May 25, 2017 After 50 years, class ring a constant reminder of the value of an MBA

There’s something about certain objects and their significance in our lives that compels us to keep them close, regardless of how much time passes or where life’s journey leads us. For Fisher alumnus Carmine Oliva (MBA ’66), that object is a ring.

But it’s not just any ring that Oliva wears on his left hand. It’s his Ohio State class ring, which, for more than 50 years, has been a symbol of the MBA he earned at Ohio State — an MBA that’s opened numerous doors throughout a successful career.

Carmine Oliva
Carmine Oliva (MBA '66) wearing his Ohio State class ring

When Oliva graduated from what was then known as the Ohio State University College of Business, he was one of 12 full-time students to earn an MBA that year. By comparison, 109 students received MBAs at the 2017 spring commencement. 

Oliva was drawn to Ohio State by the College of Business’ reputation and by the opportunity for financial support. Although he worked to fund his college preparatory high school education and his undergraduate studies, working off campus wasn’t an option for him once he began the MBA program. 

“Fortunately, I was appointed a dormitory counselor at Stradley Hall, then the home away from home for the football team,” Oliva said. “I appreciate the opportunity from Ohio State that allowed me to end my formal education free from school-loan debt.”

The MBA program of the 1960s was challenging, and candidates were required to complete a master’s thesis. Oliva studied under beloved professors Dr. William Davidson (marketing) and Dr. John Pfahl (business organization), who also served as his thesis advisor. 

During Oliva’s studies, he was intrigued by the marketing coursework, which would ultimately prove to be the most beneficial throughout his career, but his thesis topic was finance-related.

“I could have chosen marketing, a subject I was more comfortable with,” Oliva said. “But I went with the more challenging option by selecting finance, mainly because of the influence of Dr. Pfahl. He really showed a personal interest in me.

“My thesis was more of a reflection of the advice and counsel I got from Dr. Pfahl than it was of my own expertise.”

Military career

The combination of Oliva’s work ethic, the academic rigor of his MBA studies, and the challenge of writing his thesis would serve him well after graduation, beginning with his early career in the U.S. Army.

The path to military service began while Oliva was still an undergraduate liberal arts major at Seton Hall University in South Orange, New Jersey. There, he was an ROTC candidate. Upon graduating from Seton Hall, he was commissioned a Second Lieutenant and received approval from the Army to begin his studies at Ohio State, delaying his military service requirement until after completion of his MBA. 

Following graduation from Ohio State in 1966, Oliva began Officer Basic Training (OBT) and was promoted to First Lieutenant. Two weeks after completing OBT, he would find himself in Vietnam, where he was assigned to the U.S. Army Military Assistance Command Vietnam serving as an advisor to a small detachment of the Vietnamese Regional and Popular Force troops. Toward the end of his tour, an injury required him to be medically evacuated, and he eventually returned to his home state of New Jersey with an assignment at Ft. Hancock. For his service in Vietnam, Oliva was awarded a U.S. Bronze Star and the Vietnamese Army Medal of Honor. 

Oliva would soon be promoted to Captain. But, while still a First Lieutenant and in the face of competition from other more senior officers, he was selected to develop a plan for the closure of Ft. Hancock and its satellite Nike missile base. Oliva credits his MBA with helping him earn that visible assignment. Additionally, having completed his master’s thesis, Oliva had the confidence he needed for the task of developing the base-closure plan that would ultimately be presented to Congress. The plan was approved, and today, the decommissioned base is a National Recreation Area of the National Park Service. 

“I’m proud of my military service and the experience I gained from it,” Oliva said. “And my time in Vietnam was a life-changing experience.” 

From military to corporate America  

Following his military service, Oliva’s MBA continued to open doors for him. He went to work for Sinclair Oil Company in New York City, where he began a corporate fast-track career path working as an organization and systems analyst, eventually completing two temporary assignments in Venezuela and Colombia. After two mergers in three years, the company became part of British Petroleum (BP). 

“The new leadership team at BP took notice of me,” Oliva said. “In those later years of the 60s, an MBA stood out like a shining light.” 

During his tenure at BP, Oliva served in several marketing and operations management positions, concluding as the metropolitan New York region general manager. But despite a potentially promising path at BP, Oliva decided to make a career change.

His next move led him to ITT Corporation. It was a transition that allowed him to pursue a passion for electronics that began when he was a boy building electronic hobby kits. Oliva’s move to the electronics industry proved successful, as it’s the industry he continues working in to this day. 

At ITT, Oliva advanced quickly to the position of operations director at ITT Decca Marine, a half-owned subsidiary of ITT and Decca Radar Ltd. of Surrey, England. He was promoted to general manager and completed a major factory and headquarters relocation from three facilities in New York City and New Jersey to a purpose-built ITT facility in Palm Coast, Florida. He subsequently ascended to the position of senior vice president and general manager of ITT Asia Pacific Inc., capping off a nearly 15-year career with ITT that included his selection for executive advanced educational schooling at Harvard and at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. The high point of his tenure with ITT was his selection as one of 10 executives nominated for the Harold S. Geneen Management Achievement Award — the highest recognition the company provides its executive-level employees. 

But despite his successes in the corporate world, Oliva was ready to take his passion for electronics to the next level — this time diving head-first into entrepreneurship. He made the decision to strike out on his own, leaving behind the multinational company. 

“I knew I wanted to go out on my own,” Oliva said. “I wanted a much bigger personal challenge for myself. I wanted to pursue the entrepreneurial dream of the 1970s of founding a company and taking it public.”


Entrepreneurial pursuits

Oliva credits his MBA and his experience at ITT with helping him successfully launch and lead a private electronics company. In 1983, from a colleague’s basement and with help from four original employees, he and his team designed and built high-resolution video displays that were originally used in early desktop computers. The company quickly established a more profitable market niche in the medical-equipment industry because its patented technology produced less heat, was more efficient than other similar technologies and featured a longer and more reliable lifecycle. 

Two years after founding the original private company with his own seed capital, Oliva raised outside investor equity funding and greatly expanded bank-borrowed capital.

The new capital was used to acquire the Digitran Division of Becton Dickenson & Co. This acquisition greatly increased the size of the original company and added digital switches, keypads and keyboards to the product line. The combination of the original company’s cathode ray tubes (CRT) and early flat panel displays with Digitran’s input devices allowed the combined company to sell integrated devices for such applications as ATMs, brokerage and point of sale terminals, and other custom-integrated display and input devices for a wide variety of applications. 

The company complemented its rapid organic growth with a total of 15 acquisitions over a 30-year period in the U.S., England, Wales, France and Japan. Of these acquisitions, three were U.S. public companies. Organic growth plus the acquisitions led the company to prominence in industries, including in-flight entertainment systems, aerospace and defense electronics components and sub systems, radio frequency devices for jamming improvised explosive devices, and radar for ground-based, sea, air and space systems, and many more industries. Over the years, Oliva concluded the ultimate divestment of 14 of the 15 acquisitions, before his retirement in June of 2015. 

In 1996, the company completed a reverse merger with a public company, and the combined enterprise traded on the NASDAQ. Eventually, it would trade on the then-newly formed NYSE Arca Exchange. At the time of the NYSE Arca listing, the company adopted the name of Emrise Corporation and Oliva served as chairman, president and CEO. At the time of the listing, Emrise was the smallest company on the exchange, but still, investors took notice. At the time of his retirement, Oliva was awarded the honorific title of chairman emeritus by the outside directors of Emrise.

In 2002, Oliva became president of CXR-Anderson Jacobson SAS, a French-based subsidiary of Emrise. Oliva and his wife, Georgeann, acquired CXR in 2016 following Oliva’s retirement from Emrise. CXR manufactures network telecommunications equipment, and its products are sold directly throughout the EU, Africa and the Middle East, and through a channel partner in the U.S. The couple maintains a depth of involvement with the business, both serving as officers and directors. 

Life in semi-retirement

In 2016, Oliva returned to Ohio State for the first time in 50 years for his 50th MBA reunion. With his class ring still on his left hand, he was so thankful for the transformative experience he had at the university — and for all that he had accomplished thanks to his MBA from Ohio State.  

Today, at 75, Oliva is enjoying life in semi-retirement. His responsibilities with CXR, although not full-time, keep his mind occupied and his management and acquisition skills sharp. Additionally, he continues to support various local charities, a practice he’s maintained throughout his career.

The Olivas live on 30 acres near the Outer Banks of North Carolina on their property “Domaine de la Petite Riviere,” which is bordered by a river tributary of the Albemarle Sound. The estate has been developed over a 20-year period and includes a beach front, a canal, boat docks, streams, an equestrian center, bridle paths, orchards and vineyards, two large fishing ponds, a golf driving range and a helicopter landing site.

However, Oliva’s greatest satisfaction with the property is an influence derived from a longtime Japanese subsidiary of his company. The property includes a decorated full-scale replica of a Japanese 1600s Minka-style farm house complete with a Zen garden. 

Travel has been a lifetime priority since Oliva’s early teens. He has visited 86 countries on six continents, and with CXR, he is now focusing his travels in Africa and the Middle East.

Oliva remains appreciative of the many doors his MBA opened for him throughout his robust career and the financial success that has resulted. He attributes his numerous career successes to his personal integrity, work ethic and earning his MBA from Fisher. 

But, he’s quick to acknowledge that he’s been blessed with numerous supportive mentors and other influences throughout his life who’ve helped him get to where he is today. These include his beloved father, who was involved with Emrise, and who was awarded the honorific title of director emeritus at the time of his retirement from the board.

“If you have enough horsepower behind you in terms of a support system, the sky’s the limit,” Oliva said.