When a writer for Wine Spectator magazine embarked upon a three-day interview with Stephen Adams ’59 while touring through his six sprawling vineyards in Bordeaux, France, he asked Adams and his wife, Denise, if they would reveal a secret — a secret they had kept for nearly three years.
They obliged: It was in that article, “Wine by the Numbers,” that Adams announced, with great subtlety, that he was the anonymous donor who gave $100 million to the Yale School of Music in 2005.
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Deemed a private person by many of his close friends and colleagues, it is fitting that Adams would make a revelation of such proportions in this decidedly modest fashion. The 72-year-old billionaire rarely talks to the media, preferring instead to maintain a low profile despite the enormous success he has achieved. Adams, a devout Christian, conducts business in the same way he does philanthropy: under the radar, blowing as few trumpets as possible.
The formerly anonymous gift, the School of Music’s largest donation to date, granted free tuition for all its musicians. It was this quiet benevolence that forever changed the landscape of an institution.
A FINANCIAL ‘GIANT’
Adams achieved much of his financial success through a variety of ventures including banking, television and radio companies. Charlie Ellis ’59, who became good friends with Adams as a sophomore at Yale, explained Adams’ significant influence on changing the community banking, outdoor advertising and recreational vehicles industries.
Adams improved community banks and customer communications by linking smaller banks together, which was important during a time when these banks could not even afford computers, Ellis said.
Adams used a similar strategy while he was running a recreational vehicles company: He created a camping empire by attaching his camping supplies stores, Camping World, to his RV dealerships, Freedom Roads. Virtually any camping need could be met by Adams’ partnership of companies.
“With camping, such as camping in bear country, he figured out a way to give all of that to people,” Ellis said. “I don’t think any of his classmates had that kind of gift.”
Robert Joss, dean of the Stanford Graduate School of Business, from which Adams graduated in 1962, spoke about Adams’ tremendous business acumen and success across a number of industries.
“He’s not very well known because all of his business ventures are private,” he said. “But if you added up all the things he has been engaged with it approaches Fortune 500 dimensions.”
The ability to develop franchises and achieve great success outside of his industry expertise, Joss said, is an unusual quality that Adams possesses.
“It’s not often that someone shows a great acumen outside of his industry expertise,” he said. “He’s built franchises in everything from banking to the wine business.”
Adams quickly showed great business promise as a student at Stanford. George Parker, Adams’ MBA classmate and a board member of Freedom Roads, said he stood out from the start, for both his intellect and likeable personality.
“Of all the members of Stanford Business class of 1962 he and Phil Knight, who is the founder of Nike, were clearly the giants of the class when it came to business,” he said. “Steve is just a magnificently warm and likeable person so it is a great combination and I’ve always been honored to have him as a friend and classmate all these years.”
In 2006, Adams was given the Arbuckle Award from — and named Business Man of the Year by — Stanford’s School of Business, an award that has honored graduates for the past 42 years.
IT STARTED AS A HOBBY
While he was a student at Yale, on a campus alive with music groups and performances, Adams said he had never been interested in music. Rather, he served as president of Beta Theta Pi fraternity, where, as fellow frat member Joe Staley Jr. ’59 described, he “was deft at keeping the various factions of the fraternity happy and was a ‘hail fellow well met.’ ”
It was not until Adams turned 55 — already a successful businessman and an avid wine collector — that he toyed with a new hobby: the piano.
“That sparked my interest in music and I made the decision soon after to give the [first] gift,” Adams said in a recent interview.
In honor of his class’s 40th reunion, he donated $10 million to the School of Music, which, at the time, was the largest contribution the school had ever received. Six years later, he donated 10 times as much money, allowing the School of Music to offer free tuition to all its students.
Yet Adams said he initially chose to remain anonymous about the large gift. His choice to reveal his identity in the Wine Spectator article, which appeared in June 2008, coincided with his upcoming Yale College class’s 50-year reunion. Rather than reveal his contribution at the reunion itself, Adams said, he hoped the early announcement would inspire others to donate as part of his class’s gift to the University.
“My wife and I are Christians and the Bible speaks of giving in secret,” Adams, who described himself as devout, said.
Five School of Music faculty members interviewed said Adams’ decision to remain anonymous merely magnified how exceptional the gift was.
“A gift of $100 million is unusual under any circumstances,” Vivian Perlis, a School of Music professor, said. “That this donation from the Adams Family Foundation was made anonymously makes the Adams gift even more extraordinary.”
Echoed School of Music Dean Robert Blocker, a close friend of the Adams family: “The Adams gave the music school a transformative gift in every way for the school and the University, and it has changed the school a great deal.”
Whether the funds go toward improving practice rooms or relieving students of hefty loans, Adams’ gift resonates throughout the School of Music, said Michael Friedman, a professor of theory and chamber music.
“Musicians, as opposed to doctors or lawyers, are not in a position to repay educational loans easily, and the profession has a capricious opportunity structure,” he said. “The new financial conditions at the school, however, put musicians in a very different position in relation to their post-Yale careers.”
“It is my observation that morale at the school has improved, and that the artistry, thoughtfulness and skill of its students is noticeably enhanced,” Friedman continued, emphasizing the impacts of the gift. “The faculty is challenged to offer educational rewards commensurate with the quality of this new cohort of students.”
Adams’ philanthropy extends beyond the halls of the School of Music; The Adams Family Foundation, which supports arts and educational institutions, has donated to schools around the country in order to better their music programs.
“Our foundation’s mission is to give to educational institutions’ art and music programs in a fairly broad sense,” Adams said. “In many cases we do our best to upgrade them and improve them, whether that’s by giving money or donating Steinway pianos.”
Through his foundation, Adams has also made donations to his other alma mater, the Stanford School of Business, including large sums of unrestricted funds and the endowment of three distinguished professorships in marketing, finance and operations, Joss said.
One of Adams’ peers, Charlie Kingsley ’59, put it simply: Adams expresses his generosity in a variety of ways — whether it is by donating large sums of money, helping the musical careers of former classmates or serving wine to his friends.
But despite the enormous wealth of contributions Adams has made, five of his former classmates interviewed spoke about the Adams couple’s low profile. With their deeply rooted values, they are markedly private people.
Remarked Ellis: “Unless somebody told you or you saw his plane or home you would never know he’s been a major success.”