Tom Watjen ’76 often associates the word “gratitude” with VMI. He was grateful to be recruited as a basketball player and to receive a full scholarship. He is grateful for the education he received and, more specifically, the insights into the world of business from longtime head of the economics department, Col. Alexander H. Morrison ’39. “They helped me build on what I learned at home and through my early life experiences.”
He is grateful, as well, for two important lessons that VMI’s structure and discipline taught him. The first is the importance of teamwork. “I got that team orientation not only through sports, but also through the class system. When you think about it, every class is taught to be a team, to work together, from the first moments in barracks.” The second is “dealing with adversity,” according to Watjen. “VMI presents every cadet with challenges throughout their cadetship. So, they learn how to deal with them, and don’t allow them to impede their ability to succeed. These lessons aren’t just for barracks or business,” Watjen added, “they are life lessons.”
Watjen took all he learned at VMI and, over the next several decades, built a successful business career. After some early work experience, he attended the University of Virginia’s Colgate W. Darden School of Business Administration, graduating in 1981. There, he received financial assistance from the Institute’s James C. Wheat ’41 Scholarship, which was established to help alumni attend the Darden School.
After graduating from the Darden School, he worked in the investment and corporate finance areas of Aetna Life and Casualty and then was a partner with Conning & Co., a venture capital firm. From 1987-94, he was a managing director at the investment banking firm of Morgan Stanley and Co.
He moved to Chattanooga, Tennessee, in 1994 to take up the position of executive vice president and chief financial officer for The Provident, Inc. When the company merged with the Unum Group in 1999, Watjen became executive vice president-finance and risk management for the new UnumProvident Corporation. Three years later, he became its vice chairman and chief operating officer and joined its board of directors. In 2003, he was named president and chief executive officer. In 2015, he retired as chief executive officer from what was then known as the Unum Group. He remained on the board of directors until stepping down in May 2017.
Watjen also has served on a number of corporate boards, such as Prudential plc (UK) and SunTrust Banks, as well as subsidiary and industry boards, including the Financial Services Roundtable.
About the same time as he moved to Tennessee, Watjen began his service to VMI as a member of the VMI Keydet Club Board of Governors. In 2002, two years after his term of service with the Keydet Club ended, he became a trustee of the VMI Foundation and served on that governing board for eight years. In 2017, he joined the VMI Board of Visitors.
Asked what sustained his desire to serve VMI, he said, “When I left VMI, I was like many alumni in that I didn’t fully appreciate my time at the Institute. Over time, I came to realize that VMI helped further develop my core skills and values, among them the importance of honor and service, and I wanted to be sure that current and future cadets had that same experience.”
Such involvement is not new to Watjen or his wife, Nanette. Both have been and are involved with many philanthropic activities. “Being fortunate to be in the position we were,” said Watjen, “has allowed us to give more of ourselves.”
Nanette added, “All nonprofit organizations need volunteer leaders who are willing to lend their experiences – not just financial support – to help these organizations fulfill their purposes.”
“When I left VMI, I was like many alumni in that I didn’t fully appreciate my time at the Institute. Over time, I came to realize that VMI helped further develop my core skills and values, among them the importance of honor and service, and I wanted to be sure that current and future cadets had that same experience.”Tom Watjen ’76
The Watjens have given generously to many charities, including VMI. In 2017, they established the Nanette and Thomas Watjen 1976 Chair in Economics and Business and, one year later, the Nanette and Thomas Watjen 1976 Academic Excellence Endowment for Economics and Business. The common goal of the chair and the endowment are, Nanette explained, to strengthen VMI’s ability to continue to produce strong business leaders. “Thanks to its strong academic curriculum, the military and barracks orientation, and honor code, VMI is well-equipped to produce future leaders in any field.”
Watjen continued, “The business world presents tremendous opportunities for our next generation of leaders, but it’s not without its challenges. We want to ensure our graduates have an education that prepares them to adapt to today’s challenges – and ones in the future.”
Such an education is founded, according to the Watjens, “on high-quality teaching,” and that means, as Watjen puts it, “attracting and retaining very high quality faculty.” This past May, Lt. Col. Valentina Dimitrova-Grajzl, Ph.D., of the department of economics and business – and a 2019 recipient of the Outstanding Faculty Award from the State Council for Higher Education in Virginia – became the first recipient of the chair. “We couldn’t be happier with the choice,” said Watjen. “It’s exactly how we hoped the chair would be utilized, rewarding a high achieving professor regardless of how long he or she has been at VMI.”
As to the academic excellence endowment, the Watjens see it providing financial support for timely and relevant programs that allow cadets in the department of economics and business to be better prepared to contribute to the business world – either after commissioning or directly out of school.
While they have some general thoughts on how the chair and the endowment may be used, and want to be kept informed about their progress, Watjen said, “Nanette and I have great confidence in VMI’s leadership, from the superintendent to the dean to the head of the department, to be able to put our support to work in a manner that adds to the VMI experience.”
Summing up their thoughts about their philanthropy, Nanette said, “We’re happy to support VMI any way we can.”
For Watjen, it again came down to gratitude. “We’re just grateful to be able to do this.”
Scott Belliveau '83 Communications Officer - Executive Projects
The communications officer supports the strategy for all communications, including web content, public relations messages and collateral pieces in order to articulate and promote the mission of the VMI Alumni Agencies and promote philanthropy among varied constituencies.