IT WAS SUNDAY, APRIL 20, 1969, and Cornell University senior Thomas W. Jones was prepared to die for a cause. It was the cause of the times: the fight for justice, inclusion and self-determination. Specifically? It was about black power. In an effort to break the school's resistance to their demands for an African-American studies program, black students had seized Cornell's Willard Straight Hall, armed themselves, and refused to leave the building until the administration was willing to negotiate.
Once inside, the student leaders lost control. That's when a reluctant Jones took center stage, making tough decisions on tactical moves and mapping out negotiation points that forced the university to listen.
Jones was the last student to leave the building that day, holding a rifle in his right hand, the other raised in a clenched fist--a symbol of defiance, solidarity and victory. It was that image that was blazed across the cover of Newsweek magazine--a symbol of just how far the student movement of the sixties had come.
Despite his dramatic exit, Jones, focused leadership resulted in a peaceful release of the student union. And equally important, his perseverance helped establish Cornell's renowned Africana Studies and Research Center, one of the nation's leading institutions of black studies.
When asked about the incident on the eve of the 25th anniversary of the Straight Takeover, Jones just answers in his own quiet, thoughtful way: "I did what I had to do."
DETERMINED TO DELIVER
As president and chief operating officer of the Teachers Insurance Annuity Association-College Retirement Equities Fund (TIAA-CREF)--the world's largest pension fund with $130-plus billion in assets--and a trustee of Cornell's governing board, Jones has built quite an impressive career doing what he felt was right.
Sitting in his elegant corner office high above the chaos of midtown Manhattan, Jones speaks easily about his career, his company and the futures of both. He has pulled on his suit jacket for the interview, his hands are freshly manicured, his shoes shine. Jones looks like the type of man he is: disciplined, intellectual, honest, intuitive. Always diplomatic and politically savvy, he doesn't hedge or shy away from tough questions or controversial issues. He is neither pretentious nor arrogant, but he is very proud, and with good reason.
During his five years at TIAA-CREF, Jones has been at the very center of moving the 76-year-old financial giant to where it is now--in a position that is not only dominant, but competitive and progressive, offering innovative products and superior customer service. (The Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association is the nation's third largest insurer, and the College Retirement Equities Fund stock account is the world's largest managed equity fund, based on assets under management, and is more than twice the size of Fidelity's Magellan Fund. TIAA-CREF is a non-profit pension fund.)
In recent years, the competition--mostly in the form of mutual funds--has been muscling in on TIAA-CREF's formerly untouchable market. While the advantages of longevity and consistently high performance are secure with TIAA-CREF's 1.7 million existing shareholders, they are aging. And those in line to follow them, incoming academics and staffers at the nation's 5,000-plus colleges, universities, independent schools and related nonprofit educational organizations, are a tough sell in a universe where competitors with names like Fidelity, Vanguard and Prudential have much greater visibility.
Beyond that, customers are demanding--and expecting-more than ever before in the way of products, options and responsiveness. Their mandate: Deliver, or we'll find a company that will.
Though he may become the second African-American ever to run a Fortune 100 service company (Clifton Wharton Jr., TIAA-CREF's chairman emeritus, was the first), Jones insists it is this mandate that motivates him, not the prospect of someday running the company. "My focus is on being an excellent COO so that I can be considered for CEO not just here, but at other major companies as well."
A FRESH FACE
Tom Jones came to TIAA-CREF already a standout...