John Zeglis: A Standout
The story of John Zeglis gives fresh zing to that old saw, "American as Mom and apple pie." He's the kid from the Midwest who grew up to become a first-rate lawyer then rocketed on into a whole new sphere of success, as a top executive for one of the country's largest and most prestigious corporations. Yet even in the elevated post of president and director of AT&T, which he has held since 1997, he shows the good-natured, good-humored approach to life that has undoubtedly fueled his extraordinary career.
When interviewed this spring for InSight, Zeglis was in Chicago on business, having only just returned from an intercontinental foray to Europe and the East. "I flew from Brussels to Japan via Siberia," he said of the journey. "I had to ask myself what's a boy from Momence doing on a plane that stops to refuel at a military outpost in the former Soviet Union?" If pan-global air journeys tend to inspire Zeglis to ponder his autobiography, perhaps it's because the huge arcs of such travel in some way mirror the wide-ranging scope of his life and achievements. The son of a highly respected small town lawyer (his father's offices have occupied the same second-floor walk-up location in the little Illinois farming town of Momence, population 2,968, for more than half a century), Zeglis began distinguishing himself early on, with the elegance and seeming effortlessness that are hallmarks of his style. In high school, he was a star basketball player and golfer, and graduated as class valedictorian. As to the decision to attend the University of Illinois, "Illinois was the big leagues, our Superbowl," he reminisced. "I used to go to football games, and I would think, `Wouldn't it be great to be in school here?' Going to the University of Illinois was perfectly natural." And, after all, his parents are alumni, too. His mother, Dorothy Ann Joost Zeglis, received an A.B. in science and letters from the university in 1944. His father, Donald D. Zeglis, graduated from Illinois in 1945 with an L.L.B. While his younger brothers James and David opted for Purdue and Illinois Wesleyan, respectively (both also went on to study law), Zeglis's path headed straight for Alma Mater, then down the quad to Commerce West and David Kinley Hall. "My father's instinct," he recalled, "was that I should learn business."
That instinct was excellent. "If you know microeconomics and how to do accounting, you can make your way through business and business law," Zeglis said. "I got a wonderful grounding in the basics, which proved to be a great advantage in law school and practice and also in making a major career change." While at Commerce he demonstrated, time and again, his scholastic excellence, as a James Scholar and breaking into new markets and advancing innovative technologies. This new attitude was apparent in the conversation with John Zeglis. AT&T no longer wants to be a keeper of tradition, but desires to be a leader in a new paradigm of communications." Alex Heidbreder, a finance major who's now an analyst with BT Alex Brown in Chicago, did a financial analysis of the company. And Nicole Young, who just graduated Commerce and is going on to work for Arthur Andersen Specialty Consulting, wrote in her profile of Zeglis that: ". . . he learned communications laws are quite general and that rulings and changes in regulations are not based on laws, but rather on market-based economic changes."
In the course of their interview, Zeglis also told her that he would one day like to become a professor of law, business, or, his favorite academic avocation, history. His work with other educational institutions includes chairmanship of the board of trustees for George Washington University, trustee for the Culver Education Foundation, and membership on the Kellogg Advisory Board at Northwestern. He is a director of Helmerich and Payne Corporation in Tulsa, Illinova Corporation in Decatur, and Sara Lee Corporation in Chicago.
John Zeglis is married to Carol Jane Hamm, who also graduated from Illinois in 1969, with a B.S. in elementary education. While a student, she was a member of Alpha Chi Omega and the honorary sororities Alpha Lambda Delta, A-Ti-Us, and Torch, and held chairs on Illini Union Student Activities. She was a Star Course Manager, a representative on Junior Panhellenic, and an Honors Day participant. The Zeglises have three children, and live quietly in the New Jersey town of Madison. "Life in New Jersey is more like small-town life in Illinois than you could imagine," Zeglis noted. "People think that New Jersey is the Turnpike and urban sprawl around New York. But there are lots of small towns along the train line where life is very pleasant and very real." Outside the whirlwind of corporate life, Zeglis also takes special pleasure in extended hiking adventures, and his penchant for packing an oven in which to bake fresh bread each morning has even drawn the attention of USA Today. Of the forays that have become an annual tradition for him and a group of close friends since the early `80s, he said: "We put on backpacks and head into the Rocky Mountains, shooting for up above the tree line, for whatever peak looks high and near. We've been everywhere from Alaska to Colorado." Last year, the group took on the Alps, an experience that proved "more civilized" and very much to Zeglis's taste. "We went from little town to little town," he recalled. "It was great to climb a mountain, wearing only a day pack, then descend and take a taxi to a bed and breakfast in one of the many charming small towns in that region." The Zeglises recently rented a sailboat with four other couples, and sailed around the Cyclades, a group of Greek islands in the Aegean. Legendary for other creative, if more short-term, approaches to stress relief, Zeglis is said to carry Trivial Pursuit cards around in his pocket with him, posing impromptu questions to colleagues at times when tensions may be running high and a little distraction is welcome.
Which brings things back to the work and mostly there is the work, of course. Zeglis's own craft has been borne high on the rising tide of telecommunications, taking him on a journey as full of unexpected tacks as any sea voyage. After graduating first in the Commerce Class of '69, as a Bronze Tablet Scholar with a B.S. in finance, he went on to law school at Harvard. There he served as a senior editor of the Harvard Law Review, and graduated magna cum laude, with a J.D., in 1972. He won a Knox Memorial Fellowship, for postgraduate study of European and global markets at the London Honors Day participant, and as a member of such honoraries as Phi Eta Sigma, Sachem, and Omicron Delta Kappa. A member of Beta Theta Pi social fraternity, he served as house president in his senior year. Other organizations to which he belonged included Beta Gamma Sigma, Phi Kappa Phi, and Sigma Iota Epsilon. He was also a member of the Illio staff, and a committee chairman for Illini Union Student Activities.
Since undergraduate days, his relationship with his alma mater has continued to evolve and deepen. He is a member of the Commerce Business Advisory Council and the Presidents Council. "The campus is one of my favorite places in the whole world," Zeglis said, adding: "I enjoy doing whatever I can to help Commerce and the University of Illinois." In 1996, while calling at Illinois on AT&T business, he dropped by Commerce West to say hello to Jim Gentry, IBE Professor of Finance. John Zeglis remembers Gentry as "the college teacher who got me the most excited about business research. He is a fabulous person." Jim Gentry inspired Zeglis's enthusiasm once again. "Before I knew it," Zeglis recalled, "I had agreed to come back as an Executive-in-Residence and participate in Gentry's honors seminar, Profiles in Leadership." The three-day visit was highlighted when Zeglis presented his seminar, "Changes in the Telecommunications Industry."
Aaron Spelker (B.S. Finance '97), assigned to write the company profile of AT&T for the honors seminar, noted that: "An important change set has occurred at AT&T. It is now on the offensive, School of Economics a project that concluded when a plea came from Howard Trienens, his soon-to-be-mentor at Sidley & Austin. Could he please return stateside and come to work for the Chicago law firm? Zeglis agreed, joined the firm in 1973, and became a partner five years later. It was not long before AT&T matters found their way to the front of his portfolio. The telephone giant was coming under orders from the FCC to break up, and it is John Zeglis who is largely credited with having helped pilot the company through those hazardous waters. "When I began representing AT&T as a lawyer in the `70s, there was a climate of heavy regulation. We threw off some of the wraps in the `80s and early `90s," he recalled. "You're at the strategy and policy table always. Everything you do is affected by government and the law. Thus, lawyers become pivotal to strategy and policy. And that's what I was, for twenty years a lawyer."
By 1984, the legal groundwork necessary to comply with the FCC mandate had been laid. AT&T had spun off the "Baby Bells," emerging as a smaller, more streamlined company, positioned for the next phase of the great telecommunications revolution. And Zeglis, too, was positioned for change. He joined the telecommunications giant as corporate vice president and general attorney. He subsequently went on to positions as executive vice president and general counsel with the corporation's technologies and communications groups, then held the post of senior vice president and general counsel for almost ten years. In that period, his steadily increasing responsibilities were specifically expanded to encompass oversight of public relations and human resources, and corporate strategy and development. In June of 1997 he became vice chairman of the AT&T board of directors and president later that year.
In the years since the break-up that catapulted him into a new career, the challenges he has faced have been major and many. The Bell System divestiture. Deregulation of AT&T's prices and earnings. Globalization of the company. The hostile takeover of NCR. The acquisition of McCaw Cellular. The "trivestiture" of AT&T. The transformation of Western Electric into the high-flying Lucent Technologies. Federal telecommunications legislation, local exchange entry, on-line services start-up, the opening of new markets, and, most recently, adding international, wireless, and consumer services. "It's really a matter of doing what's needed and doing what the company asks you to do one step at a time," he said modestly. "I've really been swept along. After a while the company ran out of presidents."
In fact, in 1997, two presidents had departed within the space of a year. AT&T's search for a CEO thrust the board's musings into the media spotlight cast by such publications as the New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal, which began one article: "Picking a new pope may be easier than this." C. Michael Armstrong, head of Hughes Electronics Corp., got the job, and showed his confidence in Zeglis by elevating him to his current post of president.
"I look on myself as the Forrest Gump of the telecommunications industry," he continued, with the refreshing candor and good humor that have made him one of the country's best liked top executives. "By sheer dumb luck, I've been right in the eye of the storm of every major controversy in telecommunications in the last quarter of the twentieth century." In the coming millennium, he predicted, "The Internet is going to have a dis-intermediating effect on a lot of people in the current business model. People would rather go on-line, than stand in line. The Internet is going to take over a lot of what has been the traditional role of the middleman."
As to the future of business education, Zeglis is emphatic about the importance of the basics, describing the kind of grounding he himself got in accounting and finance as "a core curriculum blazed into that hardware we carry around that hardware known as the mind."
"I don't think business schools ought to adjust the curriculum every time there's a hot new idea," he continued. "However, core business knowledge probably ought to be expanded to include more on the global economy. We all have to think about global requirements. And interdisciplinary work, such as the Technology and Management Program that Commerce has with the College of Engineering, is very important stuff. At Bell Labs, I always loved to dip into the labs and find someone with an interest in business."
"I am a real supporter of the University of Illinois and the College of Commerce," he concluded. "My education there is one of the things that has really made a big difference in my life. I consider myself `advantaged' from having spent time in David Kinley Hall and Commerce West."