Casey Commons envisioned as comfortable home of shared ideas and innovation

Casey Commons envisioned as comfortable home of shared ideas and innovation

Doug Monroe | Nov. 28, 2017

The Caseys
Phil and Betty Casey
As Hurricane Irma whirled toward Tampa, Phillip Casey (BBA ’67) rolled down the storm shutters over the windows of his 11th-floor condo on Hillsborough Bay and calmly watched the Dallas Cowboys defeat the New York Giants on Sunday Night Football.

“We dodged a bullet,” Casey said by phone the next morning. “We had no problem. We kept our power. It was a little windy but nothing big.”

His major concern was the 9,000 students at the University of Tampa, where he is chair of the board of trustees. How had they fared? How would they eat? His mind turned to practical logistics, a key skill he developed as a U.S. Army Special Forces officer during the Vietnam War.

Thinking about the present, and future, of today’s college students is forefront in Casey’s mind.

As one of the major donors to the Building Terry campaign, the retired steel industry executive and his wife Betty are honored with Casey Commons, a large gathering area for the college in the center of Amos Hall. With high ceilings in 5,000 square feet of space, Casey Commons is where students, faculty and staff can meet, eat and study. The main room has seating for 150, and students can cram for a test while eating a croissant from the adjacent Rothenberger Café, which features Au Bon Pain. The commons includes three study rooms facing the courtyard.

“From the original BLC drawings and descriptions, Betty and I envisioned a comfortable family room that would nurture face-to-face student interaction in place of digital social networking,” Casey says. “If this social Dawg house evolves as expected, it will generate future ideas, innovations and collaborations that will produce remarkable advancements for our Terry students and our communities.”

Casey hopes his gift provides students with the environment to create the same sort of bedrock Terry College gave to him. “I know what it did for me, in giving me a foundation,” he says. He feels UGA and Terry College are the key to helping business students as well as the state of Georgia realize their potential.

Although he has lived in Tampa 23 years, Casey never forgot his roots. He grew up in Southwest Atlanta, one of six children of a plumber, graduating from the old Joseph E. Brown High School. He transferred to UGA after two years at the University of Tennessee, but his UGA career did not start off in glittering fashion.

At one point, Casey had to face what so many young men dreaded at the time: a disciplinary meeting with legendary Dean of Students William Tate. “I did some things and got kicked out,” Casey says. “It was not one of my better days. I had to go home and tell my father I was expelled.”

His father valued education and scraped together the money to send five of his children to college. “He was a middle-class, hard-working plumber who provided for his family and wanted them to have a better life,” Casey recalls.

The chastened young man returned to UGA the next year with a renewed drive to succeed. “I started taking life more seriously. I found my direction and skill set in finance and accounting. I wasn’t very articulate or good at salesmanship. But I was good at handling numbers. I understood balance sheets and income statements and that was where I found my niche. I understood the numbers behind a corporation and that paid off for a long time.”

He landed a summer job at a bank in Brazil during his senior year. He returned to UGA for three months and graduated. He and his roommate drove to the Cotton Bowl in Dallas to see the Bulldogs defeat SMU 24-9. His career after that reads like James Bond meets Andrew Carnegie.

“When I got back home, I had a draft notice, so I went down and enlisted in the U.S. Army and requested Infantry Officer Candidate School.” This was the buildup of Vietnam.

“Developing officer leadership skills, airborne parachute training and Special Forces qualification was an extensive part of getting ready to go to Southeast Asia,” he says. Once in Vietnam, he spent much of his tour in a Special Forces camp near the Cambodian border and later volunteered for a second tour to conduct long-range reconnaissance missions along the Ho Chi Minh trail in Cambodia and Laos. For his heroic actions, Casey was awarded the Bronze Star and the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry.

After his service, he won a scholarship to the Thunderbird School of Global Management, now part of Arizona State University.

As he prepared to graduate with his master’s degree, he had three job offers: a bank in Ohio, Esso (now Exxon) and the CIA. The intelligence agency offered him a position in the next spy school, but President Richard Nixon announced a hiring freeze and the CIA rescinded the offer.

He accepted the job with the Latin America regional affiliate of Exxon, but the CIA recruited him to be an undercover agent in Brazil, while he worked full time. One day, he was told to meet his supervising agent, but another agent met him and said the agent’s house was bombed and his contacts compromised. The CIA offered him the next spy school, but by this time, he was enjoying his work with Exxon. He stayed with Exxon 14 years, moving around South and Central America. During the high-tech boom, Casey repatriated to the U.S. and became CFO of an Exxon office systems venture. But Exxon left that business after IBM introduced its personal computer.

 “Once I got into high-tech venture capital, I got the bug to get out of a big corporation,” Casey says. Through a group of venture capitalists, he accepted a job as a “gunslinger” to take over the finances of poorly performing steel mini-mills and take them public. “I kind of fit the bill.” He went to Birmingham Steel as the CFO.

His new company and the venture capitalists made an unsolicited hostile attempt to take over a major competitor, Florida Steel. The approach was rebuffed and Florida Steel was ultimately bought by a Japanese company that brought in Casey as CEO and chairman. The majority Japanese ownership of Florida Steel was subsequently bought out by the Brazilian steel company Gerdau. Casey was named CEO and chairman of the board of Gerdau Ameristeel, the second-largest North American mini-mill steelmaker. In 2009, the company brought in $4.2 billion in revenue. Casey retired after the Brazilians took the company private.

As a member of the Terry Dean’s Advisory Council, Casey contributed to the Building Terry fund because “it was time the business college had to get into the 21st century. They had to compete. It was a fortunate time when they had the need and I had the resources.”

He sees the university as the core of the state of Georgia’s future, and advises new students “to get out of your comfort zone. Take a risk. The most important skill that I learned to be successful was the ability to hastily peel back the onion. Whether in combat or business, when you are faced with challenges or adverse circumstances, start asking probing questions until you are confident enough to make an informed decision. Every college ought to have a course called ‘Peeling the Onion.’ ”