Recently, UT came calling on Ron Turner. Only months earlier, the Ripley, Tennessee, native had retired from the positions of chairman, president, and CEO of Ceridian Corporation, an S&P 500 company formerly known as Control Data Corporation (CDC). Turns out, his alma mater was looking for new ideas and fresh perspectives from top business executives across the country, and Turner signed up for a 3-year term on UT’s Development Council.
After attending his first meeting last October, the former air force captain, who once was involved in fighter aircraft flight testing and missile development, came away with a clear view of the significance of the council and the role it plays in shaping the future of the university.
What impresses Turner the most is the size of the alumni base–312,000 strong. “UT alumni represent an amazingly diverse microcosm of society, and they have tremendous spirit and visibility all over the United States. I think it’s time to mobilize that base to attract more support for all sorts of programs, both in academics and athletics.”
A former athlete himself, Turner ran track at UT Knoxville and graduated with a B.S. in aerospace engineering in 1968. He attended college on an Air Force ROTC scholarship. Following a 5-year stint in the military, the son of a Lauderdale County row-crop farmer received a master’s degree in aerospace engineering from the University of Florida in 1971 and a master’s in management from MIT in 1977. The capstone of his educational career was becoming a Sloan Fellow at MIT, a select program for innovation and global leadership aimed at business executives.
So where does his collegiate loyalty lie?
“Absolutely to UT,” he acknowledges. “I think you always identify with where you do your undergraduate work. It becomes such an integral part of your life.”
As a youngster, Turner always knew he wanted to go to UT. “Back in the day, if you lived in West Tennessee, it was a long way to Knoxville–an eleven-hour drive before I-40 was built. Most of my classmates went to college closer to home.”
But more important, UT had a good reputation for its engineering programs. As it turned out, Turner was one of the first three graduates of the fledgling aerospace engineering program. And there was the factor of state pride. “I wanted to stay in Tennessee.”
Growing up in the 1950s during Russia’s initial dominance in space exploration, Turner was among the wave of “rocket boys” of that era who wanted to fly where none had gone before.
“I was always interested in aviation,” he said, “and was able to live that dream in the air force.” Once a pilot, always a pilot, and Turner continues to fly regularly even though his military career ended in 1973. He recently purchased a plane and is president of ASI Jet Charter.
His resume includes more than 25 years in the defense industry, during which he helped build guidance systems for the space shuttle and the forerunner of today’s global positioning system (GPS). He was in charge of development and deployment of the Pershing II ballistic missile system through his work at Martin Marietta (later Lockheed-Martin). In fact, Turner played a key role in the company’s eventual move into East Tennessee. “When [Union] Carbide opted out as lead contractor for the Department of Energy’s preeminent Oak Ridge complex, I initiated the proposal activities that brought Martin Marietta to Tennessee.”
In 1987 Turner became president and CEO of General Electric Company–Marconi Electronic Systems Corporation, a conglomerate based in the United Kingdom. Then in 1993 he joined Ceridian as head of the company’s defense electronics business. Four years later, he was elevated to president and COO. Today Ceridian is a business-services company that serves global clients in human-resources outsourcing and credit-card services. Turner retired in 2006 as CEO of the company, which employs nearly 10,000 people.
During his climb up the corporate ladder, Turner stayed connected to his alma mater, mostly through his interest in athletics. He remembers his days as a hurdler when there was no track. “We had to run for three miles from campus alongside the Tennessee River to an old tobacco barn that Coach [Chuck] Rohe had converted into an indoor track.” After workouts, the thinly clad young men had to run back again.
Now as a member of the Development Council, Turner looks forward to an even stronger relationship with his alma mater. “Land-grant institutions have to serve very diverse groups; it’s a noble mission, but sometimes resources are spread thin. So to go from good to great, we can achieve excellence by focusing on a few areas and then acquiring the world’s best teachers, facilities, researchers, and students. This is already happening at UT.”
A member of the Benefactor and Legacy donor societies, Turner is grateful to be in a position to help. “I grew up in a modest environment. My father was a farmer, and my mother was the deputy court clerk for forty years. She retired at sixty-five for one month and then started a whole new career at the Wal-Mart in Ripley. At age eighty-eight, she now manages the floral department.”
“I enjoyed my career, but now I have more time for UT. I look forward to helping the university in every way I can.”
Turner has four children and lives and works in Wayzata, Minnesota. His wife, Catherine, is an artist originally from New York.
New Members of the UT Development Council
Bill Blankenship (Martin ’55), Sandestin, Florida, retired vice-president, Procter & Gamble Cellulose, Buckeye Technologies
David Bohan (Knoxville ’70), Brentwood, chairman and CEO, Bohan Advertising|Marketing
Mike Costello (Chattanooga ’75, ’96), Lookout Mountain, principal, Decosimo Corporate Finance
Waymon Hickman (Knoxville ’56), Columbia, senior chairman, First Farmers and Merchants National Bank
Chris LaPorte (Knoxville ’75, ’78), Houston, Texas, head of government loan operations, Coastal Securities Inc.
Jack Mills (Knoxville ’68, ’71), Knoxville, president, Central Equipment Leasing
Robbie Nutt, Knoxville
Bob Oldham, Chattanooga, retired chief financial officer, Red Food Stores Inc.
Clay Stokely (Knoxville ’99), president, the Stokely Group
Jerry Summers (Knoxville ’66), Chattanooga, attorney with Summers & Wyatt
Ron Turner (Knoxville ’68, ’71), Wayzata, Minnesota, retired chairman, president, and CEO, Ceridian Corporation