It was a never-to-be-forgotten life lesson for Gary McCullough. Plummeting to earth after having just jumped from a plane during Army training, McCullough’s parachute failed to open.
The chute came out, but never caught air—a frightening phenomenon known as a cigarette roll. Fortunately, the 19-year-old McCullough had a reserve chute and landed safely. But he was required to make one more jump to earn his wings.
“The question all day was would I make the fifth jump that evening. I figured the law of averages said that I was pretty much done with cigarette rolls, and so I did the jump,” McCullough said. “It was a close call, and I think I’ve always had an attitude that nothing’s guaranteed; nothing’s a given.”
McCullough has also landed safely in the corporate world.
Today, the Wright State University graduate is president and CEO of Career Education Corporation (CEC), a for-profit secondary education company that takes in roughly $2 billion in annual revenue and employs about 14,000 workers.
CEC operates fully accredited universities, including online institutions; 17 culinary schools; 38 allied health schools that teach surgical technology, nursing, dental hygiene, etc.; and art and design schools that teach interior design and related skills.
McCullough’s ascent in the corporate world began at the Cincinnati-based Procter & Gamble, where he spent time in marketing and later ran the company’s laundry detergent business in Venezuela. Next, it was on to chewing gum at Chicago’s William Wrigley Jr. Company, where he oversaw 3,300 employees and was responsible for the business in North and South America. Then, he ran a division of Abbott Laboratories called Ross Products, a world nutrition leader with 5,300 employees and more than $2.6 billion in annual sales.
When McCullough (B.S.B. Management, ’81) arrived at Career Education Corporation as CEO in 2007, the company was experiencing earnings disappointments and other turbulence. McCullough determined that CEC’s rapid growth had resulted in costs rising faster than revenues.
“So what I’ve done over the course of the last couple years is rebuild the leadership and management structure and work to take unnecessary costs and bad business habits out of the business and ultimately make sure the culture is one that puts students first,” he said. “And with those things, we’ve managed to get ourselves back on track.”
McCullough said the most surprising thing about running CEC is the sheer volume of decisions he faces daily—decisions that affect employees, shareholders, constituent groups, and others.
“You have to be pretty nimble,” he said. “You have to be able to compartmentalize things.”
McCullough has learned some painful, but valuable, lessons in his corporate career.
“I’ve been faced with failure, and fortunately I’ve been able to bounce back because I’ve looked at myself in the mirror and tried to be objective as much as I can about what caused the issue,” he said. “You can shrink from it, or you can rise above it.”
McCullough grew up in a military family. His father, a Dayton native, was in the Army. McCullough spent most of his boyhood in Germany, where his father was stationed. There were also stints in Virginia and Kentucky.
McCullough started college, but then dropped out. He began working as a door-to-door salesman and eventually returned to the family home in Dayton.
“My mother made me promise I would go back to college,” he said. “When I told her I would do it, she said she wanted me to do it that day.”
McCullough ended up enrolling at Wright State. He took morning classes so he could work jobs in the afternoons and evenings. He also joined the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC).
“I think back and it’s clear to me that my experience at Wright State changed my life,” McCullough. “I got a solid foundation from a business point of view by going to the business school. But I also got a solid foundation of leadership experience by participating in ROTC.”
McCullough went on to become a lieutenant in the Army, first serving as an infantry officer and then with the Presidential Honor Guard. He pulled duty at the White House and Pentagon, and commanded the ceremonial guards at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery.
Then it was on to grad school at Northwestern University; then the corporate world.
McCullough said he’s faced adversity over the years, suffered disappointments, been passed over.
“But what I’ve told people is that the race ultimately is won by the people who are strong and the people who are well prepared and who are willing to take risks,” he said.
McCullough applauded Wright State and other business schools for emphasizing ethics and morality.
“It’s unfortunate that we have to teach those things, but I think that’s missing in many schools,” he said. “What I’ve learned over the course of the years is if you focus on quality, if you focus on the best product, if you focus on doing the right things, it comes back around in positive business benefits.”
McCullough said the most valuable leadership lesson he’s learned over the years is the importance of supporting your employees and recognizing that they come to work trying to do their best.
That lesson harkens back to McCullough’s Army days at Fort Bragg, N.C., when one cold and rainy February day a commanding general came to review the troops. The general asked one of McCullough’s drivers what he thought of the field exercise.
“He said, ‘Sir, it really sucks,’” McCullough recalled. “He said, ‘I don’t think this is infantry weather. I could sure use a Snickers bar.”
A few days later, a box with 30 Snickers bars arrived for the driver. A note from the general said, “Share these with your buddies.”
“Now, I don’t send out a bunch of Snickers bars,” McCullough said, “but I think if you’re attuned to what people need and are looking for, you can motivate them in ways that sometimes even they don’t understand.”