Bill Cummings Discusses Entrepreneurship, and Giving Back, with 200 Business Students

Bill Cummings signs a copy of his book Image by Ed Brennen
Bill Cummings signs a copy of his book while business student Josiah Gennell lends a hand at University Crossing.

By Ed Brennen

Boston-area real estate magnate Bill Cummings, whose charitable foundation has nearly $2 billion in assets, shared lessons in entrepreneurship and philanthropy with 200 Manning School of Business students during a recent visit to University Crossing’s Moloney Hall.

The event was hosted by the Jack M. Wilson Center for Entrepreneurship with support from the student organization RENA (the Real Estate Network Association).

“It was great to have such a prominent figure give his time to students and speak about his journey,” said RENA Co-President Kostya Vostrikov, a sophomore electrical engineering major from Beverly.

Each of the students in attendance received a copy of Cummings’ recently published memoir, “Starting Small and Making It Big.” The book details the Medford native’s journey from hustling entrepreneur to founder of Cummings Properties, a real estate company he started with a single property in 1970 that’s grown to 11 million square feet of commercial space in 11 communities.

Bill Cummings laughs while he's introduced at UCrossing Image by Ed Brennen
Visiting speaker Bill Cummings, center, smiles while being introduced by friend Paul Wennik at Moloney Hall.

“Once you get to a certain age, you want to pass on information. And this seems like a great way to do it,” said the 81-year-old Cummings, who spent an hour discussing real estate with a small group of RENA members and Manning School faculty members before his formal talk – and then stuck around afterward to sign dozens of books.

Ranked 43rd this year on Forbes Magazine’s Top Givers List, Cummings and his wife, Joyce, have donated more than $225 million since establishing the Cummings Foundation in 1986. In 2011, they signed The Giving Pledge, a campaign started by Bill Gates and Warren Buffett to encourage wealthy individuals to contribute a majority of their wealth to philanthropic causes. The Cummingses also award 100 grants of $100,000 each year to local nonprofits through their foundation’s “$100K for 100” program.

“I like the phrase ‘random acts of kindness’ – things that we can all do,” Cummings said when asked how students just starting out in the world can give back to others. “Get yourself in the habit of setting some money aside and quietly supporting things. Participate in organizations and small, community activities. Become a board member or a coach. It’s all very important.”

Cummings was the second self-made billionaire philanthropist to take the stage at Moloney Hall this semester. Two weeks earlier, Oprah Winfrey held a master class there for 200 students during her campus visit.

Bill Cummings poses for a photo with student members of RENA Image by Ed Brennen
Student members of the Real Estate Network Association pose for a photo with, from front left, Paul Wennik, Jack Wilson and Bill Cummings.

“I’ve never met a billionaire before. He’s so genuine and kind,” said RENA Co-President Greg Montemurro, a sophomore business administration major who believes Cummings’ story strikes a special chord with many UML students.

“A lot of kids here are blue-collar, first-generation college students,” Montemurro said. “Seeing him rise to where he is, while giving so much back, really changes your perspective on things.”

Cummings, who was introduced by longtime friend (and UMass Amherst alum) Paul Wennik, shared several Lowell connections with students.

After graduating from Tufts University with a business degree in 1958, Cummings’ first job was as a traveling salesman for Vick Chemical Company, maker of Vicks VapoRub. It was a popular job at the time, he said, thanks to a book released a year earlier by Lowell’s own Jack Kerouac called “On the Road.”

“Jack Kerouac had peddled Vicks VapoRub, which he included in the book, so everyone wanted to work for Vick Chemical Company,” said Cummings, who spent seven months on the road himself as a salesman.

Bill Cummings speaks with a small group of students and faculty Image by Ed Brennen
Bill Cummings talks real estate with a small group of students and faculty at University Crossing before his guest lecture.

“As a kid just graduated from college, I had a magnificent time. I learned how important it is to get out there and gain experience,” said Cummings, who told students to make the most of every job, even if it proves to be the wrong choice. “Don’t just throw your hands up and walk away. This exposure to different businesses, to know how other companies operate, will teach you a lot.”

While Cummings had never heard the word “entrepreneur” until a French class in college, he always knew he wanted to run his own business. He got his chance in 1964 when he bought Old Medford Fruit Punch for $4,000. At the time, the company sold its product primarily to catering firms, although it did have accounts with Harvard Law School and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which only served it in punch bowls at special events.

But Cummings learned of a company in California that sold refrigerated stainless steel dispensers with 14-gallon tanks. He bought two and set them up in a dining hall at MIT, where they were an instant hit with students. Soon, Old Medford Fruit Punch was available in dining halls at 375 colleges and universities up and down the East Coast – including Lowell Technological Institute.

“He’s the quintessential entrepreneur,” Wilson said.

Besides avoiding credit card debt (“There’s nothing amoral about it, but it’s pretty amoral that people get suckered into doing it”), Cummings said the best advice he had for students is to find mentors while in college.

“If you can find someone who cares about teaching you something, treasure that,” he said. “You have professors and instructors here who care about that. Remember who the people are who really give a damn about you.”