Montana State University

Montana State alumnus to give $25 million to MSU College of Business

October 14, 2011 -- Anne Cantrell, MSU News Service


Jake Jabs, president and CEO of American Furniture Warehouse based in Denver, speaks to business students Thursday at Montana State University. Jabs announced today that he will give $25 million to MSU's College of Business. It is the largest private gift made in the history of Montana higher education. MSU photo by Parker Hilton.   High-Res Available

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A Montana State University alumnus announced today that he will give an unrestricted $25 million gift to MSU's College of Business. It is the largest private gift made in the history of the Montana higher education system.

The gift is being made by Jake Jabs, who grew up on a farm near Lodge Grass, Mont., in a home with no indoor plumbing, electricity or running water. Today, Jabs is president and CEO of American Furniture Warehouse based in Denver, one of the largest retail furniture companies in the United States.

"Thanks to his generosity, Mr. Jabs' visionary gift will benefit generations of students to come," said MSU President Waded Cruzado. "On behalf of all of us at MSU, I would like to offer Mr. Jabs our most sincere and heartfelt thanks and appreciation."

As part of a comprehensive strategic plan for the College of Business, Cruzado said she will seek approval from the Montana Board of Regents and the Montana Legislature to construct a new building for the College of Business on the campus of Montana State in Bozeman.

"Mr. Jabs' gift provides us with the necessary financial strength and flexibility to begin to advance our College of Business," Cruzado said. "A new building is a necessary first step. We have a bold plan for the future of the College of Business - for it to be one of the best in the nation - and Mr. Jabs' gift will get us started. We hope others will join us in building the best program possible for our students and the state. Imagine what we can do together."

If approved, ground could be broken on the estimated $18 million to $20 million building in the spring of 2013 with completion in 2015.

The gift will also be used for new scholarships and new academic programs in: entrepreneurship, professional skills development and fostering cooperative work between business students and students in other disciplines, such as engineering, the sciences, agriculture, graphic arts and the humanities.

"Collaboration and team work among professionals from many different fields is the future of business, and Mr. Jabs' gift will help us prepare our students for that world," said Susan Dana, MSU College of Business interim dean.

Last year, Jabs made a $3 million gift to the MSU College of Business for the Jake Jabs Center for Entrepreneurship for the New West.

"I hope my gifts inspire others to contribute to the future of entrepreneurship education at MSU," Jabs said. "So many of us in business have been so well served by our education from Montana State, we should do what we can to help the next generations be successful too."

The fourth of nine children, Jabs and his siblings never thought of themselves as poor, despite their circumstances, Jabs wrote in his autobiography in 2000. Instead, his parents taught their children the importance of self-confidence, the courage to take risks, the importance of developing hobbies outside of work and caring about things other than money.

Jabs also credits his parents, who immigrated from Russia and Poland, for providing him with a strong work ethic, and Jabs' father - who had no formal education beyond the second grade - shared with his children his belief that education was essential.

"He said he felt left out because of his education," Jabs said. "He wasn't able to get any education beyond the second grade in Poland and my mother only went through the seventh grade. Both of them wanted their children to get an education, and so my dad gave us enough money to start college.

"They believed it would open doors for us, give us opportunities we wouldn't have otherwise had - and they were right," Jabs said. "Education gave me the confidence to take risks, and taking risks is key to being successful."

After graduating from high school in Hardin, Jabs enrolled at what was then Montana State College and graduated with a degree in vocational agriculture in 1952.

During his college years, he played with the Montana State band, was on the MSU rodeo team, joined the ROTC, and took many elective courses, which he said helped him explore a variety of subjects and ultimately helped him pursue several different careers throughout his life, including music and business.

And, though his studies were focused on agriculture, his business instincts and entrepreneurial spirit were evident even as a college student and young adult. Jabs and one of his brothers worked their way through college doing odd jobs and playing music. Later, after serving in the U.S. Air Force and working as a musician in Nashville, Jabs returned to Bozeman, where he bought a music store. He secured a loan from the bank to buy out his partner in the store only after putting up as collateral cattle from his family's ranch.

Jabs' first serious venture into the furniture business came in 1968, when he opened a high-end furniture store, Mediterranean Galleries, with locations in Denver, Colorado Springs, Pueblo, Colo. and Billings. Five years later, Jabs decided to close the business. Then, in 1975, he purchased a struggling furniture business, renaming it American Furniture Warehouse.

Since then, American Furniture Warehouse has experienced remarkable growth and expanded into a 12-store operation. Jabs, who is 80, remains responsible for the day-to-day operations of the company and also oversees the company's team of buyers, often traveling to Asia on purchasing trips. Today, American Furniture Warehouse is one of the top retail furniture companies in the U.S. and the largest privately held businesses in Colorado, with sales topping $300 million annually and 1,500 employees throughout Colorado.

Jabs, well-known in Colorado for his philanthropy, believes gifts to education provide a great benefit for the future.

"My own life experience leads me to believe this is where my efforts can do the most good," Jabs said. "I think of all the students who might come from circumstances like mine, and I want to help them."

Dana, the interim dean of the College of Business, said Jabs' gift will help the college overcome space, staffing and program constraints that it currently faces.

"Our home in Reid Hall is holding us back from doing so many things," Dana said. "A new building would give us space for advising, classrooms and one-on-one work with students. Additionally, adding new programs will help us truly become a nationally recognized program and allow us to contribute in important ways to economic development in Montana."

The head of the MSU Alumni Foundation, the non-profit alumni and donor relations arm of the university, also expressed appreciation for the gift.

"This is a very meaningful gift to Montana State University," said Michael Stevenson, president and CEO of the MSU Alumni Foundation. "In every way, Mr. Jabs' life is a testament to the value of public higher education. His generous support of his alma mater will create endless opportunities for our students, and for this we are most grateful."

View a slideshow of Jake Jabs' visit to MSU.