Lessons learned as an undergrad primed Interpublic Group Chairman & CEO Michael Roth (BBA ’67) to steer his enterprise out of rough waters.
Growing up, Michael Roth had a sound plan for his future: The son of an attorney father and a bookkeeper mother, he “always felt a business background coupled with a law degree was the perfect combination for success—I thought I’d be a tax lawyer.” Though he acquired all the credentials necessary for his chosen profession—a BBA degree from Zicklin’s precursor, City College Downtown; a CPA license; and law degrees from New York University and Boston University—he’s instead made his mark as a farsighted executive known for guiding struggling enterprises through challenging times.
A partner at accounting giant Coopers & Lybrand by age 30, Roth later held C-suite positions at Primerica and at Mutual Life Insurance Company of New York, where he rose to CEO and Chair and oversaw MONY’s successful conversion to a shareholder-owned company and its acquisition by AXA Financial in 2004. He joined the board of the Interpublic Group of Companies in 2002 as the advertising and marketing conglomerate was dealing with crippling internal control issues and downgraded debt status; in 2004 he was named Chair and the following year, CEO—a role he calls the highlight of his career so far. “It’s not often you get to help turn around a 50,000-plus-person company—it’s like turning a battleship!” says Roth. “It’s been a privilege to work at IPG and work through the control issues, rebuild our investment grade rating, and resuscitate a great institution through technological change and through investing in our people.”
Roth learned long ago that positive results don’t just happen; they require effort and teamwork. The Brooklyn native and product of the New York City public school system struggled academically during his first semester at college, but the support system he found among classmates and faculty members quickly had him back on track. “We all helped each other because we were all in the same boat, going to class and to jobs afterward. I formed lasting friendships,” he says. He calls beloved accounting professor Irving Chaykin his “favorite professor by far,” recalling the professor’s high standards. “You had to have a B average to pass his class, and we’d argue that C is passing,” Roth recounts, laughing. “Professor Chaykin would ask us, ‘If you were going to see a doctor for a problem with your stomach, would you want your doctor to have gotten a C in stomach?’ I’ll never forget that. And it sort of changed my whole approach to college, and subsequently I ended up doing quite well.”
Although Roth notes that today’s Zicklin School appears different on the surface, it remains, at its core, the same. “All of us were from hardworking families with limited access to funds,” he explains. “Today those families reflect different ethnicities than during my college years, but for them Zicklin is serving the same purpose: to provide a quality education that’s affordable.”