|Gary Sumers, AB ’75
(Photo: Jennifer Weisbord, BFA ’92)
As a senior executive with the Blackstone Group, a leading global alternative asset manager and financial advisory firm, Gary Sumers lives in New York City. A native of the East Coast, when Sumers considered colleges, a part-time job led him to the Midwest.
“I grew up in Teaneck, New Jersey, and I worked at a local pharmacy while I was in high school,” Sumers recalls. “The son of the owner went to Washington University, and he encouraged me to consider it. When I visited the campus, I took one look at the Brookings Quad and thought, ‘This is what a university is supposed to be.’”
Four years later, Sumers graduated Phi Beta Kappa with a double major in history and political science. As an undergraduate he took advantage of every opportunity to pursue his wide-ranging interests. With the encouragement of a political science professor, Sumers arranged to take a leave of absence to spend his junior year at the London School of Economics, and he later received full credit for his independent study abroad.
“At Washington U., the focus was always on students as individuals,” says Sumers, AB ’75. “The faculty and administration were interested, flexible and supportive. That has always been one of the university’s great strengths, and it hasn’t changed.”
Inspired by the late Merle Kling, PhD, professor of political science and dean of the Faculty of Arts & Sciences, Sumers seriously considered pursuing a career in academia. “Professor Kling encouraged us to assess people and their motivations in ways I still use today,” Sumers recalls. However, he decided to go to law school and earned a Juris Doctor from Northwestern University in 1978.
Sumers then began practicing real estate law at Altheimer & Gray in Chicago. In the following 20 years, he says, “I became a Midwesterner — even though I could never give up my childhood love of the New York Yankees!”
Law and real estate
In 1982, Sumers joined JMB Realty Corporation in Chicago as in-house counsel. Two years later, he became the managing director in charge of institutional asset management. “Four of the five senior partners at JMB were former lawyers, so I knew they valued a legal background,” he says. “But I found myself drawn to the business issues — I always wanted to be on the other side of the table. One day, after a rather lively meeting, one of the senior executives came into my office, and I asked if he was going to fire me. He said, ‘Fire you? I want you to join my group.’”
After 11 years at JMB, Sumers became chief operating officer of General Growth Properties, one of the largest publicly traded regional mall real estate investment trusts. In 1995, a former JMB senior partner invited Sumers to join the startup Blackstone Real Estate Group in New York.
Today, Sumers is a senior managing director and chief operating officer of the Real Estate Group. He also has oversight of all financial reporting activities and responsibility for the property disposition activities. He has led the Blackstone Real Estate Advisors’ Strategic Asset Management Group, and he has been a member of the Blackstone Real Estate Investment Committee since joining the firm. He also serves on the board of directors of several real estate portfolio companies.
Sumers is modest about his success. “My parents used to say that an aptitude for business appeared every other generation in our family,” Sumers recalls. “My grandfather was an entrepreneur, and my father was an artist. I guess it’s natural that I went into business, but there are a lot of smart, hardworking people out there. I have been very lucky.
“I grew up in a solidly middle-class family, but I had my first job when I was 13,” Sumers continues. “My parents made a lot of sacrifices to give me a great education. I was very fortunate, and I believe that every kid with academic ability should have the same kinds of opportunities.”
To help make that possible, Sumers has sponsored annual scholarships at Washington University for many years. In 2007, when he found himself in a position to do more, he endowed the Joan Sumers Scholarships in Arts & Sciences in memory of his late mother. “She was a very supporting, very accepting person. She was a big influence on me and the way I think about life,” he says. “Washington University students are motivated, kind to one another, and altruistic, as well as outstanding scholars. I just wanted to help them.”
The Joan Sumers Scholarship provides all expenses for a student with high financial need. The first recipient, a minority student and current sophomore, entered Washington University in fall 2008. Sumers also has created an annual scholarship in his mother’s name. It was awarded for the first time this year to a member of the Class of 2012.
“I want these students to have fun and enjoy the incredible things the university has to offer,” Sumers says. “If they are as lucky in the future as I have been, I hope they will do something for other students.”
In addition to his quiet generosity, Sumers is active on behalf of Opening Doors to the Future: The Scholarship Initiative for Washington University, serving as co-chair of the New York City committee and as a member of the national committee for Arts & Sciences. He also serves on the National Council for Arts & Sciences. He and his wife, Rachel, are sustaining charter members of the Danforth Circle Chancellor’s Level and life patrons of the William Greenleaf Eliot Society. In 2009, Gary Sumers was recognized at Founders Day with a Distinguished Alumni Award.
Sumers has been a guest lecturer at Columbia Business School, and he may do more teaching in the future. His personal interests include children’s health issues and education, as well as his service to Washington University. “When I compare the university today to my undergraduate days, the students are smarter, the faculty is even better, the campus is amazing, and the university is respected worldwide,” Sumers says. “Chancellor Danforth and Chancellor Wrighton deserve our thanks for their tremendous leadership.”