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The ROI of Education

Jon Cobain, the first Rebel to cross the stage at commencement, went on to head his own mergers and acquisitions firm. He's shared his success with his alma mater and now challenges all the grads who followed him to reinvest in education.
People  |  Apr 12, 2010  |  By Erin O'Donnell
(R. Marsh Starks/UNLV Photo Services)

When a university is young, its alumni are young too. And that can hamper an institution's efforts to raise funds and generate community support, because few graduates have reached a point in their careers where they are able to give back.

That's one reason Jon Cobain, '64 BS Business Administration, is such an asset to UNLV. He's the university's first graduate - first among 29 students to accept their degrees in the spring of 1964. Since then, Cobain has gone on to build a successful career as the head of his own mergers and acquisitions firm in California.

Recognizing a good investment

Cobain was one of several donors on hand last fall when the UNLV Foundation announced it had exceeded the $500 million goal for the Invent the Future capital campaign. Cobain isn't fond of the attention he gets for his gifts, though. He's a businessman. The way he sees it, he's making a direct investment in the future of Nevada and the U.S.

"It's beyond a tragedy. I think it's criminal" that education doesn't get greater support, Cobain says. "If we have to decide between repaving roads and having better education, we'll get a superior return on our investment by investing in education. It's in everyone's best interests to have a well-informed, educated population."

While Cobain supports education as a donor, his wife and daughter are practitioners. Judy Flynn, his wife of 26 years, embarked on a second career when she moved to New Zealand for a year to teach English as a second language. She wrote a book about her experience. Their daughter is a teacher in Beverly Hills, and their son is an orthodontist in northern California.

Cobain's giving began during Dr. Carol Harter's tenure as university president. He was impressed with the leadership she showed in initiating the university's first comprehensive campaign and quickly became "a fan."

"I certainly feel some strong affinity, being the first graduate from the UNLV campus," Cobain says, "but Carol was the one who really made the difference."

After UNLV, Cobain earned his MBA at Northwestern University -- an established, well-endowed university that was worlds away from the fledgling Las Vegas campus. That experience seemed to impress upon Cobain that UNLV needed alumni support if it was going to attain the same prestige, Harter says. "He saw that UNLV was struggling as a young university to come into its own, and he watched it develop over the years," she says. "He has a natural, wonderful attachment to the place and a sense of its future and its capacity for growth and development. It's a great perspective from the first person to graduate from UNLV."

Back to the basics

Cobain started his career in marketing and new product development for large, Fortune 500 companies including Beatrice Foods, Lear Siegler, and International Harvester. In time, he discovered that acquisition was a superior way to enter a new market or put forth a new product, versus a startup venture. Along the way, he discovered a fundamental truth about himself, too.

"I learned I didn't enjoy big company environments. They're political, and I find there's an awful lot of wasteful time. It just didn't suit my personality," he says.

So in 1979 he started Fomento Ltd., a mergers and acquisitions firm that helps entrepreneurs turn their bright ideas into cash. Since then, he has handled transactions in 33 states and six countries. His clients' companies are typically worth between $30 million and $100 million.

"The stimulating part is working with people who are talented and imaginative," he says. "It's rewarding to help them achieve their objectives. They become very talented at doing whatever it is they do. But they have no experience in converting their valuable asset into money."

In the 1980s, Fomento grew to 60 employees with offices in Washington, D.C., and Newport Beach, Calif. "Then I wound up managing people rather than working on transactions for the clients. That's not what I like or do best." He sold his interest as the largest shareholder and began again as a sole proprietor -- back to the small, boutique environment that allows him to be hands-on. Today, the firm concentrates on only a couple of transactions a year.

Business and literature

Harter says Cobain's business style is reflected in his giving -- he expects to see a return on his money. The cash portion of his recent gift is earmarked for graduate assistantships in English and the creative writing MFA program, and will be matched by the department. He's especially interested in seeing those graduate assistants participate in the Black Mountain Institute, of which Harter is now executive director.

As a business graduate, Cobain is an unlikely supporter of the humanities, Harter says, but he seems to believe bringing literary arts and minds to the community will enhance the quality of life for all. And his gift allows the department to increase its stipend for graduate students for the first time in 10 years. "The whole institution is trying to find ways to enhance the stipends for the very best students," she says. "That's what Jon's cash will do."

And, who knows, maybe it will inspire a new generation of alumni to continue the giving.