Denise Jones figures it was her smile that helped her land her first job as a cashier at Elmhurst College 26 years ago.
The business manager interviewing her was particularly interested in finding someone who would be friendly and easygoing in interactions with students and the rest of the campus community. “I’m convinced he hired me because I smiled,” she says.
In November, President S. Alan Ray named Jones, still smiling, senior vice president for finance and administration. She will stand in for Ray—convening cabinet meetings and otherwise keeping the institutional machinery in gear—when the president is away on fundraising trips and other College business. Jones had served as vice president for financial affairs since 1997.
Ray says he has high regard for Jones’ judgment, competence and integrity. “In a world of people who shoot from the hip, she is unflaggingly calm and cool-headed,” he notes. “She is patient and always acts from the facts. She holds her positions when necessary and compromises when possible.”
It’s been a remarkable rise for Jones. As a teenager, she aspired to a teaching career. Her plans were waylaid by marriage and her husband John’s Army service. When he returned from Vietnam, they settled into a house in Villa Park and began raising their two daughters, Robin and Tracy, and son Michael.
Jones returned to work when the youngest was in the fifth grade. A part-time job at a land surveyor involved bookkeeping and opened her eyes to the possibilities of accounting. “I like numbers and I like taking disorganized facts and organizing them,” she says.
She was taking accounting classes at the College of DuPage and thinking about completing her undergraduate degree when she heard about the cashier’s opening at Elmhurst. The position was attractive in part because of the College’s tuition remission benefit.
It took three interviews, including a two hour grilling by Business Manager Trevor Pinch—unusual for an entry-level position. “He talked about analyzing general ledger accounts, and I didn’t have a clue,” she recalls, still shuddering at the memory. “But I was convinced that I could learn it when I got here.”
Jones got the job and went on to hold other business office positions. In 1990, a year after her older daughter Robin graduated from Elmhurst, Jones earned her undergraduate degree with a major in accounting. “When I graduated, the president, Ivan Frick, shook my hand and asked me, ‘Are you coming to work tomorrow?’” Jones recalls. “I assured him that was the case.”
In 1992, Jones was promoted to controller. She joined the College’s most senior administration five years later. A highlight of her years as vice president for finance and administration was seeing the College’s endowment reach $100 million in 2007. “The Investment Committee [of the Board] broke out the champagne,” she recalls. Although the endowment took a hit in the 2008 market collapse, it has since rebounded to more than $83 million.
These days, Jones focuses on growing revenue—a prerequisite to advancing the College’s goals as outlined in the 2009–2014 Strategic Plan. Her boss says Jones has moved seamlessly into her new role. “She has shown leadership in coordinating cabinet members in our work on the science center initiative, on our parking and sustainability projects, and on our fine and performing arts facilities study,” says the president. “She does all this in addition to continuing to perform her day job.”