By Chris Jones
Tribune arts reporter
July 15, 2004
Bryan, who is 67, is anything but inactive. A more apt descriptor would be a donor clearinghouse for Chicago arts and culture. That would be a house with a sole proprietor.
Few other Chicagoans can pick up the phone and, demonstrably, ring in quite so many millions of dollars.
"John," says the philanthropist Cindy Pritzker (one of Bryan's major donors to the Millennium Park project), "is quite a salesman."
Bryan's uncanny ability to raise money for civic projects such as Millennium Park is the consequence of a number of unusual attributes that come together in his person.
A genteel native of Mississippi, he is a Democrat (and early supporter of John Kerry) who looks a little like the former majority leader Bob Dole.
He speaks in measured, soothing and decidedly patrician tones, but he's a close associate of Mayor Richard M. Daley.
He speaks out for his beliefs, but eschews heated rhetoric.
Bryan has a palpable longtime commitment to the more prestigious Chicago arts groups he says that like most people, he prefers to work on projects for which he has a passion. That list of passions includes (but is not limited to) the Art Institute of Chicago, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Lyric Opera, all of which Bryan extensively has supported over the last 20 years.
"I'm not terribly interested in diseases and things like that," Bryan said in a recent interview in his office. "But I think I was born with a natural attraction to the arts. I've always made aesthetic judgments. And I've developed a fascination with art, architecture and design."
Clearly, Bryan is capable of making highly articulate arguments in favor of the financial support of the arts but doing so in a middle-of-the-road fashion with which it's difficult for anyone to disagree.
"I've supported government support for the arts," he says with a shrug, "but I've never made a crusade of it. I believe that our cultural organizations and facilities are better off managed by the private sector than the public sector."
That view notwithstanding, Bryan still has pursued a more expansive vision of the nature of corporate sponsorship of the arts than one typically finds in a corner office. He says he sees nothing wrong with the arts making an effort to provide special sponsor nights or prominent logos or naming rights and the like. But he also argues that business philanthropy need not be governed merely by self-interest.
"To spend a life in which you're only trying to please shareholders and yourself," Bryan says, "is both un-American and unfamiliar."
Bryan has a Rolodex full of the right names, an outsider's affection for his adopted city of Chicago, and, most important, an incomparable knowledge of why rich people such as himself actually want to give money to things. The reasons, he figured out long ago, have only a passing correspondence with need.
Bryan's clear affection for the local cultural landscape seems born of a certain idealism and liberalism, but when it comes to dialing for dollars, people say his technique is more a mixture of pragmatism and persistence.
"He doesn't get discouraged," says James Feldstein, a prominent local fundraising consultant who worked with Bryan on Millennium Park. "And his knowledge of details is extraordinary."
More often than not with Bryan, there's no need for any discouragement because he's so careful about the nature of his requests in the first place that they rarely lack success.
"I always tell people," Bryan observed in his office recently, "don't ask me to raise money to fix the roof. It has to be something that's exciting. Like they say, it takes some magic to stir people's blood."
Tapping competitive nerve
And there are other interesting axioms in the Bryan rulebook for raising big money.
One is that people asked to give money want and expect to get involved in the details of the initial planning.
"That's why," he says, "we have all those committees for Millennium Park. There's the garden committee . . ."
Even though he lives in Lake Bluff, Bryan also never hesitates to use Chicago's competitive instincts to serve his ends. To no small degree, that's how he got people to pay for Millennium Park.
"You wrap the civic cloak around the problem," he says, arguing that it's far easier to get suburban residents to give money to the City of Chicago than is the case in the more fractured environments of New York or Los Angeles.
"The notion that you are going to bring the world's greatest architect to town and do definitional things is very attractive. These are the things that become icons and postcards. If you get all that right, I promise you that people will give you money."
When Bryan retired from Sara Lee in 2001 after more than a quarter century of service, he left behind a grateful corporation willing to give him money.
When Bryan took over Consolidated Foods (which later changed its name to Sara Lee), it was a conglomerate with $2.4 billion in annual sales. But by the time Bryan retired, the Chicago-based company had acquired Hanes, Playtex Apparel, Superior Tea, Jimmy Dean Meats, Chock Full O' Nuts and a variety of other familiar brands. In the first nine months alone of fiscal 2004, Sara Lee reported sales of $15.5 billion.
On his retirement, Bryan negotiated an enviable package from his employer reportedly including a car and driver until 2008, two administrative aides until 2011, and the NBC Tower office space until at least 2009. He also has an eight-year consulting contract with Sara Lee that's worth $5 million. Those accoutrements were enough to land Bryan some bad publicity at the time as one of the poster boys of excessive CEO retirement perks comparisons were made to Jack Welch's golden departure from General Electric.
Active in business world
Bryan is a member of three major corporate boards: General Motors, Goldman Sachs and the London-based British Petroleum. He recently resigned from the Bank One board following its merger with J.P. Morgan, since the new corporation competes too closely with Goldman Sachs. Nonetheless, it's hard to make a case that Bryan has not used his considerable post-retirement resources to effect good works for Chicago.
Given Bryan's largesse, most arts groups in town can barely find sufficient words to communicate their admiration and gratitude. But when it comes to affection for Bryan it's not just about the cash.
Whereas a lot of younger philanthropists can be notorious for interfering with staffers once the project is under way, Bryan is known for making no such demands once he has secured all his commitments and soothed all the egos involved. Arts leaders say that bodes well for Millennium Park.
"John Bryan has always been inclined to hire good people," says Roche Schulfer, the executive director of the Goodman Theatre, "and then get out of their way."
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