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Lifelong Advice - Executive Forum has offered students career guidance for half a century

By Tim Newton

Jane Brock-Wilson vividly recalls her time as a student host for Executives in the Classroom, taught by Professor J. Fred McLimore.

“Back then, commercial flights came into Purdue, and we would go to the airport and pick up the speakers each week,” Brock-Wilson says. “We were by their sides from beginning to end of their trips, and it was amazing to have access to people of that caliber.

“Fred was charismatic and jovial, and he was great with students. But he was very meticulous about who was coming in. These were his relationships, and we were all on our very best behavior because we knew it was important to him.”

“We were by their sides from beginning to end of their trips, and it was amazing to have access to people of that caliber.”

In 1973, McLimore had decided to overhaul the course he previously taught, called Practices & Philosophies of American Business, into a more interactive experience for students. He invited guest speakers to campus each week to discuss their roles and career paths, renamed the course — which became the Krannert Executive Forum in 1981 and the Executive Forum in 2023 — and created a unique experience that now celebrates its 50th birthday.

Brock-Wilson, a Lafayette native, took full advantage of her access to top-flight executives, including the leaders of Chrysler, TRW, Exxon and Dow Chemical, among other corporate giants. The 1978 industrial management major graduated with offers from Massachusetts to California, many as a result of her participation in the class. She began her career at Raytheon before moving to Bain & Co., and eventually to Berkshire Partners, where she rose to managing director.

She made the lead gift for what became the Brock-Wilson Center for Women in Business, which strives to empower women to become confident leaders and prepares women and men to excel in a diverse workforce. Brock-Wilson returned to campus in spring 2023 to help celebrate the 50th year of the course. It was her second time in front of the class, with the first being in 1997.

“I was seven or eight months pregnant at the time,” she says. “I thought it was a great thing for the students to see that I was pregnant and a mom and still working.”


In addition to speaking to the forum class, Jane Brock-Wilson had dinner with several of the female students who are a part of the Center for Women in Business, named for her.


Different strokes

Another spring speaker, Gary Lehman (BSIM ’74), also took the course in the 1970s. The retired chairman of Oerlikon Fairfield and current Purdue Trustee says lessons from the class have remained with him over the years.


Shawn Taylor, left, and Gary Lehman, both members of Purdue’s Board of Trustees, came together to speak to Executive Forum students in spring 2023.

“I still have the evaluations that I wrote and some of the notes of some of the speakers,” Lehman says. “The variety of leaders that we had — big companies, small companies, older people, younger people — showed me that there are lots of recipes for successful management.

“Why do you think there have been a whole lot of books written about leadership? Because there’s no common formula. Everybody’s got an idea of what makes it work.”

Another Purdue Trustee, Shawn Taylor (BSM ’82), has spoken in the class three times, in 2001, 2013, and 2023. During his 2013 talk, which students rated the top presentation of that semester, the former owner of 33 Taco Bell franchises and limited partner of the Houston Astros concluded his remarks with an admonition: “No whining to your boss.”

The variety of speakers in the class each semester is aimed at connecting with students on some level, leaving them with advice they can carry through their careers. Josh Zuerner (BSIM ’03), president and CEO of internet service provider Joink, recalls the tip given by one speaker.

“He said he didn’t get out of his car and go into the office until he had a smile on his face, because he set the tone and the culture in the organization. He said, ‘I’ll be honest. There are some days when that takes me 10 minutes, but I don’t go in until I can set the tone. That stuck with me ever since.’”

Nobody’s perfect

The course has drawn its share of big names. USA Today founder Al Neuharth was an early guest. Indiana Senator Richard Lugar spoke to the class in the mid-1970s, although his return trip to Indianapolis was delayed by a major snowstorm. Despite no connection to Purdue, Chick-fil-A founder S. Truett Cathy made an appearance in 2006.


Business students enjoy the privilege of spending a little extra time with Michael Calderon while they escorted him around the school throughout his day on campus.

Susan Bulkeley Butler (BSIM ’65, HDR ’99), the first female partner at Andersen Consulting (later Accenture), made two appearances in the 1980s. And there has been at least one family affair — Stan Calderon (BSIM ’68) spoke in 1990 as president and CEO of Bank One, Lafayette, and in 1996 as president and CEO of Bank One, Chicago. His son, Michael, senior vice president of programming and digital media at the Big Ten Network, made an appearance in 2023.

That’s not to say, of course, that students have been enamored with every speaker, or that the advice has been prescient from day one. One automobile executive told a room full of students several decades ago that he was opposed to putting airbags in cars because they were “too expensive.” A Wall Street Journal story in 1982 detailed written student feedback of one speaker, claiming he “was about as laid back as a person could be and still be conscious.”

Brock-Wilson saw some of the imperfections up close. “I would ask them what they had read lately, or ask them about their kids,” she says. “After hearing some of their answers, I wasn’t sure that’s what I wanted. Many of them didn’t make time to read books and didn’t seem to see their children a lot. Their lives didn’t seem very appealing to me.”

But there were more bright spots than disappointments. She recalls picking up Lloyd Hand, the former political aide and chief of protocol of the United States under President Johnson, from his private plane at the Purdue Airport.

“He was coming straight from an event and was wearing a tuxedo with diamond studs. That left an impression on me, but what I remember more was that he took the time to write a personal note to me afterward. People don’t do enough of that,” says Brock-Wilson, a prolific note writer in her own regard.

The Executive Forum allows students to take away insights from diverse perspectives in the business world.


Variety is key

After McLimore left Purdue in 1981, the class was taken over by Deans Keith Smith, Ron Frank, Dennis Weidenaar and Rick Cosier.

“It gives our students a perspective they won’t find in other courses.”

“I wish I had been able to take a course like this when I was an undergraduate,” says Cosier, who served as dean from 1999-2010. “We believe it’s important to have Fortune 500 companies represented, but our students also should hear from a diverse set of speakers in a number of dimensions, including race, ethnicity, gender, and age, as well as those in entrepreneurial or not-for-profit leadership roles. In response to student demand, we’ve also invited at least one speaker each semester who recently graduated and can talk to students around issues surrounding looking for and landing their first job.” 

The course enrolls more than 100 student each semester, and visitors are welcome to attend as seating provides. The majority of participants are from the Mitchell E. Daniels, Jr. School of Business, but several other schools are represented as well. The class is held Fridays from 11:30 a.m.-12:20 p.m., and speakers also have breakfast and lunch with several students in the course.



“Students are lucky to have access to people from all walks of life,” Brock-Wilson says. “It’s important to have variety. Most kids probably don’t know exactly what they want to do, so something might hit, whether it’s a company, industry or function being discussed.”

Cosier is proud of the impact the class has had at the Daniels School.

“I don’t know where else students will get the opportunity each week to hear an accomplished speaker talk about his or her career and offer advice,” he says. “It gives our students a perspective they won’t find in other courses.”

Those participants can hope to follow the same path as a student from the 1970s. Sam Allen (BSIM ’75, HDR ’17) was escorting executives from John Deere who convinced him to interview for a position with their company. He did, was hired in 1975, and eventually became the ninth CEO in the company’s history.

That’s not a bad trajectory from a one-credit undergraduate course. 

Secrets to Success

Executive Forum speakers offer advice to undergraduate students, but their wisdom is often applicable to people in all stages of their careers. Here are a few highlights from the spring 2023 semester (tap or hover to view):


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