When Mike Dunlap began his academic career in the early 1980s at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, he wanted to be an engineer. He quickly discovered his greater talents were in business. More than 30 years later the success Dunlap discovered in an early accounting class has materialized into his position as executive chairman of the board at Nelnet – a company he co-founded in 1996 which provides innovative educational services in helping students plan and pay for college.
“My dad suggested I take an accounting class during my second year of college,” Dunlap said. “The class started with 60 kids and ended with fewer than a dozen. Everyone didn’t pass, but accounting came very naturally to me. I thought it was interesting, so I switched to the College of Business Administration.”
After getting his undergraduate degree in 1986 and his law degree at Nebraska in 1988, Dunlap took his first business position in the trust department at Union Bank where his dad was the CEO. He was taught success in business was an individual path.
“I went in the first day and asked my dad what to do. He said I needed to figure out what my job was going to be and create it. I went back to my desk and started to work on things I saw would add value to our customers and help us grow. What I learned there that helped me with Nelnet is how to self-start.”
Dunlap, who is originally from Milford, Nebraska, said the most important qualities he looks for in leaders at Nelnet are great attitudes, intelligence, ethics and passion. Nelnet hires many CBA graduates, and Dunlap believes his education at CBA led to the success of Nelnet.
“All of the finance and accounting classes were the building blocks for Nelnet and me. Small business and entrepreneur management was one of my favorite courses. In one class, we studied and read all of Warren Buffett’s annual reports and partnership letters going back into the ‘50s. His philosophy on running a business from a cash flow basis has guided us for a long time,” he said.
Since Nelnet’s core industry of making guaranteed student loans is now done directly by the U.S. Government, Dunlap said Nelnet had to diversify their businesses. They began assisting the National Arbor Day Foundation with call-center support and started a $250 million fund to find asset-backed securities for banks to invest in. In addition, they have invested in smaller local companies such as Hudl, Nebraska Global and Allied Strategy. In the future, he wants to see Nelnet continue to expand and diversify into growing markets.
“A big part of what Nelnet does is information technology/software related. I would like to see the IT business grow and the Lincoln and Omaha ecosystem grow in IT,” he said.
When asked what else he would like to accomplish in work or other areas, he replied, “If UNL is going to grow by 5,000 students with over 2,000 in CBA, we need great facilities to attract and accommodate the growth. I’m also looking forward to watching UNL’s innovation campus build world class food and water research areas. Lincoln’s downtown population should grow from a few thousand to over ten thousand in the next 20 years. Nebraska as a whole needs to continue to attract businesses to add to our population which can support a large geographic foot print.”