Feature Stories


The Spectacular Journey of Eli Jones

Dean Eli Jones '82 '86 '97 has taken Mays Business School to new heights during the Lead by Example campaign. He is pictured here at his Bryan home with his wife, Fern, whom he met through a shared love of music. (Photo by Leighton Jack '14)

If life is a journey, then this is the best way to think about Eli Jones’ career: Texas A&M University has been his port, the place he’s returned to over and over to build the strength, knowledge and relationships that would sustain him as he traveled out in the world in ever-bolder directions.  

During the past 40 years, Jones ’82 ’86 ’97 has followed a path filled with what he calls “God moments,” taking him from positions in advertising to Fortune 100 companies to academia, which always brought him back to Bryan-College Station. The last time he returned, in 2015, he brought with him a bounty of experience and wisdom to unload and share as the self-described “hybrid dean” of Mays Business School, the institution where he earned his MBA and Ph.D.

Now, Mays is benefiting from the same transformational powers this first-generation college graduate has applied to his own life. His ideas for creating “a culture of caring, collaboration, excellence and innovation” at Mays are based not on vague theories, but on a precise, hands-on knowledge of how to get results, how to motivate and connect with people, and how to prepare students for success in the business world.

Jones believes that one of the key ways to accomplish Mays' vision of advancing the world’s prosperity is to engage people, both inside the school and outside. "My whole career in sales has been about engagement—engaging clients and engaging in conversations,” said Jones, who holds the Lowry and Peggy Mays Eminent Scholar Chair. “I’ve been leading people for 30 years—first a sales force and now faculty and staff. I’ve actually done the work, and I’ve managed people and sold things.”

He’s certainly had great success engaging others in his vision for Mays. During Texas A&M’s Lead by Example campaign, Mays Business School set a $139 million fundraising goal. Jones and the development team far exceeded the benchmark by raising more than $205 million.  

On Campus, Part 1: Journalism and Music

On a stretch of Leonard Road in Bryan, 6.5 miles from Mays Business School, sits a metal building that served as an early training ground for Jones. The Jones Food Mart, as it was known when he was young, was the third business his entrepreneurial parents started. First was a successful dry cleaning business in Houston. When his father, who didn't attend school past sixth grade, retired from that business, he bought a ranch near the town of Snook, where the young Jones helped with a wide range of chores. Next, his parents bought and ran the convenience store. “It was a family business. I understood what it took to be a small business owner, and that really set the foundation for my selling career,” he said. “My parents were the best salespeople, and I learned so much about building relationships and taking calculated risks.”

After graduating from A&M Consolidated High School, he considered only one university: Texas A&M. On a full-ride Presidential Achievement Award scholarship, he began his college career as an accounting major, but found after one semester, somewhat ironically, that he didn’t like it. He switched to journalism, and his deep baritone voice allowed him to earn money through his college days as a disc jockey. He worked both in Bryan-College Station (top 40 music) and, on weekends, in Houston at the R&B station KMJQ, Majic 102. He also emceed concerts at the Astrodome and met stars such as Prince, Janet Jackson and Luther Vandross. Later, he formed a DJ business called Music Man Productions with his wife, Fern, whom he met through their love of music.

Dean Jones' love of music goes back to his college days as a radio disc jockey for stations in both Bryan-College Station and Houston. (Photo by Leighton Jack '14)
Eli and Fern have a home music studio where they record and produce music. (Photo by Leighton Jack '14)


Jones so impressed his employers at KMJQ that just before starting his final semester at Texas A&M, they offered him a program manager position at a Detroit sister station. “It was a fantastic opportunity, but I was a first-generation college student and I told them, ‘I’ve got to finish,’” he recalled. “I often think about that because it was truly one of those crossroads decisions.”

Out in the World, Part 1: The Sales Bug

After graduation, Jones worked in advertising for The Eagle newspaper in Bryan. Starting with classified ads, he quickly learned how to make more sales since he needed to support his wife and, by then, kids. He got paid by the inch and always pushed for more lines. “I learned how to sell without any formal training,” he said. “I just asked questions. If someone called about placing a garage sale ad, I’d ask, ‘Do you have a car you’d like to sell too? What about a washer-dryer?’ and I just kept increasing the ad size.”         

Dean Jones meets with the Mays Business School Dean's Advisory Board.

Managers noticed his sales prowess and moved him to the more lucrative display ad sales. Standard sales procedure was to show business owners mocked-up ads in hopes they would be excited and sign on. After trying this for a while, Jones set his own course. Drawing on his journalistic training to ask open-ended questions, he started conversations with potential clients. “Tell me about your marketing strategy,” he would say. Sometimes, he recommended another form of advertising to achieve certain goals. This selling strategy built trust.

“I focused more on what they were trying to accomplish than what I was trying to sell,” he said. “And what happened was those clients started saying, ‘Look, I’m trying to do this, should I run an ad in the newspaper, on the radio or should I put it on TV?’ I always put the customer’s needs first. Only when it was right for them would I say, ‘This is when I would run a double-truck, full-color ad in the Eagle.’” This approach helped Jones become The Eagle’s top ad salesperson. “I still teach customer-centric selling today,” he added.

On Campus, Part 2: Meeting a Life-Changer

Wanting to build on his success in advertising sales, Jones decided to pursue an MBA and was fortunate to be taken under the wing of the late Dr. Dan Robertson, then head of Texas A&M’s MBA program. “He was a life changer,” Jones said. “I walked into his office knowing nothing about getting an MBA, and he helped me understand the process and how to study for the graduate management admission test, and I got in.”

While pursuing his MBA, Jones met an executive from Quaker Oats who visited College Station to speak to his class. This key connection led to a post-graduation job as a sales representative for the company covering 100 grocery stores in the Houston area, along with selling to a major supermarket chain’s head buyer and a wholesaler.

Out in the World, Part 2: Honing His Craft

After rising in sales with Quaker Oats in Houston and in the Southeast, including South Carolina, where he remembers supplying the grocery chain that sold the most grits in the country, Jones moved to Nabisco. In Greenville, South Carolina, he was given a sales team that was ranked lowest in the division at No. 86. “I started reading more about how to motivate salespeople because I needed to turn this team around,” he said. “I was re-engaging the team using motivational theories I’d read about. I was out in the field with them, and I was constantly teaching and looking at opportunities in the stores.” Within a year, the sales team leapt to No. 2 in the division.

Dean Jones and his wife, Fern, celebrate Mays Business School's 50th anniversary with their grandkids at The George Hotel in September 2018.

Through his success with the Greenville team, Jones discovered his passion for teaching and research. That’s when the idea of going back to college again occurred to him. Once more, he only had eyes for Texas A&M. After career moves with Nabisco and then Frito-Lay brought him back to Houston, he applied to a Ph.D. program in Mays.

On Campus, Part 3: The Ph.D.

When Jones returned to College Station for the third time, he was a rarity: a doctoral student who had 10 years of high-level industry experience with Fortune 100 companies. He began collecting awards—the Department of Marketing’s Doctoral Research Excellence Award in 1995, the Department of Marketing’s Doctoral Student Teaching Excellence Award in 1996 and 1997, and The Association of Former Students’ prestigious university-wide award for teaching in 1997.

Plus, he distinguished himself as a researcher, winning a $44,000 Frito-Lay Dissertation Grant. “It is rare for doctoral students to earn financial support for their dissertations, especially that amount,” said Dr. Paul Busch, a current Mays professor who headed the marketing department at the time. “Eli has far exceeded our expectations with his stellar performance across all dimensions of his academic career.”

At the end of his doctoral work, Jones received offers to return to the corporate world, including one from Coors. The job was certainly tempting, promising far more pay than he could expect in academia. Like his decision on whether or not to take the job in radio programming, Jones considers this moment an important crossroads. “I’ll never forget that my mom said, ‘Baby, you went to school with a purpose, and that was to become an academic. Finish, follow through,’” he recalled.

If Jones could have stayed at Texas A&M, he would have, he said. Certainly, students wanted him to remain. Many started a letter-writing campaign asking the administration to keep him on. But at Texas A&M, like most universities, there is an unwritten policy of not hiring doctoral students immediately following their graduation. Instead, among several opportunities in academia, Jones picked a promising position at the University of Houston.

Out in the World, Part 3: From Professor to Dean

At the University of Houston, he joined the tenure track as an assistant professor and helped establish the Sales Excellence Institute in its College of Business. “I was not paid to build the sales center,” he said. “I did it gratis because sales is my passion.” The sales center, with a mission to advance sales as a profession and develop sales leaders, was only one of six in the country at the time. Today, there are 140.

Jones had his hands full teaching classes, writing peer-reviewed research articles, developing the sales center curriculum, connecting with corporations interested in hiring students, managing several adjunct professors and securing corporate sponsors. “It was a pure entrepreneurial effort, raising funds and managing everything,” he said. “I was working hard creating the sales center, but I didn’t realize that what I was doing was really a microcosm of being a dean.”

Dean Jones welcomes everyone to Mays Business School's 50th anniversary celebration in September 2018.

After rising to full professor with tenure, his combined experience in Houston prepared him for “real” dean work. Among several universities interested in him, he accepted the deanship of the E. J. Ourso College of Business at Louisiana State University. He started just as the financial crisis of 2008 unfolded with the daunting task of raising $15 million for the school’s capital campaign. “We had to be creative to raise the funding, but we did it,” he said. Other challenges he met included guiding the school through re-accreditation and raising funds to build a new business education complex.

In 2012, he moved to lead the Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas. There, he made more international connections for the school and launched a fully online general business degree. “It’s still benefiting the university today,” said Matthew Waller, the current Walton College dean, who considers Jones a mentor. “No matter what was going on, Eli was unflappable, upbeat and encouraging to everyone around him.”

On Campus, Part 4: Completing the Circle

Jones can’t forget the call. It was a Sunday. On the line was a member of the search committee for a new dean at Mays

Business School, gauging his interest. “My mouth dropped. ‘You mean I have a chance to come back to my alma mater and lead the school I graduated from?’ I asked. That was incredible.” 

When he returned as dean, he began working with some of the same faculty from his student days. Paul Busch was one of them, thrilled to have Jones and his wife back, noting that Jones’ career has been a team effort. The couple has been married 38 years and have four grown children and 10 grandchildren.

Mays Business School opens its Student Transformation Center in February 2020.

Busch praised Jones as a thoughtful listener, strategic thinker and a doer. “By any standard, Eli has done a great deal. University faculty work falls into four categories: research, teaching, service and administration,” Busch explained. “Many faculty achieve excellence in one or two of these areas. A few in three areas. Eli excels in all four. It is comparable to an athlete earning gold medals in the 100 meters, the high hurdles, the 1500 meters and the marathon.”

Another area where Jones shines is his ability to connect academia and corporate America. “When I talk to company executives, since I’ve been an executive, I quickly understand what they want in terms of hiring students,” he said. “Because I do research, publish and love teaching, I can also speak the language of academics.”

With his extensive toolbox, Jones is focused on, among other things, boosting Mays into the top 10 national rankings of public business schools and ensuring that students receive the digital skills necessary to keep pace in today’s data-driven workplace. He and his team have created initiatives for academic innovation and technology as well as for diversity and inclusion.

At the same time, Jones takes on responsibilities far beyond his work as dean. It’s rare for a dean to continue publishing, but he still does. In the past 24 years as an academic, 13 of those spent as a dean, he has coauthored and published 45 peer-reviewed journal articles and several books and book chapters, and chaired several doctoral dissertations. He sits on international boards and teaches students, executives and other deans about the concepts of selling. Jones also acts as a mentor to students on campus and, nationally, through The Ph.D. Project, a program that helps minorities attain their business doctorates.

Andrea Dixon, the executive director of the Center for Professional Selling at Baylor University, who worked with Jones teaching executives around the world for the Duke Corporate Education Program, praised him for his knowledge and communication skills. But she is most moved by his caring spirit. “I’ve observed Dean Jones’ practice of walking the classroom before students arrive and praying over each seat where students will take up residence,” she reported.

A similar spirit is at the core of one of his most important responsibilities. “Fundraising is about heart and about connection. I call it friend-raising,” Jones said, noting that 50% of his time is spent talking to former students and corporations, getting them to invest in the vision for Mays’ future.

The results have been astounding. In 2017, he and the development team secured the largest single gift to the business school in history: $25 million from the Mays Family Foundation. The contribution will develop students’ entrepreneurial capabilities through a new Lowry Mays Entrepreneurial Leadership Academy program and will support several areas of innovation, including the proposed expansion of the school’s business education complex and the school’s study abroad programs.

Following a $10 million fundraising campaign, the Department of Accounting was renamed in Dr. James Benjamin's honor. 

Former students honored long-serving and much-beloved accounting department head Jim Benjamin by giving $10 million to name the James Benjamin Department of Accounting; the funds will help recruit faculty and expand educational opportunities for students. Another $10 million from the late Artie McFerrin Jr. ’65 and his wife, Dorothy, to name the McFerrin Center for Entrepreneurship will further prepare aspiring entrepreneurs to succeed in a turbulent global economy. The business-to-business automotive retail software giant Reynolds & Reynolds gave $4 million to create the Reynolds & Reynolds Sales Leadership Institute, which will elevate students’ awareness of the sales career path, help improve student career placement in sales positions, and advance research and scholarship in sales and sales management.

“When I came back to Aggieland, I was so happy to be an Aggie talking to Aggies,” Jones said. “We share the same goals. We want to make Mays Business School one of the country’s elite business schools. The relationship-building skills that I have accumulated certainly help, but being an Aggie helps the most. Plus, I’ve got a fantastic team and a strong Dean’s Advisory Board working with me on this.”

Of all his fundraising priorities, scholarships are especially dear, since he received financial support for all three of his degrees at Texas A&M. Fittingly, the A. Eugene Brockman Charitable Trust created a $5 million endowed scholarship program named for him: the Eli Jones Dean’s Choice Award, which will offer full rides to business students. And in true lead-by-example fashion, Jones and his wife have themselves endowed a scholarship for marketing students. “If you want to see me at my best, it’s when I’m talking about first-generation college students and scholarships,” he said. “I am blessed to have the opportunity to discuss the power of scholarships with people and how they can truly make a difference in a life, because scholarships made a difference in mine. It’s very real to me.”

To be back where he started, at Texas A&M, is life come full circle for Jones. “I’m a first-generation college student from humble beginnings. I’m a three-time Aggie, and a three-time dean,” he said with relish. “One who made it home.”

To learn how you can help Mays Business School continue its upward trajectory, contact Stephen Cisneros '05, senior director of development, at (979) 862-3615 or by submitting a message using the form below.