by Donna Robinson
Richard Mahoney’s life mirrors a piece of powerful advice his father bestowed on him while he was growing up in Springfield, Mass. Mahoney recalls: “He told me, ‘Richard, the first third of your life — learn. The second third — earn, and the last third you return.’”
“He told me, ‘Richard, the first third of your life — learn. The second third — earn, and the last third you return.’” —Richard Mahoney on advice he received from his father
Mahoney has used these words as a road map for his life as a business executive, author, educator and philanthropist. After 33 years at Monsanto, he retired in 1995 as chairman and CEO of the St. Louis–based company. During his time at the helm, he transformed Monsanto into a life sciences and specialty chemical corporation with interests in pharmaceuticals, food products, agricultural chemicals and high-performance seeds.
He has taken his business savvy and knowledge of public policy and parlayed them into a successful second career at Washington University. He is an emeritus trustee and distinguished executive-in-residence at the Weidenbaum Center on the Economy, Government, and Public Policy. He also serves as executive-in-residence at the Olin Business School. He is a prolific writer, contributing editorials to The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post and many others.
And through it all, he has held steadfast to his father’s advice.
Learning and earning
When he was a chemistry major at the University of Massachusetts, Mahoney first learned about the possibility of combining his love of science with marketing from a Monsanto guest speaker visiting the campus. By the time he earned his Bachelor of Science in 1955, Mahoney had a definite vision for his future.
After serving three years in the U.S. Air Force, he worked in chemical sales for Alco Chemical in Providence, R.I. In 1962, he began his stellar career with Monsanto, starting as a market development specialist. He quickly rose through the ranks and went on to hold positions in agriculture, plastics and international operations.
“I never aspired to the next job,” explains Mahoney. “I just did the job I was given to do. I seemed to get things done, and they kept promoting me.” In 1977, Mahoney was named executive vice president. He joined the board of directors, who elected him president in 1980. Three years later, he became CEO and added the chairmanship in 1986.
During the next 13 years, Mahoney led Monsanto’s restructuring — often making tough and bold decisions. Like his idol Sir Winston Churchill, Mahoney focused on long-term strategy. He cut existing businesses and acquired others, including pharmaceutical and Nutrasweet maker G.D. Searle & Co. in 1985. He says, “Along with our agricultural R&D results, Searle was a key move to a technology-based life sciences and high-performance chemical company.”
In his 1988 book for Monsanto employees, A Commitment to Greatness, Mahoney wrote: “What is my definition of a great company? It’s simple! One that is financially among the handful of the very best, and importantly, behaves in the manner of the very best.”
Part of being the very best was the creation of the “Monsanto Pledge” in 1988. Among its goals was to reduce legally permitted air emissions by 90 percent in five years — a trailblazing green initiative that was unprecedented during that time. The company achieved its goal, and Monsanto was widely praised for its environmental stewardship during this tenure.
Monsanto grew under Mahoney’s leadership. In 1995, the Fortune 500 corporation boasted revenues of $8 billion and more than 30,000 employees worldwide. In addition to Nutrasweet, Monsanto produced well-known brands such as Roundup herbicide and Wear-Dated carpet — and newly introduced Celebrex analgesic and high-performance seeds.
In May 2012, Mahoney received an honorary degree from Washington University. He also holds honorary degrees from the University of Massachusetts, University of Missouri–St. Louis and Westminster College, and he is an honorary Fellow of Exeter College, University of Oxford. And he was involved in several organizations, including the Business Roundtable where he held leadership positions.
Mahoney retired from Monsanto in 1995 and earnestly began the next chapter of his life — giving back.
“Washington University is the heart and soul of the St. Louis community,” says Mahoney. “This would be a much emptier place without it. It’s a place of excellence.”
He and Barbara, his wife of 56 years, are life patrons of the William Greenleaf Eliot Society and members of the Danforth Circle Chancellor’s Level. Through the years, they have supported scholarships and programs on both the Danforth and Medical campuses.
Since joining the Weidenbaum Center in 1995, Mahoney has launched key initiatives. He has spearheaded an annual media retreat conference on Cape Cod that brings journalists, economists and public policy experts together. They discuss how to improve the way statistics and data analysis factor into public policy reporting. Participants have represented such media outlets as USA Today, CNN, NPR and The New York Times.
“Dick’s contributions have been generous and wide-ranging,” says Murray Weidenbaum, honorary chairman of the Weidenbaum Center and the Edward Mallinckrodt Distinguished University Professor. “For many years, he generated a major share of our publications, writing op-eds in The New York Times and elsewhere. Also, he developed our CEO Series, a collection of highly regarded original essays by corporate CEOs. Dick contributes original ideas and feedback on all our programs.”
“Dick’s dedication to the university is immeasurable. He is an inspiration to our students and faculty, and we appreciate everything he has done.” —Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton
For eight years, Mahoney has also served as executive-in-residence at the Olin School. Since 2008, he has sponsored the annual Olin Award to recognize faculty research that has the best potential to influence business results. He says he loves working with students and young faculty, and he often lectures on various topics from international trade to ethics.
Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton says, “Dick’s dedication to the university is immeasurable. He is an inspiration to our students and faculty, and we appreciate everything he has done.”
In addition, Mahoney is a longtime member of the National Council for the School of Medicine.
Outside the university, he has been a board member of Metropolitan Life Insurance and Union Pacific. He also works closely with the National Churchill Museum in Fulton, Mo. All profits from his 2005 book, The Quotable Winston Churchill, go toward the renovation of the museum.
Perhaps you can best sum up Mahoney’s commitment to the university and other organizations from this saying often attributed to Churchill: “We make a living by what we get, we make a life by what we give.”
Donna Robinson is associate director of development communications.