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Celebrating the leadership, vision, tenacity, and love of community shared by the recipients of the Great Living Cincinnatian Award, presented annually by the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber since 1967.
Larry Sheakley did not follow the conventional path to success. Now CEO of the Sheakley Group, owner and investor in more than 20 different companies, including part owner of the Cincinnati Reds and FC Cincinnati, one thing has been consistent from the beginning: his entrepreneurial spirit.
“I didn’t do well in high school,” said Sheakley. “Looking back, I got straight A’s in certain subjects and I barely got through other subjects. It turns out I was a typical person with ADD. They didn’t diagnose it in those days.”
He grew up under a cloud of self-doubt, being told at every turn by teachers that he wasn’t living up to the best of his abilities. After spending two years in college in 1970, he decided to look beyond the halls of academia and dropped out, heading to work for his father’s company, Sheakley & Associates, where he was one of only three employees. In 1976, after helping to grow the business, he put the wheels in motion to buy the company outright from his father.
“I was 26, and kind of thought I knew everything, and obviously I didn’t,” he said. “But one thing led to another and I kept growing it. In 1980 I started another separate business managing a medical self-insured program. That was the first time I’d ever started a company on my own.”
Soon after, Sheakley purchased a small company in Phoenix, AZ. The following year he bought another in San Francisco, and a year later another in Los Angeles and the Sheakley Group of Companies was born.
“It was kind of off to the races,” he said. “Since then, I’ve purchased several different businesses, some in the same industry and rolled them up into what we were doing, and sometimes others. I started a number of businesses in related industries as offshoots. It’s 52 years of this, and here I am.”
The way Sheakley sees it, he got lucky.
“I love achieving. I love building a business, hiring people, talking to people,” he said. “I loved what I was doing, so I put full focus into it. I got lucky because business is something I really did like. I often think back, ‘What if I didn’t like business, what would my life be like?’ I don’t know.”
Sheakley’s love of business was also inspired by another prominent and successful local businessman, one Carl Lindner, Jr.
“He was a business idol of mine growing up because he too had a very unconventional path to great success.” said Sheakley. This is a guy that went to high school then started out in the ice cream business, and the next thing you know he’s in the insurance business, banking business, banana business, you name it.”
Under Sheakley’s leadership, the Sheakley Group was transformed into a powerhouse human resources company, with offices and employees across the nation. Sheakley was recognized as Entrepreneur of the year in 2010. The company has been included on the Deloitte Cincinnati USA 100 list for the last 15 years.
Lindner inspired him in other ways, too. The former’s philanthropic endeavors served as a model for the way Sheakley has given back to the community. Sheakley has given of his time and treasury and has served leadership roles with the University of Cincinnati, the Arts Community and the most vulnerable children of our city.
Sheakley and wife Rhonda have contributed to the Cincinnati Ballet, and Cincinnati Art Museum, and have served as major supporters of various other arts organizations, as well as the University of Cincinnati. UC’s Sheakley Quarterback Scholarship was created in 2014, providing the starting quarterback with full tuition in perpetuity. The Sheakleys provided the funds for the Sheakley Lawn at Varsity Village named it in honor of his father, and a suite in Nippert Stadium, named in honor of his mother, from whom he inherited his love for UC athletics. He also provided the lead gift for the Sheakley Athletic Center, the indoor training facility for sports teams at U.C.
The Sheakley mission in our community is seen in their commitment to both the Lighthouse Youth Services and the Boys and Girls Club. The Sheakleys gave a lead gift to build the Sheakley Boys and Girls Club in Price Hill along with the Sheakley Lighthouse Center for Youth.
“I was asked to go to a Boys and Girls Club one day down in Over-the-Rhine,” said Sheakley. “My vision was it was somewhere kids went to have a good time. What I found out was, a lot of it has to do with these kids getting off the streets because they’re scared, and they don’t get a hot meal anywhere else, and I couldn’t believe that. I literally started thinking about my life, that I never lived a day in fear, and I never lived a day without a hot meal. It just hit me in the face.”
For their charitable efforts, both Sheakley and his wife have received numerous awards. In 2013 they were honored as Cincinnati Philanthropists of the year. In 2016, they received the distinguished humanitarian award “Tree of Life” from Jewish National Fund for their commitment to the Cincinnati community. In 2018, Sheakley was inducted into the Cincinnati Business Hall of Fame and received the Carl H. Lindner Award for Entrepreneurship and Civic Spirit.
“His oldest son, Carl, called me and said, ‘Larry, I just want you to know you’ve been awarded the Carl H. Lindner Award,” said Sheakley. “I literally started crying on the phone. It was unbelievable because it came out of nowhere. It’s huge. To me, that was just an unbelievable moment in my life.”
When he was told he’d been honored as a Great Living Cincinnatian, Sheakley was just as overwhelmed with joy and gratitude.
“I was stunned. It was about the culmination of a lifetime of commitment, dedication, and love for the city that I grew up in and being recognized by my peers, ‘Wow, they actually think I’m a Great Living Cincinnatian.”
Recipients are selected from candidates by the Cincinnati Chamber’s senior council based on the following criteria: – Community service – Business and civic attainment on a local, state and national or international level – Leadership – Awareness of the needs of others – Distinctive accomplishments that have brought favorable attention to their community, institution or organization