Born in 1936 in Fort Dodge, Iowa, Bill Greehey grew up in an ethnically diverse neighborhood on the south side of town. Nearly everyone he knew—including his father—worked at the gypsum mill, mostly for minimum wage. “We had a roof over our heads, but not much more,” says Greehey. Neither of his parents had graduated from high school. When he was very young, Greehey’s mother cleaned houses, but she was ambitious and tried her hand at several small businesses, including a bakery, a fish market, and a small restaurant. She never made much money at any of those enterprises, but her son admired her energy and drive.
Even though they lived in poverty, Greehey says his home was filled with love. His family was active in a close-knit community that put the church at the center of all they did. No one had indoor plumbing, and no one thought much about the future. There were no expectations that life would or should ever change for the better. When he was 11, Greehey went to work in the cornfields each summer until he was 15, when he began working alongside his father in the mill.
But when Greehey went to junior high school, he began to realize there was a world outside his neighborhood about which he knew nothing. Children from all over the city went to the same school, and for the first time, Greehey was exposed to peers who were not poverty stricken. By the time he was in high school, he knew he wanted more for himself. His girlfriend was the daughter of the gypsum mill superintendent, who encouraged Greehey to consider going to college.
In 1954, he joined the U.S. Air Force and served at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, for the next three and a half years. With the help of the GI Bill, he enrolled in St. Mary’s University in San Antonio soon after his honorable discharge in 1958. By then, Greehey was married and had two children. He needed money and worked full time at night and on weekends parking cars at a local hospital. He attended his classes during the day. Still, his precarious financial situation forced him to finish his education as quickly as possible. He attended full time in summers and earned a degree in accounting with honors in less than three years.
Greehey’s first job out of college was as an accountant for Price Waterhouse. Upon learning that a college education yielded his son a job making only $450 a month, his father told Greehey that he could have made more at home working for the mill or the meatpacking plant. “My father didn’t understand what I was trying to do,” says Greehey. “I was the first person in our family to attend college, and he couldn’t see the benefits my education would give me down the road.”
After a year with Price Waterhouse, Greehey left to work in the internal auditing department of Exxon. He enjoyed his job, but two years later, Coastal Corp. offered him the chance to work in its finance division. The company had just issued $50 million in bonds, and it had a bond indenture that no one in the company understood. Greehey was put in an office with a thick mortgage and deed of trust book and was told to become familiar with it. Within months, Greehey was giving bond indenture presentations to the board of directors—an opportunity that never would have come his way had he not taken on a job no one else wanted. By the time Greehey was 32, he was corporate controller. Three years later, he was senior vice president of finance.
LoVaca Gathering Co. was a Coastal subsidiary that, in 1973, contracted to sell more gas than it was able to deliver. “It was a disaster in the state of Texas,” says Greehey. “There were blackouts, the lights weren’t on at the airports, and in some cities people couldn’t even have Christmas lights.” LoVaca—with a 40 percent employee turnover rate and operating losses each month of $2 million—faced lawsuits by San Antonio, Austin, and other cities affected by the contracts. In 1974, a court-appointed board for LoVaca asked Greehey to serve as the company’s president and CEO. Greehey took a big risk leaving a secure position to head an entity on the brink of bankruptcy.
Immediately, Greehey stabilized his workforce, laying out the company’s goals and objectives. Within two months, the company was making $2 million a month instead of losing that amount. Next, Greehey met with customers and proposed a settlement that included spinning off LoVaca. For the next six years, he worked to get 400 customers to agree to a $1.6 billion settlement. His efforts finally paid off with the creation of Valero on January 1, 1980. At the time, it was the largest corporate spinoff in U.S. history. Greehey moved corporate headquarters to San Antonio and became Valero’s chairman and CEO. Valero soon became the country’s largest independent oil refiner.
“Negotiating the LoVaca settlement was the biggest challenge and accomplishment of my life,” says Greehey. “But I believed I could turn it around.” In a speech that he gave at St. Mary’s University—his alma mater—Greehey talked about his definition of leadership. “A true leader has the confidence to stand alone, the courage to make tough decisions, and the compassion to listen to the needs of others,” he said. “He does not set out to be a leader but becomes one by the quality of his actions and the integrity of his intent.
Greehey believes his story is as achievable today as it was 30 years ago. When youth ask him about current opportunities, Greehey tells them, “The American dream is as alive today as it ever was. With faith, commitment, and hard work, you can accomplish anything you want to.”