By Ret Boney
RALEIGH, N.C. — Ed Fitts, A graduate of N.C. State University and founder of a successful packaging company, considers himself an industrial engineer, businessman and entrepreneur.
So when contemplating a major gift to his alma mater, he applied his own perspective to the task of making a $10 million “investment” in the department of industrial and systems engineering he graduated from in 1961.
That investment, which comes with an associated business plan Fitts developed, is the largest-ever endowed gift to academics at N.C. State and resulted in the university’s only endowed department, which now bears his name.
Fitts’ goal for his investment is lofty.
“We’re facilitating the focus of industrial engineering for the 21st century,” he says. “We want the department to advance to the top echelon.”
That means improving the school’s ranking to the top five from 14th of 75 industrial engineering departments across the country, as compiled by U.S. News & World Report, says Fitts.
And it means helping the department refine its focus from traditional manufacturing to manufacturing related to up-and-coming fields like health care and biotechnology.
“When you invest in something, you have a reason for doing that,” he says of the business world. “And you expect to have returns on what you do. You need to have reasonable and attainable goals and you need to be able to measure your performance.”
Nino Masnari, dean of the college of engineering at N.C. State, calls Fitts’ donation a “transforming gift” for the college and the department.
“The intent is to provide the very best program we can for our students,” he says. “If we pay attention to the quality of people we bring in, it will make us competitive with the best programs.”
Fitts’ business plan took more than two years to develop and is based on market research, including interviews with several of the country’s leading industrial-engineering programs.
He recruited a committee of five, including the head of the nation’s top-ranked industrial-engineering department, to research and develop the plan, then worked with representatives of N.C. State’s industrial engineering department to fine-tune it.
By identifying the competition and understanding who is number one and why, Fitts says, he was able to understand what it would take for N.C. State’s department to take over the top spot.
Funded by Fitts’ investment, the plan calls for three new endowed professorships, four new assistant professors and up to 14 fellowships for doctoral students.
It also calls for increasing the department’s enrollment to 410 from 310 over the next six years, and includes substantial funding for new equipment, as well as public relations and advertising dollars to publicize the changes.
“It’s about raising the bar and achieving excellence in what you’re doing and putting out the best students you possibly can,” Fitts says.
Originally from Littleton, N.C., north of Raleigh near the Virginia line, Fitts graduated from N.C. State with a degree in industrial engineering in 1961 and went on to found Dopaco, a Pennsylvania-based packaging products manufacturer.
Fitts’ involvement with his alma mater began about seven years ago, he says, when he endowed several scholarships in the department.
“As I became more connected with the college of industrial engineering, I realized there was a tremendous need for something significant to help make our program something very special,” he says.
After selling his interest in Dopaco in 2004, he began planning his investment with the goal of having a significant long-term impact on the industrial-engineering department.
To help manage his investment, Fitts will chair an advisory board designed to help the department meet its recruiting and funding objectives in a timely fashion.
“We don’t want to have any roadblocks preventing us from moving ahead, so we’ll make sure the funds are there and flowing freely,” he says.
The advisory board, which initially will include Fitts and the four people who helped him develop the business plan, will also be heavily engaged in the recruiting process, says Fitts.
He says his investment will be successful if, several years down the road, the department has grown substantially, has its own building on N.C. State’s Centennial Campus, is perceived as one of the nation’s top programs and is on the “leading edge of industrial engineering for the 21st century.”
“This is not a feel-good thing,” he says. “If you’re in business, you expect a good return and milestones and objectives.”