Profile: David Murphy, associate dean of entrepreneurship

Author: Gene Stowe

David Murphy

When David Murphy ’80 stepped down last August, after seven years as president and CEO of Better World Books, he happened to mention the change over breakfast with Peter Kilpatrick, dean of the College of Engineering. Murphy was on campus to help his son, a sophomore, move back into his dorm.

Within a very short period of time, Kilpatrick and Greg Crawford, dean of the College of Science, had asked him to consider coming to Notre Dame to become the associate dean of entrepreneurship for the Colleges of Science and Engineering, including assuming the directorship for the ESTEEM (Engineering, Science, Technology, Entrepreneurship Excellence Master’s) Program.

More than 30 years after he graduated from the College of Arts and Letters with high honors in economics, Murphy has returned to help define and shape the innovation and entrepreneurship track for 21st-century students.

He’s been down that road several times himself.

His first job after graduation was with International Paper in New York City, where he participated in an intensive training program that rotated bright hires with primarily liberal arts degrees from the nation’s top colleges and universities among the company’s financial functions—treasury, cash management, international finance—and required twice-a-week courses (taught on site from NYU and Columbia professors) that introduced Murphy to key business functions—marketing, finance and accounting.

He went on to earn an MBA at the Amos Tuck School of Business Administration at Dartmouth College and worked on Wall Street before he returned to his Michigan roots in a senior leadership position for a major Tier 1 automotive supplier.

When he was 30, Murphy started his first company with two partners, a furniture manufacturer supplying large retailers, but in 1994 he was recruited to work with a couple of very successful entrepreneurs in the health care services space, launching a startup in Atlanta.

“Most of what I had learned in my early professional years was operations and finance,” Murphy recalls. “When I started my first company when I was 30, one of the things you learn is you are selling all of the time. You’re the person who has got to make it happen.”

He worked with two tech startups on either side of the 2000-2001 technology “bubble.” One succeeded,
and one did not. “You learn a great deal from the pain,” he says. “You learn as much or more when things don’t work out as you do when things go your way.”

In 2002, when he was part of a small private equity firm in Atlanta, Murphy was recruited by Jim Davis of the Gigot Center to become an Irish Angel and get involved in judging business plans as part of the annual McCloskey Business Plan Competition in the Mendoza School of Business. He was reading a plan for book drives to benefit the Robinson Community Learning Center when he saw great promise and potential in the venture that would eventually become Better World Books.

He became a mentor to the three young founders, all 2001 graduates of Notre Dame, and the relationship continued after they won the 2003 Social Venture Competition. The young startup took Murphy’s advice to find a CEO who could drive the young company to substantial scale—and who could help raise the capital required to fuel the company’s rapid growth—and hired him.

Murphy quit his job at the private equity firm but remained in Atlanta to begin to build out the Better World Books sales team and eventually the company’s corporate headquarters staff. The company’s operations, logistics and technology infrastructure has remained in the South Bend area from the very beginning, with the primary distribution center located in Mishawaka housing more than 4 million books and approximately 325 of the company’s more than 400 employees (others are in Atlanta and Scotland).

Today the company is processing almost 200,000 books per day and has raised $12 million dollars for nonprofits and libraries while also donating 6.6 million books to many of these same nonprofit groups. It has also won major national recognition from the EPA for its environmental efforts.

Murphy says Notre Dame, with its tradition of Catholic social teaching and commitment to being a force for good in the world, should take the lead in advancing entrepreneurial social ventures such as Better World Books.

“We’ve got some work to do,” he says, adding that the effort will ultimately engage not only science and engineering students but students from all academic disciplines. “I am very enthusiastic about what we can do to foster a real culture of innovation and entrepreneurship across Our Lady’s University—and do it in a way that truly reflects our distinctive Catholic character. I think a lot of our best work lies ahead.”