Most Admired Business Leaders 2014

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by Rita Palmisano

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Business isn’t all about numbers and spreadsheets. St. Louis business owners are some of the most generous CEOs in the nation, giving financial support and their time to creating a better community. Meet some of the area’s Most Admired Business Leaders, as nominated by their peers.

Giving the Gifts of Time, Treasure and Talent - Virginia McDowell

When Virginia McDowell was growing up in suburban Philadelphia, her parents worked four jobs between them to afford to live in a community that had excellent schools. Despite this, both of them were very involved in volunteer activities. “My father was active in politics, and my mother spent many hours working on major projects at our elementary school,” says McDowell. “They both believed strongly that they could have a positive impact on our community through their efforts, and my three siblings and I learned very early in life that one person can make a difference.”

McDowell started to volunteer with her father at 5 years old by helping him campaign on weekends or work at election headquarters stuffing envelopes, and she continued volunteering through high school and into her professional career. As a cancer survivor herself, she has worked with several cancer-related organizations, including serving as president of the AMC Cancer Research Center and as founding board chair and president of Gilda’s Club St. Louis. Currently, McDowell’s list of organizations she volunteers with is long. She’s on the board of trustees of Saint Louis University; is a board member of Haven House, which provides the comfort of home to patients traveling to St. Louis for medical care; is an advisory board member of the Crisis Nursery, which provides a safe haven for children whose families are in crisis; is involved with Focus St. Louis and its Coro™ Women in Leadership program to support the development of women professionals; and is a founding contributor of Launch St. Louis, an organization dedicated to building young professional boards for a variety of St. Louis organizations.

As CEO of Isle of Capri Casinos, McDowell is also active in the gaming industry and with Isle of Capri Casinos’ own charitable division Community Aces. “I was thrilled last year when our employees across the United States volunteered over 20,000 hours to events and organizations in the communities where we are located,” she says.  

She believes that a program like Community Aces can be easily replicated by any company and that both the employees and the organizations reap the reward. “Businesses just need to give their employees time to volunteer for organizations, either through individual projects or company efforts like the American Cancer Society Relay for Life event or the Great Strides walk for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation,” she says. “When friends, family or colleagues ask how to get started, I tell them to follow their passion and contact organizations whose mission is closely aligned with their own beliefs and inquire about volunteer opportunities. I can guarantee that there are a multitude of organizations that would truly appreciate a gift of time, treasure or talent.”

Spreading a Good Example - Steve Gross

When Steve Gross was young, his parents and other family members showed him the impact he could make on the lives of others. “They were always giving back and helping those less fortunate,” says Gross. “My aunt Mary worked in the inner city, and she was involved with charity work as well.”

Carrying this example with him, Gross, who is now the managing partner for Northwestern Mutual in Clayton, decided to become seriously involved with the Northwestern Mutual team at the St. Louis Variety Club and its telethon in 1990. “I made phone calls to raise money for Variety,” he says. “Later, Phil Bender, our managing director at the time, took an active role as a sponsor with the Kingdom House Golf Tournament. Phil left for a different position within the organization, and I took over his role with sponsorship at Kingdom House. I have since grown my personal involvement with Kingdom House on multiple levels.”

Despite full workdays, Gross believes that how people wish to prioritize their time is what’s really important. “I make giving back a real priority along with my family and professional career,” he says.

Gross hopes not only that he can impact Kingdom House and the St. Louis Variety Club but also that his volunteering sets a good example of a business leader making a difference in the community. “My wish is for other business leaders to follow this example and get involved in their own charitable activities,” he says. “They will see how rewarding it can be to take part in a purpose greater than yourself.”

As a starting point, Gross recommends the United Way. “They have their Days of Caring, where you can visit different charitable organizations and help out with numerous activities,” he says. “Our group visited an elder care facility and interacted with residents by speaking to them and playing games. By visiting several organizations, you can discover what you are really passionate about. You can also see firsthand the true impact you are making.”

Blessed to Give Back - Bob Wamhoff

While on a church mission trip to Honduras 11 years ago, Diane Wamhoff made what she thought would be a one-time promise. In a mountain village, she saw students attending school in a building in deplorable condition. “The schoolchildren were in worse shape,” says Bob Wamhoff, Diane’s husband and owner of Wamhoff Financial Planning & Accounting Services. “They were starving. Often they ended up eating leaves or grass. The school told my wife and the church group that if they had a kitchen in the school, the government would provide the food.”

When the church group could not build the kitchen, the Wamhoffs decided to step up. Although they did not know it then, providing the funds to build a kitchen was only the beginning. Soon the Wamhoffs discovered that the government’s promise to provide food was going unfulfilled. So they began to raise the funds to keep the school’s kitchen filled, and their charity, Just Because, was born. “Today we feed kids five days a week,” says Bob Wamhoff. “Because the children are getting fed in school, their parents allow them to stay in school instead of pulling them out to work in a sweatshop. We now have nine kids in college and 45 in high school. Our charity has built houses.”

Although running his charity is almost a full-time job – it involves planning two golf tournaments a year, trivia nights and 5K’s to raise money – Wamhoff feels blessed to have a team, friends and staff who are all willing to help. “I am in the position to do this, and many aren’t,” he says. “I have a great life and great family, staff and friends. It’s natural for me because I have the resources.”

In the future, Wamhoff hopes to continue the education process, sponsoring children from kindergarten through college, and do much more. “There’s still no electricity on the mountain, so when students get home they do homework by candlelight,” he says. “There’s no clinic there – only a doctor one day a week for four hours. There’s no clean water, which is a major reason for illness. There’s a lot I want to see, so we will stay in the community.”

Though Wamhoff’s charity is abroad, he recommends that others who want to give back start locally. “Get involved with the community, and you will be touched by it,” he says.

Saying Yes to Volunteering - Gregory Murphy

When Gregory Murphy was growing up, giving back was just part of his life. In elementary school, he and his classmates would choose names off the “angel tree” and provide gifts to other children during the holiday season. In high school, he and his basketball teammates held a carnival for disabled kids.

Murphy was also influenced by his family. “My mom was always involved in the community,” he says. She showed me that you have to give back to the community because it gives to you.”

Ever since, Murphy, who is a transactional attorney with Carmody MacDonald PC, has continually kept giving back as a part of his life. “I am on the alumni association board of Webster University,” he says. “It’s not a big school with stadiums to bring people together, and we have alumni worldwide. Our struggle now is bringing people together over dozens of campuses and communities. Our centennial is next year for Webster, and we are planning a 24-hour global initiative to involve all the campuses. We are also planning Webster Works Worldwide, in which all students will take off class and do a community service project. The goal is to have all communities represented while bringing people together.”

In addition, Murphy and his wife are involved in The Chapel Venue, a not-for-profit music venue, through their church. “Our church wasn’t using a building and turned it into a venue for artists to display their works, for theater groups to use or for musicians to have concerts,” he says. “They can use the building for free, and they can charge a cover if they like. It’s also an opportunity for people to be in a religious environment with no strings attached. The community grows through this because it brings people from diverse backgrounds together. My wife is the classical director. She arranges musical performances and I help her.”

With a busy professional career, Murphy makes sure to keep his volunteer work a priority on his to-do checklist. “There is always time if you want to do it,” he says. “Another rule of mine is, ‘Don’t say no.’ Eventually you may need someone to come through at one of your events, so I try to say yes.”

Fulfilling Community Needs - Warner Baxter

As a child, Warner Baxter watched his parents and other family members, who were always willing to help not only each other but others too. Although they never talked about it, Baxter naturally followed their lead. “It evolved from involvement with my local church – collecting food, money and clothing for those in need,” he says. “I could see how their eyes lit up when we help them and the difference I was making.”

Today, as the president and CEO of Ameren Missouri, Baxter recognizes his blessings and continues to give back. “I once heard the saying ‘To whom much is given much is expected.’ I try to live by that. We are all given talents. In some cases we are also given resources. I believe we must share that with the community.”

Baxter does so in many ways but he currently has two particular areas of charitable focus: wellness and education. “I have a passion around winning the battle against cancer,” he says. “Like most people today, I have been personally affected by cancer. I lost my father to it, and my brother is a cancer survivor. I work with the American Cancer Society and I am the St. Louis chairman for CEOs Against Cancer. I work with other CEOs to raise cancer awareness and prevention, as well as support important projects. I am also on the board of Barnes-Jewish Hospital, which is leading cancer research in this country with the Siteman Center.”

Baxter’s passion to improve education stems from his belief that the future rests with young people. “I am a strong advocate for excellent and affordable public education,” says Baxter. “I am a University of Missouri-St. Louis graduate, and I sit on the chancellor’s council, through which I and other leaders advise the UMSL chancellor. I also enjoy speaking to students and giving them insights into how they can better prepare for the future.”

Baxter’s hope is that he is setting an example for others to follow. “We have a community with many needs, and it will take a large team to fulfill them,” he says.

As the needs in the community are great, Baxter says, there are many places to volunteer. “Get involved with something you are passionate about because that passion will touch others and you will want to do it day in and day out,” he says.