Hugh Makens reveals the formula for a stellar career—and how Michigan Tech is a main ingredient in the “recipe of experience” that’s taken him to the top.
When Hugh Makens ’61 talks about entrepreneurship and business ethics, it’s wise to pay attention.
Few have the same breadth of knowledge as this partner with more than 50 years’ experience practicing corporate and securities law at Warner, Norcross, and Judd LLP in Grand Rapids, one of Michigan’s most prestigious law firms, serving as a trial attorney with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), and the Securities Bureau Director for the State of Michigan.
Makens also teaches advanced securities law courses at Michigan State University and served on several high-profile national boards.
Leverage relationships and opportunities whenever possible, especially in college or early in a career.
Makens’ success started at Michigan Tech where the Makens family has a long history. His uncle, George Swenson Sr., founded the electrical engineering department in 1928. Makens’ father, Roy, served at Michigan Tech for 25 years, rose to become head of the chemistry department, and later ran the graduate program in nuclear chemistry.
One of Makens’ early claims to fame is his assembly work on the first artificial nuclear reactor, Chicago Pile-1, built in 1942 by Nobel Prize winner Enrico Fermi. The Fermi reactor came to Michigan Tech at the request of Makens’ father Roy. It arrived in Houghton in pieces and Hugh helped reassemble the entire reactor.
Despite family influences and hands-on experiences with technology, Makens’ career did not follow the science or engineering path typical of so many Tech students. Instead, inspired in small part by iconic television lawyer Perry Mason, he pursued a career in law.
He began his education at Michigan Tech intending to transfer to the University of Michigan to study history. Instead he remained in Houghton all four years.
“I had the good fortune of experiencing Sam Tidwell, the lead accounting professor at Michigan Tech,” he says. “The last thing I wanted to do was study numbers, but Sam had a way of taking numbers and turning them into the bloodstream of a corporation. He could help tell the story of how corporations functioned. It was fascinating.”
Makens will never forget a dinner at Tidwell’s home where they spent hours discussing business, current events, and learning about the people who influenced Tidwell’s career.
“I stayed in close touch with Sam; he was a mentor and advisor for the rest of my career, for the rest of his life, and I am sure there are many Tech students who can say exactly the same thing about Sam,” Makens says. Other professors remained lifelong friends as well.
“One of the blessings of Michigan Tech, I had several professors who were so helpful both in making me enthusiastic about where I eventually ended up going in law, but also stimulating my interest in the world,” he says.
Stay busy. Get involved.
“I took a lot of extra classes—geology, forestry... probably graduated with 67 extra credits. Later, while working at the SEC I was involved in trying more oil and gas fraud cases than anyone in the country. The foundation of knowledge used in these cases was laid at Michigan Tech and always proved to be helpful as I ran into those areas of the law. “
His fond college memories go beyond the classroom. He played in bands, served as an editor of The Lode, and packed in plenty of extracurriculars.
“The first year I made the mistake of getting the lead in the campus play, which was bad since we were putting it on during final exams. Not exactly my best decision. My grades first year reflected that,” he remembers with a laugh.
But he obviously learned to balance academics with extracurricular activities. Makens finished at the top of his Business School class and near the top of his Michigan Tech class overall.
Do what feels right and comes naturally.
After graduation Makens planned to attend the University of Michigan law school. However, a substantial scholarship to Northwestern University School of Law changed those plans.
Hugh reflected on his arrival at Northwestern, “I was surrounded by people from the best colleges in the U.S., entering one of the top five law schools in the country, and was terrified,” he remembers. “But, what I came to realize, was that the education I got at Michigan Tech, combined with strong study habits and discipline, allowed me to do very well at Northwestern.”
While studying in Chicago he discovered that corporate law was the perfect fit for his accounting background.
He knew he had the opportunity to apply everything he learned about numbers from Sam Tidwell and blend it with his interest in law. He quickly found his niche.
“It was a very natural progression,” he says. “For four years, I studied how business works and was now learning how to apply it on the legal side. I took a securities class and immediately knew I wanted to be a securities lawyer.”
Hugh was the only student from his graduating law class selected to go to work for the SEC.
Quality creates demand.
Who does Warren Buffet call for financial legal advice? You guessed it...Hugh Makens. Makens’ reputation for high-quality work with major cases has put him in high-demand with significant players in the financial markets.
Makens reflects on one particular. “I will never forget when I was hired by and worked closely with Warren Buffet on the Solomon Brothers Treasury Auction scandal.”
However, his reputation for quality didn’t stop with Buffet. Makens also applied his experience and commitment to quality to other organizations, serving on the Governing Council of the Business Law Section of the American Bar Association, as Chair of the Michigan Bar Association Business Law Section, as board member of the National Endowment for Financial Education, and as a member of the Securities Editorial Board of Lexus Nexus. He was also president of the North American Securities Administrators Association and is a frequent national speaker on securities law topics.
Through it all, Makens always remembers Michigan Tech.
“I left Michigan Tech and particularly the Business School with a feeling of gratitude,” he says. “The relationships I had with the professors and the encouragement they gave me, the understanding of the things that built the foundations for the law, and the enjoyment I had working with a number of classmates who went on to very successful careers in business–these have been the main ingredients of my career.”
He has stayed active with Michigan Tech as an advisor to and trustee for the Applied Portfolio Management Program, and for many years as a member of the Dean’s Advisory Council to the School of Business and Economics. He appreciates the importance of continuing contributions to help Michigan Tech in any way possible.
Hugh Makens passes along the Tidwell legacy of mentoring and builds a friendship.
Hugh Makens met Alex DeYonker in 1974 when DeYonker was a law student. Makens saw DeYonker as the “brightest student that term” and began mentoring him. The two formed a lifelong professional relationship and close personal friendship. “The arc of my career wouldn’t have been what it was without Hugh,” says DeYonker. He’s done so much for so many, myself included. It is an honor to call him colleague and friend."
Michigan Technological University is a public research university founded in 1885 in Houghton, Michigan, and is home to more than 7,000 students from 55 countries around the world. Consistently ranked among the best universities in the country for return on investment, Michigan’s flagship technological university offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, computing, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, social sciences, and the arts. The rural campus is situated just miles from Lake Superior in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, offering year-round opportunities for outdoor adventure.