BY VALENTINE J. BRKICH
When Michael Smith ‘79 wasn’t studying accounting, one of his favorite activities was intramural team handball in the John Jay gymnasium. “I liked it because it was a team sport,” says Smith, who played for Delta Tau Delta. “It was fast-paced and very competitive. I remember we won the intramural championship one year — in fact, I think I still have the newsletter article.”
Today Smith heads a different kind of team as CEO of Goodwill of Southwestern Pennsylvania. The organization serves 17 counties, and with more than 1,000 employees, is one of the largest Goodwill chapters in the nation. The nonprofit agency provides employment education and workforce development programs for people with physical and mental disabilities and other special needs. Revenues from the company’s retail thrift stores help to support its programs.
“By giving people education, training, support, and, most importantly, the opportunity to work, Goodwill gives people the dignity and respect that comes with employment,” says Smith, who has been with Goodwill for 22 years. “The programs and services we provide are needed now more than ever.”
The chapter operates 27 stores in Pennsylvania and West Virginia. It is in a growth phase, recently moving its workforce development center and administrative offices to Lawrenceville from the South Side, opening two new stores in Gibsonia and Natrona Heights, and planning three more in the North Hills, Lawrenceville, and Robinson Township. The stores bring in annual revenues of over $20 million, Smith says. “The more profit we can generate, the more people we can serve. As a result, each year we are able to serve at least 70,000 people with special needs and find jobs for about 1,500.”
Smith serves on Goodwill’s board of directors with two others with university ties: Gary Claus ’74, chairman of the RMU Board of Trustees, and Sidney Zonn, university vice president and general counsel. Claus just finished a two-year term as Goodwill's chairman in March, and Zonn is secretary.
“Goodwill is an incredibly effective organization,” Claus says. “It’s one of Pittsburgh’s best-kept secrets. They were doing ‘green’ before ‘green’ was cool. They’ve been recycling old clothes and housewares for over 100 years now, and to use that to make someone else’s life better has a far-reaching effect.”
“I sincerely believe in the mission of Goodwill,” says Zonn. “What is distinctive to me about Goodwill is not only the largely self-sufficient nature of the organization, but the supportive environment to train clients to be active, productive, and gainfully employed members of the community.”
“They are two of my most active and committed board members," Smith says of Claus and Zonn, "and if I need their assistance, all I have to do is ask. Both bring a great business sense but, more importantly, keep the mission at heart.”
Smith, a Pittsburgh native, worked his way through college and was hired immediately after graduation for a field accounting position with a construction company. “The education I received and the whole Robert Morris experience prepared me well for my career and life in general,” he says. “Even back then, the Robert Morris name was well respected by employers, as it is today.”
The university’s 2002 Alumni of the Year, Smith is proud to say his son, Michael Anthony Smith, just finished his freshman year at RMU as an actuarial science major. Both he and his son were impressed by RMU’s elite designation by the Society of Actuaries as a Center of Actuarial Excellence, of which there are fewer than 20 in the United States. “I think Michael also liked the fact that I was an RMU grad,” Smith adds. His daughter, Sarah, a high school freshman, already has her sights on Robert Morris too, he says.
Smith is a champion of education, and he recommends that students take advantage of every opportunity that comes their way. “If you’re thinking of going on for your master’s degree,” he says, “don’t wait until you’re 47 like I did, when you’re working full time and helping raise a family. Do it while you’re younger and have more time and energy. Take your education very seriously and work hard, but have some fun along the way.”