Fresh out of college and enrolled in a management program at General Electric, Bill Conaty ’67, H’22 remembers meeting new colleagues — or, in a meritocracy like GE, new competitors — who were all vying for the same rung on the corporate ladder.
“Since Bryant was not as recognized as it is today, it made me run faster, work harder, jump higher, and do more than was necessary to get recognized,” Conaty says from his home in Palm Beach, Florida, where he lives with his wife, Sue.
In his early years at GE, as CEO Jack Welch eliminated layers of management above him — “I could see all these bosses quaking in their boots and I thought maybe, at some point, there will be a ray of light shining down on some of us” — Conaty rose through the ranks. Over time, he ascended to senior vice president of corporate human resources, leading efforts for GE’s 330,000 employees worldwide.
Conaty says the Bulldogs of today have the same tenacity and their achievements have the potential to transform the University, as well.
“It is the character, it’s the grit, it’s the determination of these students and alumni that will continue to enhance Bryant’s reputation,” says Conaty, who has served on the University’s Board of Trustees since 2008. “I think Bryant’s on a roll. We’ve got to keep the ball rolling, and the only way to do that is to establish a bold vision like 2030.”
The Conatys are lead investors in Vision 2030, which sets a trajectory for the next decade through academic excellence, a vibrant student experience, premier Division I and recreational athletics, and economic mobility. In February, the couple committed $5 million to Vision 2030, earmarked for athletics and scholarships. Their gift drives significant momentum toward a Vision 2030 capital campaign and brings their lifetime support of the University to more than $13 million. Of the Conatys’ Vision 2030 commitment, $3 million will support the construction of a new athletic arena and a baseball turf upgrade to extend the length of the training season.
“Baseball, for us, was nothing like it is now,” remembers Conaty, a Bryant Athletic Hall of Fame inductee. “Our trip ‘down south’ was to go to the Quonset Naval Base in Rhode Island and, depending on whose ship was in at the time, they might have a pretty good team.”
As Conaty and his Bryant classmates were graduating, his fellow Americans were called to fight in the cities and jungles of Vietnam. A year after graduation, while he was enrolled in the management program at GE, Conaty drew a low number in the draft lottery and enlisted in the Army.
“I wanted to serve and, hopefully, get back home,” he says. Conaty was assigned a hospital X-ray technician role, which required over a year of education and medical training. When he completed the program, Conaty was sent to a stateside military base and was never deployed overseas.
“For the first-generation kids applying to college, it’s a life-changing experience. And their successes could be inspirational to others in their families, as well. That’s the impetus for me.” -Sue Conaty
Around the same time, Conaty made his first donation to Bryant: $20, in 1970, while he was earning a salary of $147.50 per week at GE.
“That would’ve been a big night out for us,” Sue says, adding that the couple will celebrate their fiftieth wedding anniversary this June. A former special education teacher, Sue volunteers with a local literacy program that helps children read at level by the end of the third grade. She was the motivating force behind the couple’s $2 million Vision 2030 commitment to scholarships for students from low-income backgrounds who, like her husband, are the first in their families to go to college.
“For the first-generation kids applying to college, it’s a life-changing experience. And their successes could be inspirational to others in their families, as well. That’s the impetus for me, personally, so I’m really pleased Bill decided to listen to me,” she says with a laugh.
The Conatys’ giving accelerated in the early ’90s, when Bryant’s advancement office invited the couple to Smithfield for a visit — their first time seeing the Smithfield campus, which was donated to the University in 1972. They were struck by then-President Ron Machtley’s vision for the future.
“Ron and Kati were so passionate and so full of enthusiasm,” says Sue. “They were so inspirational; how could you not get caught up with them?”
Machtley convinced Conaty to reconnect with the campus and, after he retired from GE in 2007, Conaty doubled down on his commitment — both philanthropically, with gifts that built Conaty Park baseball and softball fields and the Conaty Indoor Athletic Center, and with his time as a member of the Board of Trustees, which he joined in 2008.
“We’re trying to set an example for the next generation and share this mindset that you can really do some good here.” -Bill Conaty '67, H’22
As board chair from 2014 to 2020, Conaty says he watched the University transform from a regionally known institution to one with a national presence. Conaty and trustee Michael E. Fisher ’67, H’15 led the charge for Bryant’s record-setting 2019 capital campaign, which raised $111 million — surpassing its initial goal of $75 million.
“Whether it’s an athletic team making the NCAA regional tournament or a new facility or new curricula, Bryant continues to expand in all areas. The health sciences are fantastic. The PA program is a big deal,” he says. “And it’s all about the outcomes. The fact that we have 99 percent of our kids either in graduate school or in a significant job paying $68,000 a year within six months — that’s our brand now.”
In 2019 — “after 24 years of spectacular service to Bryant,” Conaty adds — Machtley announced he was retiring. Alongside fellow trustee Pat O’Brien P’15, Conaty led the search for the institution’s next president. In that role, he collaborated with a network of faculty, deans, and alumni — a consensus-building process that, he says, was vastly different from the top-down approach at GE.
“In the end, we were a very compatible team and, quite honestly, I forged some great relationships with faculty, too,” he says.
In early March of 2020, as the nation braced itself for the COVID-19 pandemic, the Board of Trustees announced the appointment of economist Ross Gittell, Ph.D., then-chancellor of the Community College System of New Hampshire, as the institution’s ninth president.
“Ross has all the credentials but, most importantly, he’s really a good human being,” says Conaty. With Vision 2030 as his bellwether and with the backing of a strong board led by David M. Beirne ’85, Gittell has the potential to usher Bryant into an era of stratospheric success, Conaty says. That’s why he and Sue made their gift early and made it public. Bryant has a short history of institutional giving, Conaty says, and the alumni community needs to change that.
“We’re trying to set an example for the next generation and share this mindset that you can really do some good here,” he says, echoing remarks from his 2022 Commencement address, when he received his honorary degree. “Because if you’re an alum of Bryant, and if you’ve gone out and made it but you haven’t given back, then how will Bryant remain a world-class university?”
Conaty is optimistic that Bryant’s new and established alumni are just as committed to the institution’s success. And, on several occasions, he’s been approached by current students who pledge to give back, as he has. They want to make the University a better place for the next generation, and the generation after that, because, like Conaty, they know firsthand what a Bryant education can do.
“Everybody,” Conaty adds, “wants to be involved in a success story. And that’s what we have at Bryant.”