With all the festivity of a royal celebration, three Mays Business School graduates were recognized recently as outstanding alumni for their careers of merit and lives of service. Robert D. Starnes ’72, David W. Williams ’79 and Stephen B. Solcher ’83 were feted at a banquet Sept. 24 at Miramont Country Club in Bryan, where the escorts were the elite Ross Volunteers and the opening music was provided by the Singing Cadets.
It was the 18th year of the Outstanding Alumni Award program, the most prestigious honor Mays offers its graduates. The recipients are chosen on the basis of their personal and professional success in life, as well as their contributions to the greater good.
Loyalty, integrity, excellence, leadership, selfless service, and respect; these are the traits that define an Aggie. Annually, Mays Business School honors graduates that have led lives of distinction, embodying these Aggie characteristics with the Mays Outstanding Alumni Award.
“These three outstanding people certainly personify these values, and one thing all the recipients said was that this would not have happened without the great network of family and the great support of friends,” said Jerry Strawser, dean of Mays.
Recipients of this Award are from all industries, from automotive to accounting. They’ve served in the military, founded museums and nonprofits, been active in their churches and their communities. They’ve also served their alma mater, maintaining a relationship with Mays long after graduation.
Robert D. Starnes ’72
“At some stage you’ve got to start giving back to the entities that have contributed to your success. A&M has been a critical part of my life.”
From education to the environment to opportunities for veterans and children, Robert Starnes ’72 is committed to a wide array of charitable activities and organizations. This isn’t surprising to those that know Starnes, whose life is defined by a diversity of experiences as he’s moved from military officer to entrepreneur.
As a young man, Starnes was active in the Boy Scouts of America, a group he says was an important part of his development. With a scholarship from the Garden Clubs of Texas, he went on to A&M where he was active in the Corps of Cadets, as well as two agriculture honor societies. A distinguished student, he graduated with a BS in recreation and parks in 1972, then began a 10-year career in the Army. After duty assignments in Panama, North Carolina, and Virginia, Starnes was delighted to be sent back to College Station as a captain, where he worked with the ROTC program as an assistant professor of military science. Starnes says that there is a misconception that educators have an easy job. On the contrary, he says teaching was one of the most challenging things he’s undertaken. His time as an assistant professor gave him new appreciation for the high quality instruction he received at A&M and increased his dedication to giving back to his alma mater.
While stationed at A&M, Starnes’ wife, Robin (Hodges) ’76 earned a master’s degree in computer science. The material she studied piqued Starnes’ interest, and he began taking MBA classes at A&M. In 1982 he left active military duty so that Robin could focus on her career, but continued as a reservist for an additional ten years. With his newly minted MBA, Starnes took a job as an analyst for two years before launching his own venture, The Ontra Companies, Inc., in Austin. Over the past 25 years, Ontra has morphed into a large holding firm focused on real estate and healthcare. There have been many ups and downs for the company, says Starnes, but Ontra has continued to grow in employees, revenues, and services.
Today, Starnes divides his time between his company’s headquarters in Austin, his ranch near Lampasas, and College Station, where his wife teaches at Mays and his son is part of the Professional Program. His interests include organic and sustainable farming, wilderness conservation, volunteering with veterans groups, and being active on the A&M campus through involvement with the advisory council of Mays’ Center for New Ventures and Entrepreneurship and the board of Aggies in Business Properties. He is also on the board of several other professional and charitable organizations. Starnes said at the awards ceremony that he felt very humbled and honored by the recognition. “All I do every day is what all Aggies do: Get up and take care of business,” Starnes said.
Starnes then thanked his long-time mentor, agriculture professor Louis Hodges, who helped provide Starnes with guidance after his father died during his senior year of high school. He also lauded the faculty, staff and administrators at Mays. “You all have done far greater things than I could have,” he said, proceeding to read rankings the school had received in recent years.
David W. Williams ’79
“Perseverance pays off. You’ve got to keep at it and work hard.”
As the head of the second largest offshore drilling contractor, Noble Corporation’s David Williams ’79 says that whatever novelty there was in international travel wore off a long time ago. “My passport looks like a phonebook,” he jokes. That bulky, well-used passport is a testament to his dedication to the successful career that he has built over the decades, primarily in the oilfield services industry.
Williams, who serves as chairman, president and CEO of Noble, says he spends 50 to 60 percent of his time traveling for work. He can boast a visit to every continent on the globe, with the exception of Antarctica as, “They don’t do much drilling there, but when the time comes I am sure we will help lead the way. We go where our customers need us.” Recently, Williams and his wife Sue relocated from Houston to Geneva, Switzerland, Noble’s new headquarters. Williams says he wished they could have made such a move when their three children were still at home and could have benefited from the international experience. Instead, it’s a new adventure for the couple who have been married for 28 years.
Williams maintains an intense pace at work, as might be expected from the head of a company with 62 rigs working around the clock from the North Sea to India, and almost every region in between.
He brings the same level of energy to his home life, something he says he learned to balance at an early age. Throughout high school and college, he worked as a carpenter building bridges, using his earnings to support his education. At the start of his senior year at A&M, Williams decided that the finance degree he’d been striving for wasn’t what he wanted. With only two semesters left, he declared a new major in marketing and took as many classes as possible to complete the degree and graduate on time. Ironically, his first job after college was not in marketing, but rather human resources. Three years later, he moved into a marketing role at a drilling services operation and began his international travels. Williams progressed steadily in leadership roles in marketing in the energy sector. He has been with Noble Corporation since 2006 and assumed his current role in early 2008.
While Williams says that work and family commitments keep him extremely busy, he still finds time to serve as a board member of the American Petroleum Institute and the International Association of Drilling Contractors, as well as Spindletop International, a charitable organization managed by energy professionals. Williams has spent five years on the board of Spindletop, a position he enjoys as he is able to “direct some of the meaningful money that is given to help children in the Houston area.”
At the banquet, Williams said he isn’t sure he could gain admission to Texas A&M now. “When I went to school here, you just had to have an SAT of 800 and be able to sign your name,” he joked. Williams said he and his wife had lost touch with A&M over the years, but said he hopes to re-establish a connection. “I’m not sure the things I learned in the classroom are as important as the other things I learned at A&M,” he said, referring to the core values that are instilled throughout the campus. “The tradition, the spirit, the values have stayed with me my whole life.”
Stephen B. Solcher ’83
“We’re put on this planet to make it better. We’re here to make a difference.”
If one thing can fix our society’s ills, it’s education, says Stephen Solcher ’83. That’s the reason he’s made it his ambition to be involved in organizations such as Teach for America and Cristo Rey Jesuit College Prep School in Houston, whose missions are to bring high quality education to low-income students that are often under-served.
Education was something that was stressed in Solcher’s own home as he grew up the second of five brothers. Solcher says his father encouraged each of his sons to work from the 8th grade on in a manual labor environment to remind them of why getting an education is so important.
Though he followed in his older brother’s footsteps to A&M, Solcher bucked the family tradition by declaring an accounting major (his father and several brothers attended medical school). Prior to graduation, he was offered a job at Arthur Andersen & Co.
He had the technical skills needed for the job, but Solcher says he felt behind in the workplace initially: he’d never worked in a business setting before, and was uncertain of what was expected of him in that culture. Despite his inexperience, he excelled at Andersen, though he hasn’t forgotten that feeling of being out of place. As part of his dedication to educating today’s youth, Solcher mentors promising young people and encourages them to spend time in corporate settings.
Solcher spent eight years at Andersen, rising through the management ranks. He was on track to make partner when he was recruited by one of his corporate clients, BMC Software. He joined the public company as an assistant treasurer, mastered the job, and was promoted to treasurer six months later. He has continued to grow in the position for the past 19 years, adding more responsibilities as the company expanded. Today he is the senior vice president and CFO.
Credibility is everything when you work in the financial business, says Solcher. “My philosophy is to work hard and let my work speak for itself.” Solcher describes his job as fast-paced and unpredictable, qualities he’s come to appreciate. “There’s no yellow brick road, no path to follow,” he says. “You have to forge your own path. That’s what I get excited about.”
When he’s not working, Solcher can often be found in the great outdoors with his teenage son and daughter, and his wife of 20 years, Susan (Shillings) “81. Solcher’s enthusiasm for big game hunting has prompted several visits to Africa, South America, Alaska, and Canada. He also enjoys golfing, skiing, water-skiing and hiking. Another passion that the Solcher family enjoys is world travel. This summer, Solcher spent two weeks touring Italy with his family. Solcher is on the board of the Boys and Girls Club of Houston, as well as the Houston Museum of Natural Science.
Solcher said at the banquet that he feels honored to be in the company of past recipients of the Outstanding Alumni Award. “These are people who did not sacrifice their families to succeed in business, who did not sacrifice their faith,” he said. “They show you people you want to grow up to be like—people who have not only done well, but have also done right, and those aren’t always the same thing.”