July 7, 2015

Start Impacting the World: Richard Callahan

Richard Callahan
Richard Callahan, a 1964 graduate from the College of Business Administration, has a clear message for business students in the 21st Century – “Your education isn’t finished when you get through college. It’s just getting started.” He delivered the message to students on the UNL campus in April when he was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award at the annual CBA Advisory Board Awards luncheon.

Callahan, a former Nebraska football standout who played for the Cornhuskers in the early 60’s under both head coach Bob Devaney and assistant Tom Osborne, spent his career being a major player in the world of telecommunications. He has built cellular, mobile, video phone, broadband and rural phone systems in over 40 countries around the globe.

He emphasized to students the importance of increasing their marketability by being willing to fail.

“I advise people to put themselves in complicated situations with a high degree of difficulty,” said Callahan. “Even if you fail the crucible of putting yourself in that situation produces new skills the fastest. Take the failure because that’s growth.”

His own story mirrors his message.

“In the mid-80’s, I had a choice of running a $10 million dollar established Bell phone system in Minnesota, or running a cellular business in Seattle where there was no revenue and no people. All my mentors told me to go to Minnesota but I went to Seattle because I understood cellular was bigger than the entire Bell system. When I couldn’t change the minds of executives here in the U.S., I went international.”

Callahan talks to CBA economics students
Callahan talks to CBA economics students
Within a few years, Callahan had a break through convincing board members to allow him to pitch a $34 million cellular deal in Hungary.

“It was the first cellular system in Hungary and the timing couldn’t have been better. The prime minister’s office was waiting for dial tone to call someone when I got there in 1988,” he said.

The deal in Hungary led to future deals throughout the communist block of Eastern Europe. Over the coming years he negotiated deals in India, Mexico, China, Russia, Indonesia, England and many other countries. According to Callahan, his success was always dependent on one important factor.

“Get the people around you right. If you have the wrong people in the room, you can’t get the right strategy. When you’re doing complicated things get the people right and the correct strategy will fall out of that.”

Callahan built companies whose value is in excess of $75 billion dollars, he appointed 45 CEO’s, hired thousands of executives and even had a failure involving a billion dollar loss.

“They don’t like it when you lose a billion dollars, but that’s what it means to get back into the crucible,” he said. “That’s what it takes to grow.”