Spring 2010 Michigan Tech Magazine

James Mack

By John Gagnon

A horseman who doesn't run with the herd

James Mack '59 is a philanthropist and a fly fisherman, as well as a successful executive. Now retired, he casts about for opportunities, like Michigan Tech, to share his wealth and exercise his stewardship. "You can't take it with you, and if you don't give it back, it's not much good," he says.

Ten years ago, Mack and his wife established the first fully funded endowed chair at Michigan Tech, the James and Lorna Mack Chair in Bioengineering. Shea McGrew, vice president of advancement, says, "Folks like Jim Mack are the true sustainers of Michigan Tech. They make the University a priority for their time and resources."

Looking back, it's not surprising that Mack built a successful career for himself, for even as a lad growing up in Mackinaw City he was enterprising. His family was poor, and he pitched in by pumping gas and collecting and selling red leeches for fish bait. He got a dime for each one. "Pure profit," he recalls.

Thanks to a benevolent uncle, Mack learned to fly when he was thirteen and wanted to be a pilot. The air force turned him down because he had hay fever, so he decided instead on becoming a corporate leader.

Thus in a world where, he says, "all forces good and evil conspire to make a business just break even," he embraced a corporate career and accepted "the challenge to move beyond that to profitable growth." Upon his retirement, Mack was president, chief executive officer, and chairman of the board of Cambrex Corporation, a worldwide biotechnology and pharmaceutical company in East Rutherford, New Jersey. Mack helped its gross sales grow from $130 million to $500 million.

Mack spent his professional life negotiating the perils of commerce: "cost, complacency, and competition." In dealing with them, he earned a long list of industry awards and recognitions. Yet, he adds, "I made lots of mistakes. You admit it, back up, and start over." 

Mack attributes his success in large part to his alma mater, where he earned a BS in Chemical Engineering. "If I hadn't gone to Michigan Tech," he says, "the opportunities and horizons would have been severely limited. My education at Tech taught me a very orderly process for solving problems. I wouldn't have done what I did if I hadn't had a good education. Somewhere along the way, the college experience gives you confidence to look at things differently."

That perspective translates to a litany of precepts that, along with his leadership skills, provided a foundation for his career:

"Have a contrarian point of view—don't go with the herd."

"Know the business better than anybody."

"The best leaders are surrounded with good people."

"Carry on with conviction and drive."

Mack and his wife live in Westport, Connecticut. These days they also have an agreeable venture: they bought a thoroughbred horse farm in 1996 in upstate New York.

It takes good bloodlines, physical correctness, and luck to breed a superb runner, Mack says. He's into this avocation in a serious way and calls himself "a medium-sized player." He allows, though, that "you've got to be nuts" to be involved in such an undertaking. "If you want to be a millionaire in the horse business," he says, "start with two million."

Mack also fly-fishes for trout, a tantalizing pursuit that takes him and his wife afar. "It's a great getaway," he says. "It's solitude. It's challenging. And it's totally impossible to worry about anything when you're fishing."

As he enjoys the halcyon years of his life, he sometimes reflects on the days when he sold leeches ten for a dollar. "If I hadn't gone to Tech," he says, "I might still be pumping gas in Mackinaw City. I didn't know how it would turn out. Sometimes I sit around and look at the sunset with my wife and say, ‘Not too bad for a kid from northern Michigan.'"