People - August 2005

In new job, he delivers more than just a speech
By Frank Maley

Nido Qubein has been holding forth for 10 minutes, occasionally interrupted by an “mm-hmm.” He’s talking about his first few months as president of High Point University. How the trustees recruited him. How he got former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani to speak at graduation. How he raised $20 million in pledges in his first 29 days. How some students started a Web page called Nido Rocks. On and on. Finally, he’s told how long he has been expounding. “Oh, I could go for three hours. You get me started here, and I won’t quit.”

He’s not kidding. Speaking is how Qubein, 57, has made his living nearly all his adult life. He’s paid $15,000 for an hour and $20,000 for a day, plus expenses, to give pep talks to corporations and other groups. Seldom is heard a discouraging word from High Point’s Professor Positive — he’s teaching a seminar on “life skills” next fall — and anyone with a remote interest in donating money or otherwise helping him boost his alma mater can expect an earful of glad tidings.

His life wasn’t always this happy. A Jordanian Christian, he was raised by his mother, a seamstress, after his father died when Qubein was 6. In 1966, at 17, he left to study at Mount Olive Junior College, now a four-year school. He arrived with little knowledge of English and $50 in his pocket.

After finishing, he enrolled at High Point. In college, he worked as a youth leader at a Lutheran church, then a Methodist one. But he had trouble finding reading materials. So after getting a bachelor’s in human relations at High Point in 1970 and a master’s in business from UNC Greensboro in 1971, he started an interdenominational newsletter, Adventures With Youth, that he sold to churches, camps and schools. Customers asked him to conduct retreats for them. Retreat attendees with businesses asked him to speak to employees. He started a consulting business, Creative Services Inc., in 1978 and has written 15 books, which he peddles along with motivational tapes and disks. He also owns McNeill Lehman, a High Point public-relations firm, half of Business Life Magazine Inc. and a third of Dillon, Montana-based Great Harvest Bread Co.

In February, when he announced High Point’s $20 million bonanza — its budget for fiscal 2004-05 was $42 million, and it raised just $4 million from private donations last year — he ticked off the school’s needs: a business-school building, a communications/education building, a graduate-school building, a student-fitness center, a new athletic building, plus building renovations, scholarships, academic programs and faculty development.

It’s not that High Point, a Methodist school with about 3,000 students, is in bad shape. U.S. News & World Report magazine rates its undergraduate program among the best in the South. But Qubein’s predecessor, Jake Martinson, says it doesn’t get its share of the spotlight and Qubein can change that.

He will probably have about 70 speaking engagements this year, and he’ll be touting his school, too. Does he ever find himself at a loss for words? “Well, you know, I’m a professional communicator. Remember, for 30 years I’ve given over 5,000 presentations, and people have paid significant fees ... ”