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.”