Home » All Sections » THE COST BENEFITS: A PRESIDENTIAL PROFILE — New JU President Tim Cost turns heads with plans for more student success, higher growth

THE COST BENEFITS: A PRESIDENTIAL PROFILE — New JU President Tim Cost turns heads with plans for more student success, higher growth

Try to capture Tim Cost’s attention with the old locker-room adage “There’s No ‘I’ in ‘Team’,” and you’re getting close to the strike zone.

How about “There’s No ‘I’ in ‘Students’ ”?

Now you’ve hurled one right down the pipe.

“From day one in this role, it’s been about the students,” said Cost, who became Jacksonville University’s 12th president Feb. 1, 2013.

He’s returned to his beloved alma mater where he excelled as a student athlete, and from which he launched a 32-year career in high-level executive posts at some of the largest and most influential global corporations.

“It’s an honor to be making decisions that can positively affect groups of people who love this University,” he said. “For me, the trigger is always whether a decision leads to helping students become the best-educated and best-positioned for success they can be.”

From shorter-term gains such as renewed cooperation from JU partners to upgrade campus grounds, plantings, walkways and landscaping at no cost to the school; to longer-term, high-profile projects such as a new College of Health Sciences building, a revitalized River House for students, faculty and alumni by Homecoming 2013 and a new lacrosse/football stadium complex; to more nuanced steps designed to boost student satisfaction through stronger programs and better extracurricular venues, the 53-year-old Cost is leading a charge with his business acumen and affable, energetic style to “put more gas into JU’s engine.”

Pres Cost Five Star Veterans CtrFrom humble beginnings in 1934, JU’s enrollment is now nearly 3,800 students. Academic majors are offered in more than 70 areas, signature programs are attracting nationwide notice, budgets have been balanced, and award-winning faculty are preparing the next generation of leaders. U.S. News & World Report has repeatedly recognized the University as one of “America’s Best Colleges.” In addition, there are now more than 24,000 JU alumni in the U.S. alone.

Many are seeing Cost as just the right person to raise the bar even higher, and they’ve noticed his tireless dedication to students and faculty as well:

From his mentor Dr. Frances Bartlett Kinne, JU past president and chancellor emeritus: “Three weeks after Tim Cost became President, he took a graduate and me for a cart ride around the entire campus. The President was the driver, and we became as excited as he when he described what he planned to do. It was obvious he had already inspired others, as the trees were being trimmed, and green grass was already growing in a former bare patch. But much beyond that, it was his attention to the students. He would stop the cart to speak to the students, and he was already calling many of them by name — really engaging them. It is exciting for me to see this great communication with students.”

From Dan Cost, who roamed campus with older brother Tim just recently: “You see this authenticity that comes through … when we stopped at the women’s lacrosse locker room after a game, they all came over, and you could see the sincerity in the interaction. They can see he cares about improving the school and making things better for them. There’s a real connection.”

From JU Trustee Chuck Wodehouse, who has worked for several years on the University’s pioneering $85 million ASPIRE comprehensive campaign that Cost chairs: “Some of us had gone out on a solicitation and friending swing to California last spring, where JU was playing a baseball game against USC. So what does Tim do? He says he’s going to shake hands with a few folks. He winds up not only talking up JU to the Dolphin folks on our third-base side, but to dozens and dozens of folks from Southern Cal down the first-base line. We said with this kind of energy, this campaign is going to take off. It made us all laugh. He blew us away.”

From Dr. Janet Haavisto, JU Director of University Honors and chair of the Faculty Assembly: “I have such great hopes, having worked with President Cost for only a few months. I look forward to JU being able to do so much more with our students, in our Study Abroad programs, scholarships, Honors programs and even improving the lifestyle here on campus. We are seeing more top students wanting to come to JU. We need this at this point in our development. People are coming up with funds to donate, and it’s because of the outreach that President Cost is doing.”

From sophomore Will Baxley, new Jacksonville University Student Alliance president: “I’ve gained so much insight into his vision just from him being so available to students. It’s incredible to see what he wants to get done here. I often joke with people who ask me what my plans will be as JUSA president, that one of my priorities is just to keep up with President Cost’s plans. A lot of things students have talked to me about, like better food or beautifying campus, he’s already aware of and highly involved in. I don’t have to worry about them getting solved, because under his new leadership I know he’s going to fix problems, and we’ll have a say in it.”

That new leadership is evident immediately, as Cost is busy taking action as he prioritizes goals:

  • Listen, listen and listen some more. Newly created Presidential Open Office Hours held weekly at convenient campus locations have been wildly popular, drawing overflow crowds, and they’re just part of an effort that has included being at as many events as possible and striking up conversations with as many students, faculty, staff and community members as he can. Cost will also be coming to cities all across the U.S. this summer to meet JU alumni, compare notes and give updates on University progress. The first is set for May 15 in Washington, D.C., with more to follow in New York City, Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago, Atlanta, Philadelphia and other locations. For updates on specific dates and locations, visit ju.edu/alumni and click on “Alumni Events.”
  • Create a better environment for students. Improving the school’s “curb appeal,” developing better study spaces, “blowing out” the River House with new meeting and entertainment space, a new deck and more amenities to make it a popular gathering spot for faculty and students, luring one of the country’s most popular food chains to the grounds (the University isn’t announcing the name just yet), upgrading the Nellie’s dining area to make it more inviting and bringing in more major events such as the recent Florida Georgia Line concert at Strom Amphitheater are just a few ways to keep students fully engaged, addressing the needs they’ve been quick to mention.
  • Elevate the school’s reputation. Cost is looking beyond the current competition and seeks to put JU’s status and recognition in the same league as well-respected private institutions such as Furman, Stetson, Rollins, Elon, Davidson and Wake Forest. Such ascension is part of a plan to leverage great JU faculty to raise the academic profile, and to make the school “slightly larger.” Investing in faculty support and development, technology and partnerships will be key contributors to that improvement.
  • Attract more scholarship support. Raising the school’s endowment in future years to at least $100 million from its current $36 million will help, and more creative naming and matching award opportunities – especially for alumni donors — are all designed to attract and retain the best and brightest on the campus.
  • Open the throttle on the Aspire campaign. The funds toward ASPIRE’S $85 million goal are more than half raised, and, as Cost likes to put it, “now it’s time to go.” He applauds former JU President Kerry Romesburg’s ability to stabilize the University, and frequently notes that it is time to invest. Signs are up announcing the new $10 million College of Health Sciences building, a state-of-the-art floating classroom and dock are on line for this summer at the Marine Science Research Institute, dedicated space is being developed for the University’s hundreds of military veteran students, a softball hitting facility is in the works, and plans for other upgrades to the quality and quantity of campus teaching and studying space are being hammered out.
  • Tell the JU story. Speaking to numerous organizations, donors, corporate executives, community and alumni groups and others is just the first step in Cost’s plan to raise the University’s profile locally and nationally, to attract many more investors and reignite the school’s alumni base. Cost has already met with many of the University’s staunchest supporters and most important affinity groups, including alumni, athletics, honors, veterans, parents and key faculty leadership – individually and in groups.
  • Make more community connections. Cost wants people in the region to really “see what they haven’t seen” at the University, and that means inviting them on campus and engaging with them. Already, JU has announced a partnership with the City of Jacksonville to host the 2013 First Coast Kids Triathlon May 4 and 5, the country’s largest kid’s triathlon. More than 2,000 youth athletes, 350 volunteers and 6,000 spectators are expected. Meanwhile, two college prep/team-building programs for high school students will be on campus this summer: Learn2Earn, an annual initiative of Jacksonville Mayor Alvin Brown, a 1985 and 1989 JU alumnus, is expanding from one week to three in June and July, and the free “4th and 1” football and SAT/ACT prep camp put on by the Jacksonville Jaguars is on campus June 16-19.

Small-town values: Never be “too cool to care”

Cost wants to do it all with a genuine desire to get things done with everyone’s input. His mix of animated leadership and sincere empathy has developed over time, JU’s new president says, and he owes much of that combination to a handful of influential people in his life.

Without them, the force of nature that is Tim Cost might well have turned out to be, well, a lot more force, and a lot less nature.

Growing up in the Syracuse suburb of Camillus, N.Y., Cost reflected the small-town values of hard work, thinking of others, giving back and “trying to make things better” instilled by his positive, nurturing parents and three close siblings (Lynn, 60, Randy, 55, and Dan, 49). Time in the middle-class household wasn’t spent lounging in front of a TV or gabbing on the phone, but in studying, leading in sports or “knocking around” with friends.

Greek/Irish father Peter Cost, who died two years ago at age 79, was an “athletic, alpha-male, a self-made man” who built his Johnson Restaurant Supply into a thriving company. “All-Italian” mother Yolanda was a steady, loving presence as a homemaker.

Peter Cost could loom larger than life for the four kids. One day, at age 12, Cost had just won a big sporting event. After the hoopla, his dad led him down into their concrete cellar. He ran some cold water into a metal bucket, put young Tim’s arm into it, shook it back and forth and pulled it out.

Look at the water as it becomes calm again, the older Cost said.

“ ‘See it now … even though you were just splashing all over it,’ he told me. ‘That’s what it’s like when you get involved in something, Tim: There’s a lot of commotion, but as soon as you’re gone it looks just like it did before.’ His point was that I should be aware of my environment. You can make it better, but don’t think it’s yours. Or that it revolves around just you.

“And that’s really become part of my approach: You can try to help improve all you’re involved in, but don’t ever be too cool to care.”

Then there was the high school guidance counselor who nudged Cost not to forget about the same-age classmates he might have left behind as he advanced to play on sports teams with athletes two and three years older than himself.

And, of course, there was class leader Stephanie Lake, now Stephanie Cost, his wife of 30 years, the “smartest, best-looking, funniest” girl at his large high school, whose empathy and crystal-clear observations about human nature (one particular comment about “living your faith” hit him like a line-drive to the chest) captured Cost’s attention and heart.

Artis, Fran and a “wide-open spigot” at JU

tim cost receptionBut it was at Jacksonville University, where he began classes in 1977 at age 18 on “200 acres of the most beautiful stuff I’d ever seen,” that the possibilities for his future professional career began to come into focus for him.

“This was the most wide-open spigot of my life in terms of making my own calls, figuring out my own focus and pace,” Cost said. “It had this really attractive combination of allowing for complete independence, but with a comfortable, nurturing feeling where the people were smart, well-meaning … and the professors were interested in your welfare and potential.”

From cold upstate New York he’d heard of this small, private university with a highly ranked baseball program, in a state where the family had vacationed frequently, with academic and athletic scholarships that made the tuition expenses doable – and an NCAA basketball legend named Artis Gilmore.

“No question, Artis made a real difference because of the notoriety he brought JU, in an era with no ESPN, no Google, no smartphones and almost nothing on national TV about faraway colleges,” Cost said.

It’s a fortunate turn of events, as Cost now welcomes Gilmore as one of his right-hand people, advising him as Special Assistant to the President.

For his part, Gilmore is impressed.

“His work ethic is amazing, the way he’s just stepped up, and it’s not about glory and attention,” Gilmore said. “He has a desire to make a difference. A number of people have said, Tim, you’re going to burn yourself out, and his response is ‘No way, that’s how I’ve worked my whole career, and that’s what I can bring to JU.’ And I’ve seen it already, the way he’s taking time with students, finding out their needs and what we can do to help them.”

JU is also the place where Cost first encountered the dynamic Dr. Kinne, now 95, then president of the University, with whom he now has dinner frequently and talks every week.

“The students saw her everywhere,” said Cost. “We were impressed by this outgoing, energetic, charismatic person who spoke to everyone, people serving the food at events, the students, the staff … I just hadn’t seen a person throwing themselves into the well-being of everybody else like that. I was taken with her compassion and with how she handled herself. I thought then, ‘Wow, we are really being led.’ To this day, she is just a remarkable leader.”

Cost has openly borrowed lessons from Kinne’s book, and during his first months in office has been regularly getting out of his office, making it to almost every corner of campus. He recently described this initial leadership period, to roaring applause at a student scholarship luncheon, as “the most enjoyable of my 32-year career, bar none.”

From excitedly exchanging views at his weekly Open Office Hours; to physically pulling aside wide-eyed students at a February campus job expo to hook them up with eager corporate recruiters; to awing JU performers by showing up at numerous concerts and plays; to sitting in the back of Davis College of Business classes; to testing JU’s new aviation simulator; to shooting skeet with coaching from the Varsity Shooting Team; to frequent noon-time lunches in a booth at the Riverview Café at the Kinne Center; to playing proud and vocal spectator alongside parents, alums and fans at JU Athletics events of every type, you’d have to be holed up in the basement archives of Swisher Library to not have bumped into the new president lately. (Maybe not even there; Cost’s already dropped in for a long walk to revisit his old stomping grounds.)

Part of the interaction is clearly forward-looking, and part is re-energized from memories of JU, his recollections jogged by each hallway and pathway he rediscovers on campus, by each former professor he bumps into again.

The great memories aren’t hard to come by: As a freshman, the right-hander making his first NCAA appearance and pitching the only 9-inning no-hitter in Jacksonville University history; refereeing intramurals and playing pick-up basketball games; a Resident Assistantship on the “basketball floor” of McGehee Hall as a sophomore; later, entertaining at his place at Century 21 Apartments on Atlantic Boulevard with teammates Rick Scheetz and Ralph Albano; throwing himself into his studies; and bending his focus on liberal arts courses toward business subjects after becoming exposed to economics, marketing, advertising, finance, accounting and more.

Vince Narkiewicz, now chairman of the Marketing and International Business Department at JU, had a huge impact once Cost started picking up the professor’s insights on customers, markets and leadership (“I was finally buying what he was selling,” said Cost). He combed through Forbes, Fortune, Advertising Age and BusinessWeek at the library in his spare hours, after baseball practice.

“Tim was part of a group of students at that time who went on to become very successful,” Narkiewicz said. “He told me at a JU lacrosse game recently how influential I was for him, which was flattering and a bit embarrassing. Now to see him being so involved, and in service to this institution, with deep ties to JU and a diverse business background, he brings an awful lot to the table.”

Bringing home listening, business skills to serve

An eclectic corporate background it is. Hitting the ground running after graduation, working out a mutual plan with Stephanie to “see where we could take all this,” Cost launched a three-decade juggernaut of a career, adding to his academic credentials along the way with an MBA in Finance and Economics from the William E. Simon Graduate School of Business at the University of Rochester.

He used an untiring discipline and focus on teamwork and performance to rise to senior management positions at global companies including Eastman Kodak, Bristol-Myers Squibb, ARAMARK, Pharmacia/Pfizer, Wyeth and PepsiCo. He developed sophisticated skills in marketing, strategy, public policy, capital markets, crisis management, investor relations, government affairs, business development, philanthropy, brand communications, customer outreach, mergers and acquisitions, regulatory affairs and corporate social responsibility.

Learning how to bounce back in the early going after “getting my butt kicked” by gaffes borne of inexperience, going head to head with his corporation’s chairman to argue against a possible acquisition, spending months helping protect a famous and powerful CEO from a potential shareholder and media firestorm… from those experiences and many more, Cost learned plenty, including what he terms his “biggest lesson by far” as a leader:

“I try to really drill down into an opportunity – and this discipline took me awhile to fine-tune – and then walk around that issue from the perspective of each constituent it affects. Get their input, consider their incentives. It may now be called shared governance, but it’s always worked best in my mind as shared leadership. You have to have the guts to make decisions, for sure, but it helps enormously to look at it from all viewpoints. I guess I didn’t get a powerful ‘worry’ gene, and so I enjoy making decisions every day. Bringing in others … and really listening to their input … that makes decisions clearer and more rewarding for everyone.”

That’s something that Dan Bryant, a colleague of Cost’s at PepsiCo and now Chairman of Public Policy at the prestigious Covington & Burling law firm in Washington, has seen time and time again.

“Tim is clear-eyed, strategic and very insightful of trends and looking around the corner. He’s a gifted leader in the way he involves people and then positions them to succeed, pulling them together,” Bryant said. “He’s not a yeller, and there are plenty of them in the corporate world. He’s unfailingly courteous, even at a thousand miles an hour.”

With the caring attitude comes a cool head and firm business sense that will help guide JU as it moves from its position of stability to a new growth era, Bryant added.

“He’s a great competitor who doesn’t like to lose, and let’s face it, higher education is a competitive field these days. Tim will be an untiring advocate for Jacksonville University. He’s got great vision. Quite frankly, about the only thing I’ve seen that would come hard to Tim Cost would be throwing a left-handed curveball. Other than that, he’s gifted and works hard. It’s a great combination for everyone there to have working in their favor.”

A “powerhouse” partner ready to help JU

Always in partnership during his career was Stephanie, helping raise their kids as Cost sometimes commuted two hours each way to and from work, starting her own business and helping run charitable groups.

Stephanie Cost
Stephanie Cost

Ask Cost about her attributes, and you’ll quickly uncover descriptors like “powerhouse,” “dynamo,” “self-aware” and “spiritual.” Ask about her impact on his life and you trigger one of those few moments when he’s nearly at a loss for words, gazing out his third-floor Howard Building office window, pausing, clearing his throat, and finally saying: “She’s just a wonderful woman … who’s taught me so much about really thinking about others.”

The two began dating in high school and now have two grown children, daughter Melanie, 26, a public affairs/communications executive at CSX, and son Drew, 24, who works in management for Gatorade after years as a pro soccer player. The family has always loved sports, vacationing and creating experiences together, and especially seeing live music (Cost beams about attending at least a dozen Mark Knopfler, Bruce Springsteen, Eagles and U2 concerts, but is quick to mention John Butler, Robert Randolph, the Black Keys, Nas and electronic dance music dee-jay Avicii as acts he’s picked up on from his kids.)

For Stephanie, the move to Jacksonville after a lifetime based in the Northeast is one more chance for them to take on a new adventure, and to pursue their common desire to help people achieve their full potential. She’s put her passion to work as a small business founder and owner of an interior design business, and as chairman and founder of Caritas, a West Chester, Pa.-based philanthropy group. Among other pursuits, she is also particularly active on the board of Wings for Success, which helps disadvantaged women transition into the business world.

Asked about her own plans, she said she’ll continue becoming acquainted with JU and the broader community, then invest herself in the University, non-profit world and other activities.

“We are willing to uproot ourselves to take on new challenges, and I’m in this 110 percent,” she said. “We’ve always supported each other’s dreams. And this one, it’s a culminating experience where we can follow a passion to help young people and the surrounding community.”

With two successful children building their lives and careers, the Costs have seen firsthand the opportunities and challenges in front of college-age adults as they strive to meet their own goals in a global economy.

“Tim sees the enormous potential to help at JU,” she said. “Whether helping make the University better overall or helping one young person feel special and excel, that’s what makes this so compelling to us … it’s an invitation to serve.”

“Born leader,” team player ready to “bring it” for JU

It’s a zeal not lost on Matt Kane, CEO of Greenshades Software and one of JU’s younger Trustees.

“His passion for JU oozes out of him,” Kane said. “It’s all over his face, and that cuts into a potential partner. And with his consensus style of leadership, that just fits well with academia, because even though he brings a business mindset, he’s not about autocratic leadership. This is no dictatorship. It’s about being in that room and helping students. That’s what lights him up and will make him a great president.”

Cost, on the other hand, doesn’t talk about being a great president. He’d rather be a great motivator, great ambassador, great mentor and great servant to JU.

“Can I bring more investment to JU? Can I bring the business community and others in as partners? Can I invest in faculty and students and staff? Can I upgrade our physical surroundings and programs? Can I help enhance our reputation? I’m comfortable with my ability to help do those things and I’m willing to devote that time and energy to Jacksonville University.

“That’s just how I feel about this place.”

Fran Kinne doesn’t need to be sold on that, that’s for sure.

“He tells me he learned a lot about leadership from me, but he is a born leader,” she said. “He knows that behind him is always a team. He knows when you have that level of energy, you have to give it away and don’t expect anything in return. It is a complete dedication to giving of yourself to others. Giving is what life is about, and that shapes his philosophy.

“Our cart ride around the campus confirmed what I already knew. Tim Cost is our great leader. You will surely notice what happens to JU in this next step of progress. And, don’t doubt it, he will make it fun.”

— Phillip Milano