Hoover Humanitarian Award. Beginning in December 2011, Gidwitz will become chairman of the Board of Governors.
Gidwitz believes that good citizenship also requires that one engage in the political arena. While in college, he rang doorbells for Governor John Chafee in his first bid for elective office. He helped engineer the victory of Illinois Congressman Henry Hyde in his first congressional bid in 1974 and has been involved in almost every election cycle since. Currently, Gidwitz is chairman of the New Prosperity Foundation, a super pac committed to helping elect free market congressional and senate candidates in competitive races in the Midwestern states.
Gidwitz offers the following advice to Hotchkiss students interested in business: “I hope that more students look at the production end of business rather than finance. This is the area that will offer real opportunity in the future. The exportation of jobs overseas is an enormous problem, and we don’t have enough skilled manufacturing workers. If we don’t reverse this dangerous trend, we will be only a consumption nation.” Gidwitz is a proponent of the need to educate, inform and activate the public, stakeholders, and elected officials to develop, promote, and implement a stable pro-job, pro-growth, pro-investment climate in Illinois and elsewhere.