Finance Chief, Philanthropist, Innovator Denis J. Nayden is a Husky Through-and-Through
A year after Denis J. Nayden ’76, ’77 MBA, graduated from UConn, he was visiting his parents in the Annapolis, Md.,-area, and attended a function at the U.S. Naval Academy.
“My father introduced me to the commandant and said, ‘This is my son, Denis, and he just graduated from UConn,'” Nayden recalled. Apparently, the commandant was only familiar with the other Yukon.
“Congratulations, son!,” the commadant replied. “I didn’t know Alaska had a university.”
“I’ve told that story a thousand times and every time it gets a lot of laughs. He would never make that mistake today,” Nayden said. “But the serious point is that you don’t have to come from the Wharton School, Harvard or Yale or any other big-name place to be a winner. Where you go in life is up to you.”
After graduating with an English degree from UConn, magna cum laude, in 1976, Nayden continued his studies at the university and earned his MBA in finance in 1977. He spent almost 27 years at GE Capital Corp., ultimately becoming Chairman of the Board and CEO, where he was responsible for 20 separate businesses, $555 billion in assets, and 90,000 employees in 35 countries.
“I’m Irish, and I have a streak in me that never gives up,” said Nayden, now a managing partner of Oak Hill Capital Partners in Stamford. “No matter the assignment I was asked to undertake, I wanted to do it better than anybody else. I wasn’t the smartest guy on the block, but I worked harder than anybody.”
His passion extends to his alma mater, where Nayden is among an elite and respected group of generous and impactful alumni from the School of Business. He is currently a member of the UConn Board of Trustees. He served two terms on the UConn Foundation board, and chaired the Downstate Initiative which relocated UConn’s Stamford campus from Schofield Road to its present location on Washington Boulevard. Nayden also co-chaired UConn’s first-ever capital campaign, which raised more than $400 million.
More recently, he and his wife, Britta Nayden ’76, donated $3 million toward the new Werth Family UConn Basketball Champions Center and for scholarships for student athletes. He also serves as an adviser, mentor and frequent guest speaker at the School of Business.
“I had a really good experience at UConn, both from an educational and social standpoint. I’m very fond of UConn and the memories of my time there,” he said of his continued involvement. “Secondly, I’m a sports fan—a fanatic really.”
“I encourage people to get involved in things they are passionate about. You’re most effective when you support people, entities and institutions that you really care about,” he said. “I’m a UConn Husky through-and-through!”
For business students, Nayden has touched their lives through the creation of two unique programs.
In 2000, Nayden was instrumental in the creation of a public-private partnership between UConn and GE, known as “edgelab.” At the time, it was considered one of the most innovative, cutting-edge partnerships between a business school and private company and its creation raised the School of Business’ standing in the higher education community.
GE’s many business subsidiaries would present vexing business problems that they wanted help solving. The top issues were selected for the business think-tank, and graduate students and faculty would address them along with GE corporate managers. Edgelab was based at UConn’s Stamford campus. The company benefited from innovative solutions and the students developed hands-on, real-world experience. Some 130 projects were completed before the edgelab program transitioned in 2011 into what his now the Stamford Learning Accelerator.
Nayden was also instrumental in the creation of the specialized master’s degree in Financial Risk Management, which started in 2010 with 27 students. Today, it is one of the most popular graduate programs at the School of Business.
“You couldn’t read the papers without being aware of the risks that were affecting the business world and the economy,” Nayden said. The first proposal was aimed at securities-trading risk, but Nayden recognized the program needed a broader approach that would address all sorts of risks that can derail companies.
“When the program started it was small in terms of the number of students. Now the enrollment is very impressive,” Nayden said. “The program invites men and women with different management roles to describe their experiences. It’s been hugely successful. A big part of my training is around business risk. It’s an enormously popular and effective program.”
Nayden is often asked by students, and their parents, for career advice, which he is happy to lend. But absolutely nothing trumps hard work, he said.
“I tell students if you get a chance, make something of it,” he said. “As a leader, I didn’t care what your pedigree was. All that mattered was that you were smart, hardworking and growing both personally and professionally. It levels the playing field when you evaluate talent.”
“People who know me, know that I have a lot of sayings,” Nayden said. “The first is, ‘Don’t ever give up.’ You learn every day and it is simply not enough to want to win. You’ve got to hate to lose. That’s been a big driver for me all the time.”
He said he’s enthusiastic about the new generation of employees, who are high-energy, technological geniuses who are eager to contribute. They have already forced companies to rethink their leadership models, he said.
“As a leader you can only be great if you have a great team and you support their personal and professional growth,” he said. “You have to have a capable team. There’s no way that one person can know what’s going on every single hour all around the world. You’re depending on your team all the time.”
“Great CEOs and leaders have to be risk takers. But never confuse decisiveness with recklessness,” he said last year to a group of graduate students and veteran leaders. “To my employees, some days I’m like a father, a counselor or a task master. But don’t ever be a tyrant. Listen to others and don’t try to be the smartest person in the room.”
Nayden has never lost sight of how he got to the point in his career where he is among the who’s who of the financial world.
When he started interviewing for a job, his roommate’s father was in recruitment and told him about an opportunity at GE Credit. At that time they were hiring only from big name schools, but there was one slot left and Nayden—who was a native of the city of Stamford—decided to apply. Despite the odds, he got the job. Today, he looks back and chuckles.
“Ultimately all those people from big-name schools… they worked for me!,” he said.