As a high schooler on Long Island, David Pottruck had never heard of Penn. Forty years later, his association with his alma mater is even stronger than when he was claiming Ivy League titles.
On the campus of the University of Pennsylvania, David Pottruck’s investment in tomorrow’s Penn students is very clear. There are Pottruck Scholars, undergraduate beneficiaries of a scholarship fund that he endowed. Both the campus-wide Health and Wellness Center and the Wrestling Center bear his name. Yet when Pottruck was growing up in Levittown, New York, he had never heard of Penn.
“I didn’t know anybody who went to an Ivy League school,” explains Pottruck, “I’m not even sure I knew anyone who went to college.”
But when a Penn recruiter contacted Pottruck, who played football and wrestled in high school, he decided to go. “Penn wasn’t that far away, and I thought, it’s such a privilege to attend any Ivy school,” he explains. That long-ago recruiter could not have imagined the positive transformations Pottruck would bring to Penn.
Pottruck’s influence was felt from the moment he hit the Penn campus. He led an undefeated freshman wrestling squad, then captained a varsity squad that won Penn’s first-ever Ivy League title. Penn repeated the feat the following year, with Pottruck himself providing the clinching 3-2 victory in a match at Princeton. He also played nose guard on the football team, lettering three times and winning the Penn Football Association Award his senior year.
Pottruck believes his most influential undergraduate learning took place on the wrestling mats. “My [undergraduate] classes made me learn how to manage my time, write, get things done,” he notes. Then graduate school (he earned an MBA from Wharton in 1972) ”taught me accounting, finance, the fields I use in my career.”
“What I learned from wrestling, though, was tremendous . You’re part of a team because you can’t practice by yourself, but during a match you’re on your own. You have to deliver.” Pottruck passed on those lessons as freshman wrestling coach and assistant varsity coach while at Wharton. In 1972, his last year coaching, the team won its third Ivy title.
Looking back on his years at Penn, Pottruck says “the athletics, combined with the academics, was a life-changing experience: the problem solving, analytic skills, and expression combined with working hard, suffering disappointment, bouncing back from defeat.”
Pottruck built strongly on this foundation. Starting at the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, he passed through increasingly responsible executive positions at different firms. He joined the investment firm Charles S. Schwab in 1984, eventually becoming CEO in May 2003, after helping transform Schwab into a major brokerage with nearly $1 trillion in assets.
The lessons learned as an athlete at Penn then again served him well when he was unexpectedly asked to step down from Schwab just over a year later. “I knew that you’re defeated only if you accept defeat,” Pottruck comments. And he rebounded quickly, taking a leadership position with the startup Eos airlines, recently becoming its Chairman and CEO.
“We want to build the best service airline, with only first class seats and tremendous quality,” he says. “Startups are hard, less than 50 percent succeed, but the thrill of life is about change.”
What apparently hasn’t changed for David Pottruck are his feelings about his alma mater. “My daughter, stepdaughter, and nephew are all Penn alumni,” Pottruck concludes. “It’s my privilege to be associated with Penn.”
— Stephen Eschenbach