Richard Davis’ decision to become CEO of Phoenix-based nonprofit Make-A-Wish America was perplexing to some. It shouldn’t have been. To Davis, 60, the connection between the nonprofit and U.S. Bancorp, where he served as chief executive until 2017, is seamless. Both are in the business of “fulfilling dreams,” said Davis, who begins his new duties Jan. 2. He’s thrilled to be at the helm of Make-A-Wish, which in 38 years has granted 300,000 wishes to critically ill children, from meeting a superhero to designing a 3-D airplane to getting a puppy. But banking as dream-making? Sure. Davis, who climbed the banking ranks beginning as a teller at age 18, reflects on that, and the joy of new challenges.
Q: So, oppressive heat won out over windchill?
A: When I went to Phoenix to meet with Make-A-Wish staff, someone apologized for their “four pretty tough months” of heat. Somebody else said, “You do know where he’s coming from, right?” Although we sold our home here, I’ll always find ways to return to Minnesota.
Q: A lot of people expressed surprise when you retired from U.S. Bank in April of 2017. You were at the top of your game and only 59. What drove you?
A: When I was 56, after seven years at the helm, I sat down with two of the bank’s lead directors and said, “We should start thinking about my exit at the 10-year mark.” First, I personally believe a good CEO of a large company should not be there for more than 10 years. Second, my successor, Andy Cecere, was two years younger than me. If he thought I was going to work until 65, we might lose him. Third, I wanted to do one more thing. I wanted to be part of something. I always did.
Q: And Make-A-Wish was it?
A: Not exactly. After I retired, I didn’t know what I’d do next. But I made myself available. I tell my peers that, between 50 and 70, we are blessed with experience, wisdom, wealth, access and time. Why would we go off the grid? I knew the right opportunity would come along. I looked in Minnesota but nothing quite jumped out at me. I was playing putt-putt with my grandkids when a search firm contacted me with a “new opportunity.” I scrolled down on my phone and saw Make-A-Wish. My heart jumped. It’s a beautiful brand and exactly at the heart of what I want to do. It’s in the business of hope.
Q: And it’s getting easier for families to have hope. Many Make-A-Wish children now live into adulthood.
A: Many of the children survive into adulthood. This reality needs to be told to more people. Still, some kids don’t make it. But I recently met with a “Wish Child,” who had cancer in her youth. She’s 40 now. She said, “If I had lived for only four more days, those would have been among the best four days of my life.” She explained to me that when a child and his or her family gets to feel normal, when everyone gets to have a moment when they’re not thinking about the pain, when hope is present, it can be life-changing.
Q: And your mission is to get that word out to more people?
A: I’ve got a lifetime of business partners and a Rolodex of relationships that’s as good as anybody’s. I want to take the Make-A-Wish story and put it in front of people who can help create even more wishes. That means business leaders, but also doctors who need to hear this story and give seriously ill children and their families the opportunity to connect with Make-A-Wish.
Q: You’re a bit of an evangelist about banking as a dream machine, too.
A: I always was very faith-based about banking. I’d say to bankers: “You’re not just opening a college fund for these new parents. Seventeen years from now, you’re granting them the experience of watching their child walk across a stage to receive his diploma.” It’s as close as you get to mission-based work.
Q: But you sort of fell into banking. Your mom had other plans for you.
A: My parents moved from Iowa to live near Hollywood. My mom, a school secretary, was very talented and a stage mother to my sister who was a child actor and ballerina. When I was 7, I wandered into an audition of “Wizard of Oz.” I could do a soft shoe and sing quite well. Unexpectedly, “Ricky Davis” ended up being cast in the Lollipop Guild for the two-week run at the Pantages in Hollywood. My mom wanted me to join the Screen Actors Guild, but my dad said, “He doesn’t want to be an actor.” Years later, I became a banker.
A: It was Ricky up to junior high, then Rick, but Rich at my church, then Richard from my first day as a teller. Warren Buffett’s the only one who can call me Dick. I said he can call me whatever he wants as long as he keeps buying my stock.
Q: I’d say your greatest legacy in the Twin Cities was founding Step Up, which has given professional summer jobs to more than 23,000 teenagers. On the other end, you also were chairman for much of the excruciating Minnesota Orchestra lockout. Thoughts on that now?
A: I am very proud of both, because each path created sustainability for so many people. I maintain my passion for the orchestra, despite the challenging path to settlement. They’ve gone on to do wonderful things. And I will always maintain my passion for the youth in Minnesota. They are exceptional and deserving of remarkable futures.
Q: Speaking of youth, is it true that grandparenting is the best job?
A: It’s true. It’s grand. The word is perfect. Five times over!