Remembering Karl Eller

Last week, Karl Eller – a successful Arizona businessman and the namesake of the University of Arizona’s business school – passed away at 90 years old.  

In a twitter post, Governor Ducey summed up the brilliance of Eller and his career: “Today, Arizona remembers the life of Karl Eller, a true model of integrity. One of our state’s most valuable players in business and philanthropy, his vision helped take Arizona to new levels #RIP”.

Eller grew up in Tucson, Arizona and proceeded to attend and graduate from the University of Arizona. After college, Eller worked at Foster & Kleiser, a well-established advertising agency. In 1962, President John Kluge offered to sell Eller the Arizona operations of Foster & Kleiser for $5 million.

Although a challenging feat, Eller raised the money through various investors and began Eller Outdoor Advertising in Phoenix. Just over five years later, Eller’s advertising firm merged with radio and television company KTAR; about a decade later, in 1979, the company would be purchased by media mogul Gannett.  

Because of his media influence early in his career, Eller became one of the first investors in our very own Phoenix Suns in 1968. In fact, Eller was part of the team that hired Jerry Colangelo as its general manager.

This was only the beginning of Eller’s storied career. In 1983, Columbia Pictures Communications – where Karl Eller worked – and its parent company merged with The Coca-Cola Company and Circle K. Because of his expertise and success, Eller was chosen to be the CEO of Circle K after the merger.

Under his leadership, Circle K became the largest publicly-owned convenience store chain in the nation. Eller grew Circle K from roughly a thousand stores to over 4,500 stores across 32 states, and saw its annual revenue skyrocket from $747 million to $3.4 billion.

The convenience store market began to change rapidly, and many gasoline distributors started to merge gas stations with convenience stores, as are common today. Circle K ended up filing for bankruptcy, and Eller resigned from his position as CEO.

But Eller did not quit there. Determined to return to his advertising roots, Eller again asked repurchased Gannett’s billboard branch for $20 million and rename it Eller Media. In just five years, Eller Media was the largest billboard agency in the nation. He sold it in 1997 for $1.15 billion.

In addition to his business success, Eller also gave back to the community that raised him. He donated over $20 million to the University of Arizona’s business school; consequently, it was named the Eller school of management. Indeed, his contributions showed that Eller was an exceptional investor not only in his own endeavors, but in the future of young business leaders as well. University of Arizona President Robert Robbins held Eller at the highest esteem.

“Karl Eller was a true pillar of this community and an inspiration to the many people whose lives were positively impacted by his generosity, dedication and Wildcat spirit,”  Robbins said in a statement. “The University of Arizona is incredibly fortunate to carry on his legacy through our students in the Eller College of Management and programs throughout our campus for many generations to come. His decades of leadership and philanthropy have been nothing short of transformative, and he will be remembered and missed by all who had the pleasure of knowing him.”

Ben Norman

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