Joe Rippe’s college career began like that of many students—academically awful, but, boy, was it fun. He was in Missouri, three states removed from the watchful eye of his parents and far from his previous responsibilities, he was free to do as he pleased. And he did.
He joined a fraternity and played saxophone in a band. Studying was something he did when he had time.
This, of course, didn’t sit well with his father, who was a pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps kind of guy. He left school at age 14 when his father died so he could drive a cinder truck and support his family. Even though he wasn’t old enough to get a license, the local police knew that if they busted him the family would starve, so they left him alone. After serving in WWII, he spent his nights in school, learned the hard way the worlds of real estate and banking and eventually went to work for one of his childhood friends—Carl Lindner—as president of Provident Bank.
Life’s tough, he tried to teach his kids. You need to work hard. You need to be disciplined.
“We ate dinner together every night,” Joe says, “and if you were playing ball beforehand, you didn’t dare show up dirty. And there was the standing rule every Sunday: You don’t make Dad late for Mass. If you made him late, you were his for the day. You only did that once.”
So Joe’s preference for good times instead of good grades didn’t sit well. The elder Rippe, though, knew how to handle it. While Joe was home on break during the fall semester, the family hosted a fundraising event for the Musketeer Club. He made sure his son was introduced to Xavier’s president at the time, Paul O’Connor, S.J.
“What do you know about Xavier?” O’Connor asked.
“Not much,” Joe said. “I’ve been to a few Xavier-UC football games before.”
“Why don’t you come down and see me. I’ll tell you a little about Xavier.”
“OK. Maybe when I get back.”
“How about tomorrow?”
“Tomorrow. Come see me tomorrow.”
The two spent the day together. Before Rippe left, O’Connor had his secretary tell the other college that Joe wouldn’t be back. Rippe laughs.
“That guy could sell you sand in the desert,” he says. Sales job or not, it worked. Rippe started at Xavier and started over. He became a serious student, earning his bachelor’s degree in accounting and an MBA as well, landing fast a job with the Big Eight accounting firm Arthur Young. Life was good except for one thing: He noticed the little guys—the entrepreneurs—were not getting the attention they deserved. So he and two other accountants left the firm and created Rippe and Kingston in October 1976. Except no one told them it helps if they have clients. They crunched some numbers and made some cold calls until January 1977 when they got a call from a businessman in Detroit. He wanted them to help him acquire a business.
“You help me find an acquisition,” he said, “and you’ll have an ongoing client. Besides, you don’t have anything else to do anyway.”
He was right. He used them to buy five companies over the next eight years. They added mergers and acquisitions to their skillset and grew the company into one of the 20 largest non-publicly held accounting firms in the country, with additional investment in time management solutions, capital advising, real estate and a slew of other individual investments.
The collection of work helped him receive the Deal Maker Award for entrepreneurship from the Association for Corporate Growth in April, and gave him the wisdom that a long list of organizations have asked him to serve on their boards, including Xavier. It also helps that he’s not lost the Jesuit ideals of making the world better that were ingrained in him as a student.
“We try to take into consideration in each deal if are we making the world better or more difficult. We don’t go in and wipe out layers of management and destroy people’s lives. And we always look at ethics of the situation. If a potential client is a problem, maybe that’s not the client we need to represent.
“You know, you can lead a life of success and/or a life of significance,” he adds. “You can do the former without doing the latter, but there’s a lot we can be doing to help others, to make this a better place to live.”