Magnum Opus

Opus Corp. founder reflects on his 'beautiful friendship' with St. Thomas and the newly named Opus College of Business

Gerald Rauenhorst always has had a simple and direct answer over the years as the University of St. Thomas has inquired about naming a building, a professorship or a program after him: "No."

Sitting on a couch in his Minnetonka office one August afternoon, he smiled ever so slightly as he repeated the word. When asked why, he pulled out a sheet of paper and began to read from it, almost as if he had expected the question.

"At church last Sunday, there was a reading from Micah, Chapter 6, Verse 8," he said, adjusting his glasses as he squinted at the words. "You have been told, O man, what is good, and what the Lord requires of you: Only to do the right and to love goodness, and to walk humbly with your God."

Rauenhorst paused and shrugged. "That's the reason," he said. "I don't want my name on things. I just want to walk humbly with my God."

And thus it came as no surprise to an interviewer - and, for that matter, to anybody at the University of St. Thomas - when Rauenhorst offered the same soft but firm "no" when asked earlier this year if he would append his name to the College of Business.

"I know that almost all business schools are named after people," he said, "and so are many companies. Ours used to be, but it isn't any more. Opus is the company." And thus, Opus is the name behind the College of Business, as announced Oct. 19 during a ceremony at the downtown Minneapolis campus. From this day forward, it will be known as the Opus College of Business at the University of St. Thomas.

Even getting Rauenhorst to agree to have Opus in the college's name took some persuasion on the part of St. Thomas and his family and friends. He joked, in referring to Opus' visibility at St. Thomas, "You can't hide an elephant in the tent forever." But in a more serious vein, he said he went along with the suggestion "for only one reason: to help St. Thomas."

Rauenhorst and Opus have been helping St. Thomas for nearly 50 years, back to the first construction bid that his company won at his alma mater in 1958 for Dowling Residence Hall. Twenty buildings later, Opus still is designing and constructing buildings at St. Thomas, and Rauenhorst is pleased with how every one turned out.

Just as he is pleased with how every one of the 2,300 buildings that Opus has constructed around the United States has turned out. He calls those buildings "creations," and that is only fitting, considering how the word "Opus" is Latin for "a creative work."

"It is creative work," he said. "Everything we do is a new creation. We don't repeat ourselves."

Rauenhorst wasn't necessarily looking for "creative" work when he founded Trojan Construction Co. in 1953. He just wanted to make a successful bid on his first construction project.

The seventh of eight children of Henry and Margaret Rauenhorst was born in 1927. His parents, the children of immigrants from Germany and Luxembourg, farmed rented land near Bird Island in west-central Minnesota and later moved to other tenant farms west of Olivia. They struggled through the Depression but always had food on the table and clothes on their backs. As Rauenhorst recalled in the 2003 book A Better Way: Faith, Family, and the First Fifty Years of the Opus Group of Companies, "In those days, money was short, but I never thought of us as poor."

The entrepreneur in Rauenhorst showed himself at an early age. At seven, he and his younger brother, Bob, began a business. They used a pony-drawn buggy to haul freshly picked corn to a highway intersection and sold ears to passers-by.

"We put our money in the bank, knowing it was for our education," Rauenhorst said in A Better Way. "Even though after two or three years we had no more than $100 in the bank, we were learning the value of money and saving."

At age 10 he helped an older brother, George, raise mink, and three years later they switched to turkeys - 2,400 turkeys in the first year alone. While still in high school, Gerry and Bob built a 1,000-seat, concrete-block and wooden-plank "stadium" for Olivia's semi-pro baseball team. As compensation, they received the rights to the stadium's concession stand for 10 years, and when the facility opened they bought a corn popper and sold popcorn.

"We had just a wonderful life," Rauenhorst said in A Better Way. "We were poor in material things - we didn't even have an indoor biffy until I was 15 - but we were rich in the things that count. We were taught all the right things. To work hard and to not cheat and to always tell the truth. To treat people with respect, to pay your bills, and to go to church every Sunday. Those were lessons we learned - the habits we acquired - during those days on the farm."

His mother insisted that he get a college education. With $5,000 that he received for his contribution to the family business, he enrolled at St. Thomas in 1945. He graduated in three years with a bachelor's degree in economics and enrolled at Marquette University to pursue a bachelor's degree in civil engineering.

Before moving to Milwaukee, Rauenhorst acquired his pilot's license and bought a plane - a 65-horsepower, warsurplus Grasshopper - from a neighbor for $500. He used it to fly between Milwaukee and St. Paul, where Henrietta, his College of St. Catherine sweetheart and soon-to-be-wife, was a senior, and he taught Marquette classmates how to fly for $5 an hour. He also taught civil engineering courses at Marquette, at age 22.

After graduating in 1951, Rauenhorst worked as an engineer for a contractor for $80 a week, and he and Henrietta had the first of their seven children. He was troubled by his employer's business practices, however, so he quit his job and moved to Minnesota. After another dissatisfying experience, this time as a job estimator for a contractor, he decided to start Trojan Construction.

His first two bids were unsuccessful, but then he learned that Zion Lutheran in his hometown of Olivia wanted to build a new church. With $354 in his pocket and a $2,500 loan from an older brother, he won the contract in 1953. One job led to another and he renamed the company Rauenhorst Construction to underscore his personal accountability and to avoid any confusion with his brothers' seed-corn enterprise. He continued to win bids and over the years bought large valuable tracts of suburban land that he later would develop.

Two of Rauenhorst's early projects were at St. Thomas - Dowling in 1958 and a new student union, Murray Hall, in 1959. About 20 contractors bid on the jobs, which were attractive because of government-backed financing, "and my goal was to win no matter how many bidders," he said. In A Better Way, he recalled how he stayed up all night calculating his Murray bid, went through the bidding process the following afternoon, won the contract and went home.

That evening, Father James Shannon, St. Thomas president, and Monsignor William O'Donnell, dean of the college, appeared at the Rauenhorst home. "They wanted to see what the winner was doing to celebrate," according to A Better Way. "The winner was sound asleep on the living room floor, but he awoke long enough to offer a toast of blackberry brandy to his unexpected guests."

It was, to paraphrase "Casablanca's" closing line, "the beginning of a beautiful friendship." Rauenhorst's company went on to build - and often design - 18 more buildings at St. Thomas as it applied the design/build concept in which his company assumed full responsibility for design and construction of a building.

Seven years after the Murray bid, Monsignor Terrence Murphy succeeded Shannon as president of St. Thomas, which had an enrollment of 1,901 undergraduate students and 266 graduate education students. At an alumni event to announce the appointment, Rauenhorst shook Murphy's hand and said, "Congratulations. You have a big job ahead of you." Murphy replied, "I know it, and I'd like you to help. Will you become a trustee of St. Thomas?" Rauenhorst accepted on the spot, and Murphy later said,"It was one of the best decisions of my life."

Rauenhorst told Murphy early in their 25-year partnership as trustee and president that he believed St. Thomas should reopen its law school, which had closed in 1933 because of the Depression. The two of them also talked about an affiliation with William Mitchell College of Law, located across Summit Avenue from the St. Thomas arches.

"In 1973," Rauenhorst said, "Monsignor Murphy came to me and said, 'You know, the William Mitchell deal doesn't look like it will work. I think we'd be better off starting an MBA program. It will work with our culture a little better. There's a place for it in the Twin Cities.' "

At the time, only the University of Minnesota offered an M.B.A. degree in the Twin Cities, and it was a full-time program for day students. Murphy envisioned a part-time program for evening and weekend students who held fulltime jobs.

"I thought it over," Rauenhorst said, "and told him, "That's a pretty good idea. It's something we can do - and right now. As it turned out, it was a good decision."

Rauenhorst chuckled. Good, indeed. St. Thomas began to offer graduate business courses in 1974 to 76 students, the first of many MBA programs at area colleges. St. Thomas' graduate business enrollment peaked at 3,000 and another 1,100 students enrolled in graduate software and engineering courses that Rauenhorst encouraged St. Thomas to establish in the mid-1980s as an offshoot, of sorts, from the business curriculum. Today the College of Business enrolls 2,200 graduate students (and a like number of undergraduates have declared business as a major).

As enrollment spiraled in the 1980s because of graduate program growth and the 1977 decision to enroll women as undergraduate students, St. Thomas found itself running out of space in St. Paul. Research showed that an increasing number of graduate business students came from Hennepin County and worked in downtown Minneapolis.

Rauenhorst had purchased the vacant Powers department store building at Fifth Street and Marquette Avenue with the intention of eventually redeveloping the site. In the meantime, though, he told the space-starved Murphy, "How about moving in there? I'll give you free rent."

St. Thomas launched its so-called "experiment" in February 1987, hoping for 100 graduate business students that first semester in downtown Minneapolis. Instead, 280 showed up, and the number doubled for the fall and quadrupled within four years. St. Thomas realized it needed a real campus - not just a storefront operation.

Rauenhorst helped Murphy find the location and in 1992 St. Thomas opened its first building, which later was renamed Terrence Murphy Hall, at 1000 La Salle Ave. Rauenhorst took a keen interest in the building, and after seeing the atrium design he said the ceiling reminded him of the shape of the Sistine Chapel. He suggested the ceiling be painted in fresco, and artist Mark Balma came up with the seven virtues - "a brilliant idea," said Rauenhorst, whose favorite is prudence. "That's wisdom. That's what St. Thomas taught me."

His vision, however, was broader than one ceiling or one building.

"When we identified the site for the Minneapolis campus, I remembered having been in England in 1964," Rauenhorst said. "My wife and I were at Christ Church College at Oxford. We walked into the courtyard and I said to her, 'Someday I am going to build something like this.' "

"This" was a campus with buildings that surrounded an open green quadrangle. Rauenhorst thought an Oxfordstyle campus would be appropriate in Minneapolis. St. Thomas bought the block to the south, placing the School of Law there in 2003, and Schulze Hall opened adjacent to Terrence Murphy Hall last year. With space for two more buildings on the law school block, Rauenhorst's Oxford-style courtyard one day will be realized. (A fourth building, Opus Hall, opened on the block north of Murphy Hall in 1999 for the School of Education.)

With Murphy's retirement as president in 1991, Father Dennis Dease found himself stepping into rather large shoes. He knew Rauenhorst, having served with him on the St. Thomas board since 1982. In A Better Way, Dease recalled a lunch they had after he took office:

"Gerry said, quietly and simply, 'Now, don't screw it up.' He said, 'St. Thomas is a wonderful place and there's never been any ill said of it. I know you'll do well, but this is really quite a trust.' "

Rauenhorst recalled another conversation with Dease. "He came to me one day and asked, 'How am I doing?' I said, 'Well, it could have been like with the Green Bay Packers when Vince Lombardi left. It took four coaches to reach success (and another Super Bowl title).'

"We got lucky at St. Thomas. We got our great one right away in Father Dease."

As much success as St. Thomas realized with the opening of the Minneapolis campus and the ongoing evolution of the St. Paul campus with projects such as the Frey Science and Engineering Center, something still was missing as far as Rauenhorst was concerned. He still wanted a law school, and he wouldn't let Dease forget about it. Another attempt at a William Mitchell deal failed in the mid-1990s, and the university opened its own law school in 2001.

Recently, it seems that wherever you turned you saw an Opus crane on one of the campuses. The company designed and constructed four St. Thomas buildings in the last five years - the law school and Schulze Hall in Minneapolis and Selby Residence Hall and McNeely Hall in St. Paul. In Rauenhorst's mind, that kind of building record - along with program development such as the Schulze School of Entrepreneurship in the College of Business - occurred for a simple reason.

"People ask me if you can teach entrepreneurship," he said. "I don't think you can teach entrepreneurship, but you can teach people enough so they can find out if they are entrepreneurs. In that sense, an entrepreneurship school is good. Entrepreneurs are born, not made, and you need to provide an environment so they can find that out."

As St. Thomas began construction of new McNeely Hall last year, one of the architectural elements on the blueprints was a 42-inch-high wall outside the main entrance on the southwest corner of Summit and Cleveland, reminiscent of the walls outside the science and engineering center. One idea was to etch a name - the Rauenhorst name - in script-style letters on the wall.

You know what happened with that idea. One word: "No."

But Rauenhorst eventually did agree to put the Opus name on the wall, as well as on the College of Business. The decision reminded him of the discussion that his family had in 1982, when the issue was whether to change the name of the Rauenhorst Corporation.

The company's growth generated concerns that the family name might become too visible, and Henrietta Rauenhorst was afraid their children might be singled out at school and elsewhere. Rauenhorst balked at a name change, saying it might slow growth, and he also didn't want to spend money on new signs and stationery. He put the issue to a family vote ... and lost.

Years earlier, the name "Opus" had been attached to two office and commercial developments under consideration at the time - remember, the term is Latin for "a creative work" - and the name also appealed to Rauenhorst for his company. He approved the formal change to Opus in 1982. Ever the pragmatist, he quickly found himself liking the name.

"Opus has worked out really well for us," he said in A Better Way. "It has fit us very well - and it's easy to remember. It's great for advertising, too. We put one of those big semitrailers we use for tools and so forth at a construction site, and people can see those four big letters printed about seven feet tall on the side about a mile and a half away!"

Pragmatism aside, over the last quarter century Rauenhorst has come to realize that Opus is a better fit for philosophical and personal reasons, too. He bristles a bit, however, when asked if he is "proud" of the Opus name.

"I don't take pride in it," he said, "but I am satisfied and content. That's how I want to ride off into the sunset."

And all the while, as Micah wrote, doing right, loving goodness and walking humbly with his God.

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