John Scully was born in 1944, in New York City. His parents both worked at an insurance company, and after his birth, his parents moved out of their studio apartment in Greenwich Village to live with family for one summer in northern New Jersey to save money. Then, the family began a series of moves to various apartments in New Jersey.
They finally settled in the community of Metuchen, where Scully’s father continued his work as an independent claims adjuster. “My dad was a gregarious Irishman,” says Scully. “He was 12 years older than my mother and never attended college, mostly because he felt he didn’t have the time to waste! He had a great personality and was entrepreneurial at a young age. He started the above insurance business that did well, but during the Depression, put all his money in a bank that failed. He lost everything and had to begin anew.”
“My mother had an unusual background,” says Scully. “She was one of seven children raised in Harlem. She was tall and athletic and played center on the women’s city basketball team.”
Scully’s large family enjoyed getting together for holidays and picnics, which taught him at an early age the value of family. He also closely observed his parents’s strong work ethic. “They both worked six days a week,” he says. “We didn’t have a lot, but they were working hard so that my brother and I could have a better future.”
At an early age, Scully became interested in earning his own money. In the eighth grade, he started a lawn-mowing business and hired four friends to help cut 20 lawns a week. However, once his friends each had $50 in their pockets, they abandoned the enterprise. “I got stuck mowing five lawns a day,” says Scully. “It was grueling, and I knew that certainly wasn’t a job I wanted to do full time as an adult.”
When he was in high school, Scully had a summer job as a loader at a Revlon manufacturing plant. “That was an eye-opening experience for me,” he says. “I saw that two-thirds of the workers had basically given up on life. They were just going through the motions, collecting their paychecks, and just facing a dead end. It taught me the importance of liking what you do for a living. And I knew whatever I did for a career, it would have to engage my mind.”
Scully likes to joke about his parents’s strong beliefs in education by saying, “From the day I could speak English, my parents told me I would go to college. I heard that practically every day. They worked very hard so that both my brother and I could have that opportunity.”
When Scully was in the eighth grade, his parents sent him to a private college preparatory school called Pingry School. “That was a great opportunity for me, but a huge adjustment at the same time,” he says. “There was a stark contrast between the guys I met at Pingry compared to the guys I had grown up with. The guys who mowed lawns with me were from hardworking lower- to middle-class backgrounds. If they made a mistake, there was no one there for them to make it go it away. They had to deal with it themselves. There was no golden path laid out before them, where they never had to worry about money.
“The boys at Pingry, on the other hand, were largely from upper-middle-class families. My exposure to them made me more aware of a larger world, but I didn’t want to lose the realness and sense of roots from my upbringing in Metuchen. I tried to blend the two worlds. In the end, I discovered that I wanted to be recognized based on my abilities rather than my background. I worked hard in my studies, and then later in life, I worked hard in my career. It was my hard work that made me successful, rather than where I went to school.”
While at Pingry, Scully joined the math club, where he learned about the stock market. As a group, they each pooled $5 to make a stock investment, which did well. “After that experience, I thought to myself, boy, that sure beats mowing lawns!” says Scully. “I became fascinated with the stock market. I invested my savings in a railroad stock that I bought at $18, and in six months it was worth $30. About that time, I went to an event that informed us about different vocations. That was the first time I heard about business school, and as soon as I knew that existed, I hoped that I could get in someday.”
Scully had done well academically in high school and was accepted to Princeton University. For his summer jobs, he sent his résumé to Manhattan offices, including the New York Central Railroad. At age 19, he landed a job in their marketing department. “I mingled with everybody in that Park Avenue complex,” he says. “I was always looking to find someone in the investment business and wound up in various summer jobs including New York’s First City National Bank.”
Scully was accepted to Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public Affairs, where he studied economic management and government–business relationships. He graduated in 1966, and then pursued his master’s degree at Stanford University’s Stanford Graduate School of Business with the help of a partial scholarship, the State Farm Mutual Exceptional Student Award. After six months of active duty in the U.S. Army Reserve, he spent one weekend monthly as a drill sergeant and two weeks each summer at an active U.S. Army training base.
Scully joined Laird, Inc., in New York for a year and then joined an investment bank in San Francisco. At age 27, he founded San Francisco Partners, later called SPO Partners, which concentrated its capital in both public and private enterprises.
“I loved what I was doing in investing from the beginning,” says Scully. “I was creating jobs and industries. I was my own boss and trying to build an investment that would do great things. I think my career accomplished two things: I made society better because I created jobs and opportunities; at the same time, I became very comfortable, which allowed me to give back in meaningful ways.”
Scully defines success as being able to make the world a better place. “Before taking any action, I ask myself if it will make the world a better place. That is the whole purpose behind my philanthropy. My view is that the best people are those who come from modest backgrounds and then when they reach the pinnacle of success, become devoted to giving back. Exactly the Horatio Alger code!”
Humbled by his Horatio Alger Award, Scully says, “I’m honored to have been chosen. I usually don’t do self-recognition awards, but I liked the mission of the Horatio Alger Association and what it is doing to help deserving youth with college tuition, and then encouraging these promising young people to give back. I am blessed to be in this group of people who have done so much to make our country great and am profoundly impacted by this award.”
In 1989, Scully became founder and chairman of the Making Waves Foundation, a charter school complex in Richmond, California, that caters to underserved, urban children in grades 5–12. Scully has served on numerous nonprofit boards, including Princeton University, Stanford University, and the Stanford School of Business, Stanford Hospital and Clinics, and Success Academy Charter Schools. He has received the Stanford University’s Gold Spike Award for distinguished volunteer leadership service; Dean’s Medal for exceptional service to the School of Medicine; and Arbuckle Award, the highest award bestowed to an alumnus of the Stanford Graduate School of Business.