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Million Dollar Man: Donald Sturm is an expert at making money—and giving it away.

When the man whose name sits atop diplomas at the Sturm College of Law showed up at DU in 1955 to begin classes, the law school dean looked at him and blustered: “What are you doing here?”

Donald Sturm

Don Sturm was four months late for class.

Sturm may have said he was there so he could get out of the Army three months early.

Or that he chose law because he didn’t want to be a doctor, dentist or accountant.

Or because of nifty murder trials he’d stopped off to watch on the way home to Brooklyn after cruising through liberal arts courses at City College of New York.

Sturm doesn’t remember what he actually replied, only that it was the right answer. He had a letter of admittance to DU, military benefits, a 1947 Mercury he’d bought for $200 and driven from an Army base in Alabama, and an intellectual engine “revving” for the law.

“I was a class of one,” recalls Sturm, now a 76-year-old DU trustee. “But it worked out. I caught up. I went through in two years and two months.

“The GI Bill paid for tuition, fees, books, but you couldn’t live off it. So I worked. I took the bar exam in December 1957, found out I passed on Valentine’s Day 1958, finished course work a few weeks after that. I was sworn in and I left.”

Sturm was debt free but dollarless. Fifty years later, he sits at the head of a financial group that owns 42 banks with $2.2 billion in assets, employs more than 850 people and has loans out totaling $1.7 billion. He’s been on and off the Forbes list of the 400 richest Americans and has involved himself in so many businesses he can’t remember the number.

He earned a master of laws degree in taxation from NYU, litigated for the IRS across a nine-state region and earned his way to the vice chairmanship of Peter Kiewit Sons, one of the largest employee-owned companies in the nation. (Kiewit’s Colorado credits include the Eisenhower Tunnel, Glenwood Canyon and the T-Rex project in Denver.)

Sturm helped pull Continental Airlines out of bankruptcy, came an eyelash from owning the Denver Nuggets, Colorado Avalanche and Pepsi Center, and was instrumental in helping Colorado and other western states rebound from the savings and loan crisis of the 1980s and ’90s.

He runs a $60 million philanthropic foundation whose gifts, when combined with the charitable endeavors of his companies, provide about $4 million a year to communities across five states.

Sturm has given nearly $30 million to the University of Denver, where his name graces Sturm Hall, a major academic building that houses social sciences and humanities programs. His other DU namesake, the Sturm College of Law, enrolls more than 1,200 aspiring lawyers. He has served on the DU Board of Trustees for 16 years and in spring 2008 received the prestigious Evans Award for professional achievement and service to DU.

The kid from Brooklyn

Not bad for someone who calls himself “just a kid from Brooklyn.” For someone who grew up in a one-bathroom, ground-floor duplex that the family lived in to get a break on rent. For someone whose family cooked meals on the coal furnace in the basement, never took a vacation and couldn’t afford a car. For someone who grew corn in the backyard during World War II and didn’t learn to drive until he was 23.

But someone with a drive to excel, who plotted, sacrificed and pushed himself to do well, then went out and did it.

“Get good education from good schools,” Sturm urges. “Get good experience. Get into some professional activity. Invest your time, hard work and money. Work in something that doesn’t seem to be work, [something] that’s fun.”

And give back to society in ways where you can see the results.

“I think anybody could do what I did,” he says. “I really believe that.”

If only Sturm’s father, Mark, had been born under a luckier star.

“My father worked his heart out for his family,” Sturm says reverently. He was a “self-taught guy” who had emigrated from Austria to the U.S. as an 8-year-old raised by an aunt. He saved, invested and rose to prominence as a restaurant manager, then lost everything in the crash of 1929.

“I remember once he took me to Sheepshead Bay when I was 10 years old to show me property he once owned,” Sturm says. “He wound up working as a waiter. Until he died, that’s what he did. He hated what he did, but he did it to provide for his family.”

The elder Sturm also scraped together $50 a month to help his son through law school at DU. Decades later, dad’s sacrifice is a cobalt blue memory that can still redden Sturm’s no-nonsense eyes. The rich, stentorian voice with which he hammers together multimillion-dollar business deals quavers. The tough-guy image that people presume about him falls away.

“Don is completely devoted to his family and extended family,” says Susan Sturm, 25 years his junior and married to Sturm since 1987. The couple has two teenagers, and Sturm has two older children from a previous marriage.

“He gets that [devotion] from his father, who grew up with nothing and yet used so much of what little he had to take care of other family members,” Susan adds. “That’s a very deep, important part of Don: loving his family and helping them in all ways.”

The Sturms have helped more families than just their own. Some 100 families own homes today because of funding the couple provided. The Sturms have given money to fund 14 charter schools and helped libraries, the Children’s Hospital, Denver Art Museum, Boy Scouts of America and myriad charities in the states where they do business: Kansas, Missouri, Colorado, Wyoming and Arizona.

They’ve even created a religious support group called Judaism Your Way, which provides services and assistance to interfaith couples like the Sturms and to Jews who don’t wish to affiliate with area synagogues. Events the group ran for High Holy Days last year attracted 1,700 people.

“We talk a lot at the family dinner table about gifts we’re making and what the purpose of them is,” says Susan, a former Foreign Service brat who as a child lived in Peru and West Germany for a time and who spent three years with the Central Intelligence Agency after graduating with honors from Princeton. A savvy businesswoman, she serves as CFO of the holding company that controls the couple’s 42 banks.

“Our kids work every single summer,” she says, adding that they’ve exposed their children to poor villages in Kenya and hospitals in Costa Rica. They’ve even taken a field trip to the Brooklyn neighborhood where Don Sturm grew up.

“[Don] wanted his kids to see the circumstances that he grew up in, that [those circumstances] were much more hard-scrabble, much more hand-to-mouth than the way they’ve grown up.”

Building a banking empire

The turning point in Sturm’s humble past may have been in 1964 on a nondescript Midwestern morning in Nebraska. That was the day he found the answer to a $35 million problem and his career took off.

While working as an IRS attorney in Omaha, Sturm had caught the eye of Peter Kiewit, the highway construction mogul once dubbed by Forbes magazine “the Colossus of Roads.” Kiewit hired Sturm as a tax attorney and asked him to get the company out from under a $35 million tax deficiency the IRS said the company owed.

Sturm was 32.

“I woke up [that morning] and said, ‘Wow, is that right?’ I ran to the office to see if I was right, and I was. I thought about something that nobody else thought about.”

Sturm’s epiphany turned a $35 million obligation into a $5 million refund.

The IRS answered by retroactively revoking the ruling the young attorney had used as the basis for the reversal.

Sturm pushed back.

“It took a year to get them to revoke the revocation,” he says proudly. “Then they made the payment. I was king of the road.”

Being king brought greater responsibility at Kiewit and the freedom to go beyond taxes. It led to the chance to negotiate lucrative coal contracts and acquire and manage Fortune 500 level companies. Each became a real-world business experience that got Sturm’s feet wetter and better. The efforts also helped push Kiewit down the road to immense success.

The company didn’t forget. Kiewit had a long tradition of rewarding key employees by letting them buy shares of company stock. Sturm bought as much as he could. He borrowed money to buy stock. He bought a house fully financed so he could spend his money on stock.

“We had a cleaning lady who asked if it was against my religion to buy furniture,” he laughs. “I sacrificed quality of life to build a nest egg.”

The strategy paid handsomely.

Sturm’s ownership share eventually amounted to 11 percent of the company, which at the time he left in 1991 was making $400 million in his unit alone.

Eight years previous, Sturm had invested in his first bank, a small family owned operation in Macomb, Ill. It wasn’t lucrative, but it taught Sturm banking. Four years later, he bought a bigger bank in Cheyenne, Wyo.

When Kiewit decided to sell off Continental Group, a Fortune 500 company Sturm had acquired and managed and believed in, Sturm saw the profitable sale through, then cashed his chips.

He walked away with a lot of money — about $160 million, according to Forbes.

At the time, the nation’s banking system was a mess. Banks and savings and loans, also known as thrifts, were losing money or failing, investor confidence was teetering, government supervision was poor, and in some cases managers ended up in handcuffs.

The collapse of Silverado Savings and Loan by itself cost taxpayers $1.3 billion of the estimated $124.6 billion taxpayer bailout the federal government spent to resolve the crisis.

Sturm found himself in the middle of all this armed with a banking background, business experience, a reputation for honesty and a wad of cash.

“The deals were so wonderful you couldn’t pass them up,” Sturm recalls. “All the crappy loans I gave back to the government and they gave me cash — 100 cents on the dollar.

“I bought two failing banks, four failed thrifts and one failed bank in eight months.”

Sturm later bought one bank in Kansas City for $1 — “and I overpaid!”

The bank was failing, its shareholders wanted out and several people involved previously had gone to jail. They offered the shares to Sturm for $1. He took the offer, pumped in $5 million to keep things afloat and turned the bank around in two years. Today, the bank makes $4 million to $5 million annually and operates as Premier.

“Colorado was really flat on its rear end,” recalls Susan, who worked hand-in-glove with her husband. “There wasn’t a solvent bank in the state when we came in and started buying financial institutions … There were situations where we were the only bidder. They had a lot more to sell than there were people to buy.”

But like phoenixes rising from the ashes, the banks returned to health and began reinvesting in their communities, which Susan says has made the couple “pleased and proud.”

Along the way were some missteps. Sturm lost a lot of money in the WorldCom collapse, where at one time he owned 5 percent of the company, and in Level 3 stock, where his stake was nearly $600 million, according to Forbes. He’s had to fend off lawsuits aimed at his deep pockets, deflect untold schemes and solicitations, and settle a 1988 insider-trading dispute with the SEC from which he had never traded or profited.

But none of that deterred him from pursuing his three principal priorities: family, work and charity. Plus Nebraska football, Yankees baseball, Final Four basketball, fashionable ties and 20 laps in the pool nearly every day.

Among things nearest his heart is DU, which Sturm has served vigorously since former Chancellor Dan Ritchie recruited him for the Board of Trustees in 1992.

Today, Sturm’s drive is to raise money for DU scholarships, expand the number of donors, and improve the law school’s ranking and bar passage rate. He chairs the trustees’ Bar Passage Committee and has expressed strong feelings about the issue that haven’t always been well-received.

Unafraid to mince words, Sturm is pressuring the law school to accept stronger students, offer more financial aid, toughen standards, help students who struggle, emphasize excellence over opportunity, and tweak the curriculum to achieve greater business and international exposure.

“I’m sure people at the University, particularly at the law school, think I’m a pain in the ass,” he says with a laugh.

Susan Sturm contends that it’s just Don following his managerial instinct to walk inside the factory, roll up his sleeves and make things better.

“Don doesn’t see any point in warming a chair,” she says, emphasizing how proud of DU he is when he’s on campus and watching things hum.

“My concern in addition to rebuilding the campus is quality of education,” Sturm says. “The product is not a building, not a football field or a basketball court. The product is the education that you provide the student. At the end of the day, that’s the key.”


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