By the time he visited the university three years ago as a guest judge of the DifferenceMaker contest, Brian Rist ’77 had already given generously to UMass Lowell: An initial $25,000 endowment five years before had grown by then to more than $100,000.
But Rist says he was affected by something more on that visit: “These groups of students so intensely, incredibly passionate about trying to solve real-world problems: poverty, hunger, polluted drinking water—well, that was just really inspiring to me.”
When Rist committed last fall to a gift of $5 million—the largest single donation in the school’s history, taking it past its initial $125 million fundraising goal—he made clear that he intends a sizable share to go toward the DifferenceMaker program.
“Brian’s generosity will have a tremendous impact on our students,” says Chancellor Jacquie Moloney. “That’s the power of ‘Our Place’—this determination to help new generations succeed because we share the same story.”
For Rist, the decision was easy. “That sort of innovation, of dedication, just needs to be supported,” he says.
Innovation has been a defining value for him—at least since the day nearly 30 years ago when, as a young employee at a garage-door company in Florida following one of the deadliest hurricanes in that state’s history, he had the first of several life-changing “Eureka!” moments. “It came to me that the garage door of a house was nearly always its largest opening, but also its weakest, and that if you could find a way to strengthen it, you could save yourself a lot of damage,” he says.
That led to Rist’s design of a wind-bracing system that sold to Home Depot. Following that, he developed a career’s worth of breakthrough storm-protection innovations: a polypropylene “wind-abatement screen” to reduce the effects of hurricane-force winds, a remote-control, roll-down screen system (“like having a bulletproof vest for the vulnerable openings in your home”) and several other related products.
In 1996, with a partner and three employees, he founded Storm Smart in southwest Florida. Today, 23 years and several permutations later, with over 200 employees and more than $50 million in yearly sales, the company has been recognized by Inc. Magazine for two years in a row as one of the fastest-growing privately held companies in the U.S. With over 80,000 customers across several states, Mexico and the Caribbean region, it is among the largest hurricane-protection companies in the world.
It was an unlikely start. The son of a seamstress and a drycleaner owner in Stoughton, Mass. (“They were garment-business people—that’s how they met”), Rist spent his teenage weekends manning the machines and rolling the quarters at his father’s self-service laundromat next door. When the time came to think about college, he was offered a scholarship at the National Institute of Dry Cleaners in Silver Spring, Md.
“But I think my dad probably knew that I wanted something bigger,” he says. At the time, though, he had no firm idea of what that might be—until one day, in his senior year of high school, he accompanied a friend on a visit to Lowell State College. His friend’s interest was in engineering; his own tended more toward business. “So I’d just kind of come along for the ride. But when I got to looking around, I thought ‘Hey, this is kind of a neat place,’” he says. “It seemed like a real neighborhood type of school. Plus, it was affordable.”
“There are still people hurting. There are still problems out there. And we’ve got to end that. We’ve got to do what we can to break that cycle for good.”
Rist enrolled the following year. His choice of a major was operations management. He would be the first in his family to graduate from college.
“What I learned those years, not just in the classroom, but the whole thing—the people, the experiences, the culture of the place—I truly believe that without it, I wouldn’t be where I am today,” he says.
In his mid-60s now, and with four decades of mounting successes behind him, you might expect that Rist would be easing off the gas. Instead, he’s pushing harder. He’s targeting $100 million in yearly sales, which he believes is achievable in as little as three years. But not without some adjustments: As the company grows and customer demand increases, greater specialization will be required, and perhaps also a consolidation of space.
“You don’t run a $50-million company with 200 employees the same way you ran things when the company was half that size,” he says. “You’ve got to adapt as you grow; you’ve got to learn to adjust.”
Some CEOs would figure it out themselves. Rist’s choice, instead, was to go back to school. So here he is today, 40-plus years later, back at UMass Lowell—this time as an online student in the Manning School of Business’ MBA program. The course he’s currently taking seems made to order: Managing Organizational Change. “I’m learning so much, you wouldn’t believe—and probably as much from the other students as from the course itself. They’re from all over the world, many from China,” he says.
“We split into study groups; the challenges of expansion, the different types of change. It’s so relevant to everything that’s happening for me. And a lot of the others, wherever they’re from, are going through some of the same things. It’s been eye-opening.” More and more lately, there’s been a whole new slant to Rist’s life.
“I’m not the kind of guy to sit at home, and I’m not a good golfer,” he told a reporter late last year. “But doing things to help the community is something I feel really good about.”
He serves on the boards of seven local nonprofits, is past president of the Cape Coral Council for Progress and chaired a committee last year to raise the sales tax to help a struggling school system. Lately, together with his wife, Kim, he’s been active with the nonprofit Collier-Lee Honor Flight, which pays for the transport and escorting of elderly military veterans to Washington, D.C., to view the memorials of the wars in which they served. “You wheel them around Washington all day in a wheelchair, watch their faces looking at the things they fought for—one of the most amazing days of my life,” he says.
But most dear to Rist is what he sees as his mission with UMass Lowell—which dates back, he says, to his memories of the university, and the city, of 40 years ago.
“Lowell was in rough shape in those days. I knew people who were second- and third-generation unemployed—the mills were closed, there were no jobs, a lot of people were stuck. The city has come a long way; it’s most of the way back. But there are still people hurting. There are still problems out there. And we’ve got to end that. We’ve got to do what we can to break that cycle for good.
“That’s why I believe in programs like DifferenceMaker. They solve problems; they help people help themselves. That’s why I give, and why I share my story—to help people, however I can.”