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Texas Medical Center Legacy Makers – Robert and Janice McNair

Robert and Janice McNair at a Texans game at Reliant (now NRG) Stadium.

Robert and Janice McNair at a Texans game at Reliant (now NRG) Stadium.

By Rebecca Maitland

Robert McNair, a Texas billionaire Forbes Magazine named as one of the wealthiest men in America, is a leading businessman, sportsman, philanthropist, and founder, chairman and chief executive officer of the Houston Texans NFL football team. He is also helping to change the face of healthcare throughout the Texas Medical Center.

In 2007, Robert and Janice McNair’s gift of $100 million to Baylor College of Medicine has been and continues to be used to recruit the most leading and elite scientists and physicians from around the world to assist in transforming healthcare through translational research and personalized medicine. Medical professionals agree, it is through research that the healthcare industry moves forward and finds the answers to diseases and illnesses.

 Humble Beginnings

Robert McNair, 77, was born in Tampa, Fla., but grew up in Forest City, a town of about 7,500 in the foothills of western North Carolina. His father worked for Sunshine Biscuits for 32 years, first as office manager and then in sales.

“We were a middle class family, trying to make ends meet. We were active in our church and my parents supported the church. My mother was a homemaker, and with three boys, we kept her busy. She was the glue that held us all together,” McNair said.

McNair is a 1959 graduate of University of South Carolina in Columbia, S.C. with a Bachelor of Science degree in psychology. He was also president of the student body.

“I started college in civil engineering and then switched. I had a great experience in college,” McNair said.

During McNair’s freshman year, the Methodist all-girls college, Columbia College, was hosting a dance, which he attended and met his future wife Janice.

“We married during our junior year of college, and it has been a wonderful 57 years. We have two daughters and two sons, all of whom work with the foundation, and in different family companies,” McNair said.

The McNairs also have 15 grandchildren ranging in age from three months to 25 years.

“Being grandparents is great, and we really enjoy spending time with our family,” McNair said

A History of Hard Work

While in college, McNair’s first job was selling life insurance. After college, an agent with an advertising company out of Houston offered him a job selling advertising to the major bottling companies such as 7-Up and Dr. Pepper, which he did for over a year.

“A Sigma Chi fraternity brother started an auto leasing company in Charlotte, and I worked with him as sales manager for six months, before the company ran out of money. I thought it was a great idea, so I obtained a line of credit, and started an executive car leasing company in Houston, leasing cars to professionals, doctors, and lawyers,” McNair said. The auto leasing company struggled with having enough capital, so McNair sold the company in the early 1980s.

In 1984 he moved on to establishing Cogen Technologies Energy Group, which grew to be the largest privately owned cogeneration company in the U.S., with customers like Exxon and the City of New York. McNair sold the company to Enron and CalPers for $1.5 billion in 1999, two years before the Enron scandal. Today, McNair retains ownership of power plants in New York and West Virginia. A cogeneration plant is a power station to simultaneously generate electricity, steam, and useful heat.

McNair now serves as Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of The McNair Group, a financial and real estate firm headquartered in Houston. He is also the owner of Palmetto Partners, Ltd., a private investment company that manages the McNairs’ public and private equity investments, and is Chairman of The McNair Foundation.

“Many people say I was an overnight success, and I was, after 20 years of struggling,” McNair said.

 Gifts That Change Lives

With the $100 million gift from the McNair Foundation, Baylor College of Medicine is able to recruit many stars to an already world-recognized team of scientists and physicians. The McNair Scholars, as the program is known, strives to accelerate research initiatives that will become more quickly available to patients.

“Janice and I discussed what we might do that would have the most meaningful impact, and we decided that the most important thing is intellectual capital. With intellectual capital, you can attract outstanding students to the medical school and you can attract capital for building programs if you have an outstanding faculty,” McNair said.

Accordingly, the McNairs established two programs: McNair MD/PhD Scholars for outstanding medical students who will pursue a M.D. and Ph.D. degree, and the McNair Scholars to recruit exemplary faculty members in the four areas of focus: breast cancer, pancreatic cancer, juvenile diabetes and the neurosciences. Currently there are 11 McNair scholars, with each receiving approximately $500,000 to $2.4 million, to kick-start their research program, set up their lab, and hire assistants.

With full implementation of the program, 20 world-class scientists will have been maintained, initiating and finding major breakthroughs in those four areas of interest.

With a focus on collaboration among those who have been named McNair Scholars, an annual McNair Symposium is held at BCM featuring lectures by McNair Scholars and guest speakers, supported by the McNair Foundation and managed by the McNair Medical Institute, with Dr. Charles Neblett as the Medical Director.

The McNair Scholars program benefits a number of different institutions since Baylor collaborates with many institutions in the Texas Medical Center, where they can share in the benefit that these scientists bring to Baylor.

BCM has primary affiliations with Texas Children’s Hospital, Ben Taub General Hospital, the Michael E. DeBakey Veterans Affairs Medical Center, St. Luke’s Episcopal Hospital/Texas Heart Institute, The Menninger Clinic and Memorial Hermann/The Institute for Rehabilitation and Research. The College also has affiliated programs with The Methodist Hospital, MD Anderson Cancer Center and Memorial Hermann Hospital, as well as academic programs with Rice University, The University of Texas Health Science Center–Houston and the University of Houston.

In appreciation of their gift, the 35-acre site of the Baylor Clinic and Hospital was named the McNair Campus of Baylor College of Medicine. Also, the main
street through the campus was named McNair Boulevard.

The McNair Campus is located adjacent to the DeBakey Veterans Affairs Medical Center and in close proximity to the Texas Medical Center. The Campus is also home to two outstanding healthcare facilities: the Lee and Joe Jamail Specialty Care Center, which is fully occupied with seven adult practices, and the new Baylor College of Medicine Medical Center occupied by four adult practices.

Baylor and CHI St. Luke’s recently announced that a new hospital, the Baylor St. Luke’s Medical Center, part of the CHI St. Luke’s Health system, will be built out on the McNair Campus, in the same location as the outpatient clinics. The hospital will be co-owned and operated by Baylor and CHI St. Luke’s. The outpatient clinics are Baylor College of Medicine owned and operated.➝

The McNair Foundation

The Robert and Janice McNair Foundation was established in 1988 and supports medical research, education and educational programs, health and human services, arts and culture and faith and values.

The McNair name, through major gifts, is also seen on a number of other buildings throughout the city, such as The McNair Hall at Rice University.

Joanie Haley, executive director of the Janice and Robert McNair Foundation, has been with the foundation for 19 years, and notes, “I consider it an honor and a privilege to work with the Foundation and the McNairs. They are such caring and compassionate visionaries who truly want to create opportunities for deserving individuals. They are attuned to the many needs in our community and are proactive in addressing those needs. They want to extend a hand up, not just a hand out.”

Working with the Foundation is also very rewarding for Haley. “It is a unique opportunity to witness the impact of the McNairs’ extreme generosity. The number of students now graduating, having received assistance in basic academic skills, extra tutoring, character development, artistic enrichment, career opportunities, nutritional instruction, and athletic encouragement is indeed impressive! The recent accomplishments in medical research are inspiring and will impact future generations,” she said.

The Texans Team

In 1996, the Houston Oilers moved to Tennessee. During this time, McNair was still active in Cogen Technologies.

“I was working with a major company and a man asked me what was wrong in Houston, if we could not support an NFL team. I thought this was a black eye for Houston. Then I heard the NFL was going to add expansion teams, and I thought it was important for the city, so I looked at it as a civic project,” McNair said.

On Oct. 6, 1999, the NFL announced that the 32nd NFL franchise had been awarded to McNair. He brought Super Bowl XXXVIII to Houston in 2004 and will bring the 51st Super Bowl in 2017.

“It has been great, and much more than I ever envisioned. We have sold out the stadium every game since 2002. I love the coaching staff, we have great players, and we are looking forward to an exciting year,” McNair said.

Mrs. McNair is also involved with the Texans. “My wife is very much engaged in the football team. The players are like her kids, and the players ask about her too. She is also very active in the foundation, making many decisions,” McNair said.

Always of Service

McNair is the recipient of so many awards they are too numerous to name, in areas of leadership, education, and his entrepreneurial spirit. McNair is also current or past member of many boards of trustees, such as Rice University; Baylor College of Medicine; the Texas Heart Institute; the Greater Houston Partnership; Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau; the Federal Reserve Banks of Dallas and Houston; and the World Presidents’ Organization.

This brief article cannot begin to note all the McNairs have done and continue to do for Houston. There are so many programs and nonprofits, awards and honors, plus simple acts of kindness they have shown our city, individuals and students, that they are simply too numerous to include.

Houston is blessed to have the very active McNair family, which continues to set an example and make a difference in so many ways, to so many. Robert and Janice McNair are very giving and sincerely care about their fellowman, and take a deep interest in all areas of Houston, their hometowns and the country as a whole. The McNairs are a true class act, a witness for their Christian faith, and true leaders in every sense of the word.

In his elegant voice, McNair answered the question so many people ask: “Why?”

“Many people ask us why we engage in giving, and to us it is important. As Christians, we believe all our assets belong to God. We are only stewards, and feel a responsibility and a respect for being good stewards to help other people. We serve by serving our fellowman, which is our motivation.”

Janice McNair, Dr. Ben Arenkiel and Robert McNair. Dr. Arenkiel was the first McNair Scholar.

Janice McNair, Dr. Ben Arenkiel and Robert McNair. Dr. Arenkiel was the first McNair Scholar.

McNair Campus is home to the Lee and Joe Jamail Specialty Care Center, and the new Baylor College of Medicine Medical Center.

McNair Campus is home to the Lee and Joe Jamail Specialty Care Center, and the new Baylor College of Medicine Medical Center.


Texas Medical Center Legacy Makers – Robert and Janice McNair

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