jimmy john and Leslie Liautaud

jimmy john and Leslie Liautaud

The sandwich chain Jimmy John’s was launched in 1983 in the college town of Charleston, Illinois, some 55 miles south of Champaign. Its founder, Jimmy John Liautaud, began the business with a $25,000 loan from his father, Big Jim. Jimmy John Liautaud began by hand-delivering sandwiches to Eastern Illinois University students. Today, the 55-year old is worth $1.7 billion and Jimmy John’s has some 2,800 locations around the country.

In his early days with the business, Liautaud saw struggling people in the communities he worked. When a water issue led to dental problems in the community, Liautaud stepped in to pay for dental work. But, as he told me in a recent conversation, he never really saw this generosity “as philanthropic.”

Throughout our conversation, Liautaud went back to his early experiences growing up as a kid who felt prejudged. Family life was turbulent given his father’s entrepreneurial ups and downs. As a student, Liautaud struggled with undiagnosed dyslexia and ADD, and was overweight. He was on the verge of expulsion when the young Liautaud found an unlikely ally in James Lyons, then dean of discipline at Elgin Academy. “I was touched and helped by him,” Liautaud says. The two have fostered a longtime friendship and Liautaud made a $1 million gift to Elgin Academy, naming the Liautaud-Lyons Upper School.

A Formal Platform

Now in his mid-50s, Liautaud and his writer wife Leslie recently launched the Liautaud Family Foundation to be more strategic about their giving. The low-profile foundation gave away around $2.3 million in the 2018 fiscal year, and its primary mission is to help others help themselves. The charity gives to both local and national organizations that promote and support health and wellness, education, military, and the arts.

In recent years, Liautaud has keyed in on the Horatio Alger Association, of which he is a member. “I never went to college. A lot of what I learned, I learned as I went on. So I love to help people that, for whatever reason, are downtrodden.” The Liautaud Foundation recently directed $1.291 million to Horatio Alger Association to support scholarships for underprivileged students. And like his own background, Liautaud is convinced that with the proper support, disadvantaged youth have unique and important experiences that can be leveraged for success.

The family’s launch of a formal foundation hits on themes we often write about at Inside Philanthropy, and Liautaud talks about the value of becoming more strategic in philanthropy through the years: “As I’ve gotten older, I’ve needed a formal platform to strategically plan for giving and the foundation allows us this. As I made an extraordinary amount of money, I allocated a big chunk so that when I’m gone my kids will have a vehicle, as well.”

Indeed, the couple’s three kids are already involved with the foundation and every year around Christmas, the family has a meeting to talk about giving. Their kids identified an organization that works with retired horses in Illinois and the family now supports it. The Liautauds also gave $2 million to Brewster Academy in New Hampshire, their kids’ boarding school, naming Toad Hall—a play on their oft-mispronounced last name (the “D” is actually silent).

Liautaud is also a strong patron of University of Illinois – Chicago, where he helped his father endow and create the Liautaud Graduate School of Business. In addition, the Liautauds donated $1 million to Chicago’s Youth Guidance Becoming a Man program, which helps disadvantaged young men learn how to handle tough life challenges and give them the tools to succeed in the future.

“Bet the Jockey, not the Horse”

Away from Illinois, the family also supports an inclusive camp in Georgia for children with special needs called Camp Southern Ground. Grammy Award-winning artist Zac Brown started the nonprofit, which recently received $2.2 million in donations from the Liautauds to help build its first residential lodge on campus.

“He’s taking these kids in and changing their lives,” Liautaud says. The camp works with special needs youth with autism and other spectrum related disorders and works on their diet—eliminating potential problem foods like gluten and sugar—as well as provides resources like exercise and education. And Liautaud couldn’t say enough about the leadership of Zac Brown, a good example of how Liautaud prefers to place his philanthropic bets: “I always bet the jockey, not the horse,” he says.

Similarly, Liautaud talked about some of his health grantmaking and a new focus on obesity awareness and research. He connected with the pioneering work of Mohamed R. Ali at UC Davis Health, a doctor who specializes in bariatric and gastrointestinal surgery. Like Zac Brown, Liautaud also sees a strong leader in Mo Ali, who is investigating the genetic and hormonal bases for obesity. He tells me that supporting this work and other obesity research and awareness efforts is going to be his next big bet.

The Liautauds have also supported research in obesity, nutrition, health and wellness within the Mayo Clinic Center for Individualized Medicine, Microbiome and Beyond Genomics Programs.

Other health grantmaking has touched pancreatic cancer research, which Big Jim passed away from. In this work, the family have particularly focused on MD Anderson and Pancreatic Cancer Action Network. “At one point or another, we’re all going to need to call on medical,” he says. The Liautauds have an interest in prostate cancer research, as well.

"These days, we’re focusing more on a few causes instead of taking the shotgun approach. And we’re going to be more strategic and focused in the coming years,” Liautaud adds.

Veterans and More

Big Jim fought in the Korean War and was able to attend University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign on the GI bill. And Jimmy John Liautaud’s brothers were also involved in the military. Earlier in the decade, Jimmy John’s donated $1 million to the Folds of Honor Foundation, which provides educational scholarships to spouses and children of America’s fallen and disabled service-members.

Liautaud’s passion for veterans also seems to be driven by his unique American story. His mother, Gina, and family were forced out of Lithuania when she was ten after Germany invaded the country. They eventually arrived at Ellis Island, and later, Chicago, where Gina’s mother worked in the stockyards. Gina was a school teacher and ran the household while Big Jim built his businesses. Big Jim meanwhile—born of African American descent in New Orleans in 1936—ended up in Chicago and was an educator, inventor, and entrepreneur. After several unsuccessful ventures, he launched several successful companies.

“I have a deep admiration for America and a deep understanding of the power of free enterprise and the privilege of freedom. This is not political. In order to protect ourselves, we need to work for it. It doesn’t come for free,” Liautaud says. In past years, Liataud has been a major donor to the Republican Party, including support for Carly Fiorina’s presidential bid.

The Liautauds also have an interest in the arts. Leslie was once a ballerina and now works as a writer and playwright, currently putting on a play called “Southern Gothic.” The couple have supported places like Goodman Theater and Detroit Symphony, linking up with musician Kid Rock, who is active in his native state’s community. In the coming years, Leslie will spearhead this grantmaking area.

Liautaud has also worked with Gina in Lithuania, providing scholarships for students. “That work has become self-sufficient and self-sustaining, which is what you want to see,” he says.

Overall, this is just the beginning for this billionaire family and their young family foundation. Down the line, Liautaud says that his biggest hope for his philanthropy is that it allows people to “self-actualize, self-realize, and become contributing members of society in the most natural way.”

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