“Guns and bombs won’t make the kinds of changes we need.”
When Susan Feaster, co-founder along with Mike Powers of the Monaco US Business Roundtable, approached Mike Yanney about the initiative, his interest was immediate. With an extensive background in business, specifically banking and education, he knew he could make a significant contribution.
Mr Yanney also understands that such forums are imperative in today’s political climate. “Dialogue has shrunk back to what it was before the Cold War and, as we’ve seen recently, guns and bombs are not going to make the kinds of changes we need. It’s not just about peace. The world is developing quickly with new opportunities appearing but these opportunities don’t work well if we’re shooting at one another.”
Mr Yanney’s commitment to improving education and philanthropy in general is nothing new, and he tells me that he believes that businesses have a responsibility to contribute back to society. Presently his number one charitable undertaking is improving his community of Omaha. In addition to sitting on several boards and forums for the betterment of his home state of Nebraska, in 2006 he founded the Building Bright Futures program. The goal of Building Bright Futures is to see that every Omaha-area student graduates from high school. To date the organization has provided tutoring and health care to those less advantaged and is presently focusing on improving early childhood education to areas most in need.
Education is something Mr Yanney is passionate about, and strives for its improvement. “I consider the upper twenty five per cent of our students as the best in the world. The bottom twenty five percent make up the worst we have ever seen and that’s what we need to work on.” Scholarships are part of the answer but he says so is listening to the youth of the country. “When I sit down and talk with students, I learn a lot from them. These forums are important not just for the students but for people like myself to learn.”
Mr Yanney’s educational drive stems from his mother, a Lebanese immigrant with only an eighth grade education. In high school, he was busy not only academically but with extra-curricular activities as well. He played football, was captain of the track team and was elected Nebraska’s No 1 Teen Leader. Part-time jobs like detasseling corn and selling minnows to a bait shop also kept him busy.
“I thought a lot about my future,” he reflects. “I was committed to my education and wanted to go to college. My mother was clear about that soon after my father died, when I was 11. She sat me down and told me not to worry because someday I would go to college. She always told me no one could ever take education away from me. I spent a lot of time with her and my family. I loved being with them.”
Mike Yanney heeded his mother’s advice and went to Kearney State Teachers College, which has since become part of the University of Nebraska. He worked his way through college while at the same time serving on the student council, president of his fraternity and staying on the honor roll. He graduated in 1955 with a degree in business and then went into the army to serve during the Korean War. His unit was sent to Korea but Mr Yanney was sent to Heidelberg, Germany. “I don’t know what happened there. I suppose I was lucky but to be honest, I felt bad, as I had trained with those guys for all that time and for some reason I was sent elsewhere. It was an amazing opportunity for me, though, to see the rebuilding efforts of Germany. It gave me a more global aspect of the world and deeply influenced my life.
“I was also able to travel all over Europe and it was the only time I’ve ever lived outside of Nebraska.”
With an eye on what he was going to do once out of the service, while in Germany Mr Yanney took correspondence courses through the American Institute of Banking. In 1960, he went to work for the National Bank of Omaha. Seventeen years later he began his own bank, then “three banks later”, in 1984, he founded America First Companies, which has become one of the largest private investment banks in the Midwest with over $3.6 billion in total assets. It has since become Burlington Capital Group and now at the age of 81, he still serves as chairman emeritus.
Under the High Patronage of H.S.H. Prince Albert, the Monaco US Business Roundtable Forum next June will discuss “The Importance of Sustained Dialogue between the Western and Eastern Worlds: A Public Peace Process”. Mike Yanney feels that veteran businessmen like himself and others participating can provide a unique insight to students.
“I used to be on the Board of Level 3, one the largest fibre optic companies worldwide. To think, in one second our voice can travel five or six times around the globe.
“The world is an extremely small place and there is no way of stopping the global economy. This means there are great prospects for young people today and I’m interested in forums like the US Monaco Business Roundtable which help young people develop these opportunities.”
Despite the problems with the American economy, Mike Yanney recognizes that American businessmen can offer insight to the next generation of entrepreneurs. “America is still the world’s strongest economy. Our democracy works well. We have control on corruption and our court system is fundamentally sound. We have a lot to offer and what better place to have the roundtable than in Monaco.”
Speaking by phone with Mr Yanney, he mentions he almost wasn’t able to make it into work today because of the black ice on the road. I ask him if that wasn’t a good enough excuse for taking the day off work. “No. It’s the challenges that are fun. Once you become a couch potato you might as well draw the curtains.”
A public peace process from the Monaco US Business Roundtable
- PJ Heslin