As a property developer, Bob Harris ’93 looks for sound investments and takes calculated risks that can help grow his business and community. He and his wife, Tammy (Stroefer) ’95, are raising their family in Zionsville, Ind., where three generations of his family have owned land for more than 50 years. Their joint-venture, the Harris Family Limited Partnership, owns 12 commercial buildings and three additional properties, all of which he manages. A second venture, Kite Harris Development, partners with municipalities to oversee projects that help grow towns and build tax base. His is a high-stakes, high-rewards career made manageable, in large part, because of his Franklin College experience.
“I could not have accomplished so many great things for Zionsville if Franklin hadn’t taken a chance on me,” said Harris.
Harris, a legacy student who followed in the footsteps of his mother, Barbara (Cragen) Harris ’61, and sister, Kim (Harris) Orr ’89, faced an unexpected development his sophomore year. His poor grades in the classes required for his business major were grounds for expulsion.
“If I had been at a larger college I probably would have received a dismissal letter and been sent home with no further discussion, but Babs invited me to her office and let me plead my case for what seemed like an hour. Then, she gave me the chance to redeem myself. We made a deal that if I earned a B or better over Winter Term, taking one of three classes she chose, I could return for the spring semester. She also helped me choose different classes to figure out what other major would interest me and give me a better chance of success in the spring,” said Harris.
“Babs,” aka Barbara Howald Winicur ’81, was the college registrar at that time. The compassion she showed was pivotal in Harris’ college career.
“Even though my first choice of major didn’t work for me, I knew I loved being at Franklin,” recalled Harris. “I wanted to stay and try harder.”
Harris excelled that Winter Term and enrolled in an Introduction to Advertising class in the spring. “That’s when I fell in love with advertising, and everything finally began to click,” he recalled.
One of Harris’ proudest college accomplishments was collaborating with then Pulliam School of Journalism Director John Ellerbach, Ph.D., to found Franklin One, a student-powered advertising agency.
“We sold ads for the campus newspaper, magazine and TV program,” said Harris. “We hired two students to focus on ad designs and two to handle sales. Our early goal was to raise enough revenue to publish three or four campus newspapers in color per semester, but we actually did well enough to publish all of them in color.”
The real pay-off, however, wasn’t the money.
“The genius of that experience was that it provided an introduction to business ownership and management as well as marketing and advertising. It brought all the classroom theories together,” said Harris.
Harris also credits participation in Tau Kappa Epsilon (TKE) fraternity for providing significant real-world preparation. The Franklin chapter earned the national Top TKE award while Harris was vice president and again when he became president.
“Fraternity life was a learning ground,” said Harris. “A big part of it was trying to make decisions and compromises to keep 70 members happy and meet all the national requirements for academics, philanthropy and the other things it took to be a top chapter.
“Many of the skills I learned from those situations continue to help me now, as I navigate political waters. In my line of work it’s critical to figure out ways to work well with town council members, mayors and government leaders. Those relationships can make or break projects so you have to find common ground or alternative solutions.”
Beyond the financial investing Harris does in his community, he invests personally through volunteerism. He serves with the Boone County Sheriff’s Merit Board that oversees the pension funds for sheriff’s deputies and is involved with personnel issues. He was recently appointed as the vice-chair for the Boone County Republican Party and is also a sponsor and advocate for the BubToberfest, a fundraiser for the Boys and Girls Club of Zionsville.
He credits his liberal arts background for giving him the wherewithal to be involved in such a variety of endeavors with people from diverse backgrounds.
“My first job out of college was selling Yellow Page ads for Sprint. Sometimes I had to go from an auto shop, to a doctor’s office to a restaurant all in the same day so I had to change mental gears along the way. Without the liberal arts background, I may have had a more difficult time figuring out how to relate to my clients and speak half-way intelligently about things that mattered to them,” said Harris.
The skills he took away from Franklin College and that carried over to his first job are equally important to his career today and the work he does on behalf of the community of Zionsville. While developing the area in ways that honor its historic character yet better serve the needs of current residents and business owners is challenging, progress is not impossible. The keys to success are still collaboration and good communication, said Harris.
“I am involved at every stage of our developments because I want to make sure that the end product is a benefit to our tenants and to our community as a whole. We’re going to do it right, or we’re not going to do it at all,” said Harris.