When it comes to matters of money, it’s hard to find anyone more savvy or successful than James Tyree ’78, M.B.A. ’80. Under his leadership as chairman and CEO, Mesirow Financial has flourished to become the largest independent financial services firm in Chicago. The company manages $40 billion in assets and reported $526 million in revenue at the end of fiscal year 2010.
And yet late last year Tyree made a personal investment that had his friends, peers, media commentators, and even a percentage of the general public wondering what he was thinking. He bought the Sun-Times Media Group Inc. out of bankruptcy, saving the Chicago Sun-Times and its sister publications from pending demise.
“‘Why in the world would you do that?’ I heard that question a lot,” Tyree said, and with good reason. Newspapers across the country are collapsing, hit hard by the nation’s recession and a steady decline in readership numbers as the Internet offers news on demand for free.
The Media Group listed $479 million in assets and $801 million in liabilities when filing for bankruptcy in March of last year. Tyree assembled private investors who formed Sun-Times Media Holdings, LLC, and successfully bid $25 million for the 58 suburban Chicago papers and websites, including the Chicago Sun-Times.
“It’s a media company, not a newspaper,” Tyree said, explaining that the investment team focused on content. Members pursued the deal under Tyree’s leadership with the belief that “there is tremendous opportunity and untapped potential” in the news business. They saved more than 1,800 jobs, as well as a legendary Chicago institution.
“There is high interest in high quality news that is very locally focused. It’s critical for the community, whether it be sports, news, or just entertainment,” Tyree said. “The problem is that the business model has evolved imperfectly and has to change. Content must become more mobile and interactive, and the print must merge with that. We need to create a new model. Status quo is no longer an option.”
Tyree knows the transformation will be a painful process, but sees no limit to what the future holds. He conveys his optimism despite the industry’s current struggles, comparing the anxiety surrounding newspapers now to what was felt more than a century ago as automobiles rolled onto U.S. roads.
“It was sad to see the horse and buggy go, but if you’re in the business of transportation you know that business has continued to flourish.”
The analogy reveals much about Tyree, who brings a common sense approach to mega-business deals. He has an innate gift to comprehend the big picture, and the courage to take calculated risks. Add his humor and work ethic to a love of life after facing death, and it’s no wonder the kid once ostracized evolved into a man intent on helping others.
“I grew up dirt poor and hungry. I was the kid from the broken home that other kids weren’t allowed to play with,” Tyree said, recalling his childhood on Chicago’s South Side. The youngest of seven, he and his mother shared a one-bedroom apartment during his high school years.
Too optimistic and driven to be defeated, Tyree was determined to get a college degree. Long before graduating from high school he was applying for financial aid and working various jobs to build a college fund. He took community college classes and tested out of courses to save money, making it possible for him to enroll at Illinois State as a sophomore.
He tried to play basketball and initially planned on a physical education degree. But Tyree also had enough experience from working retail in high school and at Bloomington’s Eastland Mall as an undergraduate to know he was good in the business world. Before long he was pursuing a business administration major with a concentration in finance. He also completed minors in accounting and economics.
“ISU was spectacular. Very few people could take advantage of a place from an academic standpoint as I did. I searched out the hardest professors and found the greatest opportunities,” Tyree said.
He finished in three years, staying during summer terms to keep his job at Campus Recreation, where he started by checking hand stamps as students entered. He rose to become the student director. With the help of faculty, Tyree applied to graduate schools, including Harvard and Stanford. He stayed two weeks at Indiana University before returning to Illinois State’s M.B.A. program.
“They cut the financial assistance I needed, so I packed up and moved back to ISU,” Tyree said. He went to work as a graduate assistant at Hamilton-Whitten halls, and soon became a full-time hall manager in Watterson Towers.
The downside to the promotion was a restriction that he could take no more than six hours of classes while working the job. “I snuck into more, including a CPA review,” Tyree admitted. He passed the exam, earned his M.B.A., and plunged into a job search.
“I wrote hundreds of letters,” Tyree said, revealing that he “does everything in extremes.” With job offers in New York, Indiana, and Chicago, he chose a research analyst position at Mesirow Financial.
“I showed up on my first day wearing a J.C. Penney suit that I bought for $49. It had a reversible vest. Since I had to allocate what little money I had, I bought boots so I could still wear my white gym socks,” he recalled. “I had $1.69 for my lunch, which was a cheeseburger, fries, and a soda.”
That was 1980. Tyree never left the company and in the 30 years since has worked his way to the top while battling diabetes so severe it nearly took his life. His heart has stopped, he’s been temporarily blinded, and he has no feeling below his knees. A kidney and pancreas transplant nearly four years ago proved miraculous.
“I never knew what it felt like to feel well,” Tyree said. At 53 he is more energized than ever as he runs a firm that includes a business ranked in the nation’s top 30 independent insurance consultants, with more than $1.5 billion in premium volume.
Founded in 1937, Mesirow Financial has become a multi-asset class money manager of assets for institutions and an investment advisor for private clients. With $300 million in firm capital, the employee-owned firm has remained consistently profitable, even during the recent economic turmoil.
One reason is the company’s purposeful diversification into four main divisions of investment management, global markets, insurance services, and consulting. Another is the commitment of the 1,200 employees in offices around the world. Tyree values their expertise so much that he became a client to complete the Sun-Times deal.
“The secret is you’ve got to work with great people and lead by example,” Tyree said. And he does, consistently putting in 14-hour days that still include time for his wife, Eve, and their children: Jessica, 11; and 9-year-old twins, Joseph and Matthew.
He indirectly nurtures myriad others as well through a strong commitment to give of his time and money, especially through his work with the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation International for more than two decades. Tyree chaired a $1 billion campaign for the organization that is working to find a cure for the disease.
He has been on more than 50 corporate, civic, and not-for-profit boards. Education remains critically important to Tyree, who served a 10-year term as chairman of the Board of City Colleges of Chicago by Mayor Daley. The organization oversees seven colleges and more than 121,000 students. He’s also chaired the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce for three years.
“I get up everyday smiling. I have been blessed so many different times that I am driven to help,” Tyree said. “I am the sum total of everybody I meet. I emulate the good and forget the bad.”
He counts those he met at Illinois State as among the best, and remains loyal to the University. A Distinguished Alumni Award recipient, he sits on the Foundation board and is a donor. He is a member of the College of Business Hall of Fame as well, and a strong advocate of the college.
Tyree returned to campus in 2009 as the Business Week keynote speaker, eager to encourage students to learn how to learn and then build on their “spectacular education.” He used his own life experiences to attest that Illinois State students have the strong foundation needed to walk into the workplace with confidence, courage, and the belief that there is no limit to what tomorrow can bring.