When I heard Joe Plumeri ’66 was selected to give the Commencement address at this year’s graduation I had the same response as most of my classmates: Who? Plumeri has made his mark in the rather invisible realm of business and finance and is not as well known as recent speakers like Jon Stewart. But after reading up a bit on the man though, it seems that he is well qualified to address this year’s graduates. No matter what he might actually say — and he promises he will talk about topics directly relevant to students — his life and career serve as an interesting example of how graduates might find their way in the real world.
His story is a feel-good tale: The son of Italian immigrants from Trenton, N.J. Plumeri grew up to be a business titan through his perseverance, ability, passion and more than a little good luck. We have heard variations on this story a thousand times before, what makes Plumeri interesting to graduating seniors like myself is the winding road his life took after graduating from the College of William and Mary.
Plumeri majored in history and education at the College and decided to become a history teacher. After college, he taught history for two years in rural Pennsylvania. He then joined the U.S. Army Reserve and was stationed in South Carolina for six months. He enrolled in New York Law School in 1968 after his reserve.
At that time, he believed he had found his profession. Plumeri wished to gain practical experience while at school, so he went door to door on Wall Street in search of a part time job at a law firm. In the directory of one building, he saw the small firm Carter, Berlind, Potoma and Weill. Assuming anything with that many names had to be a law firm, he asked the receptionist who he should speak to for a job. He wound up in the office of Sandy Weil and spoke at length about his interest in working in law. It was only after he finished his pitch that the man on the other side of the desk informed him he had walked into a brokerage firm. In the end, he got a job as a gofer and later dropped out of law school to work for the company full time. It was a wise choice — the little brokerage eventually grew into the financial giant, Citigroup.
Plumeri’s story is instructive in many ways. For one, it tells us the plans for our future that we may have now are always subject to the whims of fate. We should not be too confined by our own idea of what our careers should be. Plumeri is where he is today because of a happy coincidence he embraced and used to his advantage. For those of us without a solid post graduation plan, yet, that’s a bit of a comfort. If you do have a plan, it might provide a sense of freedom to know you are not trapped on an unalterable course.
There is only one detail about Plumeri that worries. He once gave a motivational speech for five hours, pausing only to change his sweat-soaked shirt. I really hope that doesn’t happen to us.