John Palmer: An Honorable Man

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Honorable John Palmer’s best friend, John W. “Jack” Barksdale, introduced him to a catch phrase “ABC,” which became an acronym for “Always Be Closing.” Throughout Palmer’s extraordinary career, as a mentor, entrepreneur, philanthropist and venture capitalist, he still lives by his late friend’s advice to “follow your ABCs.”

“It has certainly been a good axiom for me,” said Palmer. “If you have an effort going, whether it is in the arts or in the business school, ‘Always Be Closing’ in what you pursue.”

Palmer and Barksdale came to Ole Miss on basketball scholarships. Palmer (’52) from Corinth, Mississippi and Jack (’53), the senior of the six “Barksdale Boys,” from Jackson. Both entered the business school, where Barksdale was elected president of the school.

“Unfortunately, he passed away at the young age of 35 after an extraordinary career with IBM,” said Palmer. “He was one of their top performers.”

A Telecom Pioneer

Palmer, one of the nation’s pioneers in telecommunications, recalls great friends from his undergraduate days in the business school such as Dugan Abernathy, who continued on to be a professor of economics at North Texas University; Eddie Stenftenagel, who returned to Indiana to run Schneider’s Department Stores, and Denver Brackeen, who went on to serve as a general and head of the Mississippi National Guard.

He remembers fondly his basketball teammates such as fellow Corinthian, Jerry Bynum, who had been his high school teammate, along with Brackeen and Cob Jarvis, who went on to coach at Ole Miss from 1969 to 1976.

Palmer credits professor Eugene Perry with encouraging him to “hang in” the accounting program despite the difficulties he faced balancing a challenging major and the responsibilities of being a student athlete. “It was very difficult to go on a one-week road trip with all the homework assignments the accounting students had to complete,” he said.

Becoming an MBA Mentor

After returning from his service in the Army, Palmer returned to UM to pursue a Master of Business Administration degree. “We had a course based on Harvard’s case studies and my memory is the fun we had thinking through how to solve some of the actual problems from the case studies,” Palmer said.

After completing his studies, and passing the Certified Public Accountant (CPA) exam, Palmer recalls “I felt I was prepared to go up against any New York banker and had the confidence to pursue an aggressive future.” He then went to work for Ernest & Ernest (today known as Ernest & Young).

“Good students are as important as good professors.”

In 1984, Chancellor Gerald Turner established the “Campaign for Ole Miss” with the goal of raising $25 million. Many alumni thought Turner’s goal was too high. At the same time, Palmer was trying to help Lynn Spruill, dean of the business school, recruit high-achieving students.

Palmer was mentoring for the MBA program and approached a young woman, who had attended the University of Virginia as an undergraduate, to encourage her to come to Ole Miss instead of the University of Texas. She inquired about what sort of financial support the school could provide and his answer was “none.”

“It made me realize we had to have an endowment to get good students,” he said. “Good students are as important as good professors.”

A Million Dollar Gift

Palmer’s commitment to the MBA program came in the form of a $1 million gift from Mobile Communications Corporation of America (MCCA) to establish an endowment for scholarships for MBA students in 1986.

This was the largest gift ever given in the history of the university at that time, and it solidified Palmer as a mentor and philanthropist of the highest order.

“The amazing part of this story is that the GPA of our MBA students increased almost a full point in the first year when we were able to offer scholarships from this endowment,” he said.

“I do not think there is an alumnus out there who can’t realize from that story why private funding is imperative to both private and public schools,” Palmer insists. “It is a vital part of differentiating your university and making it what it is today.”

“John Palmer has an amazing legacy through his gift that has funded more than 600 MBA students since the original endowment,” said Ken Cyree, dean of the School of Business Administration. “Without his help, we would not have enjoyed the success we have had in our MBA program.

On the Cellular Frontier

In 1965, Palmer purchased his first radio common carrier business with the approval of the Mississippi Public Service Commission thinking it would be a side business and he would enjoy it more than his CPA work.

“My goals were simple and changed every few years as growth enabled us to set new goals,” he said. “My first goals were a Mississippi System and then a Middle South System.

The real value for the company internally were the engineers, who were developing the technology they needed to become competitive in the emerging cellular market. The one Palmer remembers best is Jai Bhagat, who served as the company’s First Engineering Officer. Bhagat was born and had studied in India.

“Jai is brilliant and contributed so much in intellectual properties,” said Palmer. “

“If we want to differentiate our school, and be one of the best, the private sector has to step up.”

Eventually, Palmer grew the company to MCCA, and began to work with large corporations such as Motorola, Ericsson and AT&T. Competition was growing rapidly and Bhagat submitted filings in the top 30 markets.

MCCA won Los Angeles and Houston, and then, through a partnership with BellSouth, acquired firms operating in Indianapolis, Richmond, Milwaukee and Mobile.

“After success in Houston, we changed our strategy to large markets,” he said.

From there Palmer took the company in the direction of paging and changed the model of the company to a subscription-based business—the first of its kind. “We developed a customer base, and each month their subscription gave us the ability to manage cash flows and other financial guidelines.”

The Market Crash of 1988

In October 1988, the stock market crashed. “No one could convince our board where the economy was headed, and our board took the safe road and exchanged our stock for BellSouth stock, which was a very significant transaction,” he said.

The judge in the case would not allow BellSouth to allow the inter-regional services Skytel performed in the agreement, and MCCA retained Skytel’s satellite-based national and international paging services.

Skytel eventually began working closely with Microwave Communications Inc., better known as MCI, with the company providing long-distance services for Skytel and reselling its paging services bringing Skytel’s customer base to 1.6 million by the late 1990s.

On May 29, 1999, The New York Times announced that MCI-WorldCom acquired Skytel for $1.3 billion in stock with approval by both company’s boards, the Justice Department, the Federal Communications Commission and Skytel’s shareholders.

Ambassador to Portugal

In 2001, Palmer was named Ambassador to Portugal by President George W. Bush. He served in this role until September 2004, when he returned to his venture-capital company, GulfSouth Capital, with the goal of bringing more technology and young companies to Mississippi. Two of the company’s success stories are Bomgar and SmartSynch.

“Private giving from extraordinary and passionate alumni like the Honorable John Palmer is so vital to the margin of excellence expected of a nationally- and internationally-recognized educational and research institution,” said Chancellor Jeffrey Vitter. “We’re so appreciative of John’s visionary and sustained support over the years, which has had a tremendous impact upon our business school and our ability to recruit high-achieving students.

“Part of John’s legacy will be his contributions toward boosting the university’s stellar academic profile and accelerating our growth, reach, impact, and success.”

“Education is our future,” Palmer said in closing for this story. “If we want to differentiate our school, and be one of the best, the private sector has to step up.

“It will not only bring in better students, better professors, better research,” he concluded. “It’s just part of what we must all do to inspire our alumni base to think about doing more for the university.”

By Stella Connell

Posted in: Alumni Profiles