Posted: January 01, 2011
Colorado Business Hall of Fame: Walter Imhoff
Investment banker's moral code means deep roots - and financial support - for charitable groupsBy Lisa Ryckman
A funny thing happened to Walter Imhoff on the way to a leisurely retirement.
"I'm working harder than I ever did before," says the investment banker, who retired as managing director of the Hanifen Imhoff Division of Stifel Nicholaus a couple of years ago after a career spanning more than a half-century. "I dearly miss a good secretary."
Imhoff needs one to keep track of his charitable giving alone: More than 150 organizations receive contributions from him each year, everything from Seeds of Hope to the American Leprosy Society.
"For the 30 years I've known him, Walt has always seen his bond business as a way to provide the money to build the common good of the community. For him, it's never been just a way to make a personal profit," says his friend, Father Michael Sheeran, president of Regis University, Imhoff's alma mater.
"Walt's whole life has come to fit into that vision of making a better world. He has raised money for almost every worthwhile charity in Colorado, donating his own money as a confirmation of his commitment," Sheeran says.
"It's very rewarding to choose the right charities for giving back to the community and using the dollars properly and just helping them out. They can't do everything," says Imhoff, whose charitable leanings began with the hardships of his own early life. His work on behalf of children and families has been a particular focus, and he points to the Kempe Children's Foundation as an organization that has done work near and dear to his heart.
Regis is also dear to Imhoff: For 27 years, he has served on the school's board of trustees, including a six-year stint as chairman. He credits the lessons he learned from the Jesuits at Regis for helping to shape his approach to business and life.
"Moral commitment to others and ethical performance - that's part of the Jesuit teaching philosophy," says Imhoff, who landed his first investment banking job with the help of a Regis professor. He received an honorary doctorate degree from Regis in 1991.
"Walt lives from the moral bedrock he got from his parents and built on at Regis. And he measures the meaningfulness of his life by how he makes life better for those who are in some way on the margins of the community," Sheeran says.
He recalls hearing Imhoff describe to other Denver business leaders his focus during the sale of his firm.
"I'm sure (my wife) Georgia and I will come out of this sale in decent shape," Imhoff told them. "My worry is (getting) my employees the maximum of pay and security and protection."
Listening to Imhoff, says Sheeran, "It struck me that I was the friend of a man who lived his beliefs very well."
Imhoff's advice for recent business school grads is simply the blueprint he followed himself:
"Select a business you like, and work hard at it; give it your all," he says. "Be ethical in your work and use moral judgment properly and don't jump from one job to another. Longevity will prove itself valuable if you work hard."
The ethics piece is key, says Imhoff, who received the Daniel L. Ritchie Ethics in Business award in 2008 - something he considers a standout moment in a career full of them. "Treating people right and being ethical - recognition for that is important."
And equally important: the respect and loyalty of the people you serve, Imhoff says.
"Success comes with gaining recognition from your customers. You have to serve your customers properly," he says. "That's what I've done for more than 50 years."
Lisa Ryckman is the online editor at cobizmag.com.