It was the fall of 1972, and Rod Schmidt ’73 wasn’t sure what he wanted to do. He knew what he didn’t want to do: move back to his hometown of Larchwood, Iowa, or end up working in a Sioux Falls, S.Dak., packing plant with many of his high school friends. Beyond that, however, he was a “walking generality,” as he terms it, casting about for a path to lead him out into the world.
Within a year, Schmidt had been hired as a sales rep for Mobil Oil (now ExxonMobil). Within 10 years, he was working in Manhattan, managing oil sales for all five of New York City’s boroughs. Today he owns and operates Vintage Apartment Rentals, a thriving Sioux Falls property management company.
Dressed for Success
Schmidt enrolled in a salesmanship course to fulfill a graduation requirement. At the time, he “had no idea what business was all about.” A classroom exercise changed that. “I had to ‘sell’ something,” he says. “I’d been an 800-meter runner in high school, so I decided to sell track shoes. My goal was to move 20 pairs. I ended up selling 200 pairs.”
The professor of that class—Richard Lebsack—had a keen eye for talent. “He came up to me afterward and told me it was the best sales presentation he’d ever heard,” Schmidt recalls. “He actually said, ‘What’s your major? You should study business. You could make a good living.’”
The message resonated with Schmidt, who had grown up poor. “I showed up in Mankato with $78 in my pocket, a $12 sport coat, a $3 pair of shoes and a 1953 Desoto that I bought for $35 and painted camouflage to hide the rust,” he says. “I was also working 40 hours a week to pay for school. I scrubbed pots and pans in the college cafeteria, did construction and worked as a tour guide at the Blue Earth County Historical Society.”
Schmidt switched his major to business and applied that drive to his courses. “I enjoyed every minute of it,” he says. “The professors were knowledgeable, and they gave me great advice. In fact, I can’t think of a better school to go to than Mankato State. It offered me the vision that the whole world was open to me.”
It also offered the support he needed to get there. Schmidt is especially grateful for his Phi Delta Theta fraternity brothers. “They were my support system, they helped me carry the load,” he says. “Joining Phi Delta Theta was probably the second best thing that happened to me, after coming to Mankato.
In early 1973, the third best thing happened: Schmidt learned that Mobil Oil would be on campus conducting interviews. “I had long hair and looked like one of the Rolling Stones,” he says. “The guys at the placement office told me to buy a blue suit and get a haircut. They also lined up an interview for me.”
The makeover worked. A week after the interview, Mobil hired Schmidt for the then-hefty salary of $10,000 per year. After he graduated, the firm sent him to Grand Rapids, Mich., for its training program. Big salary aside, Schmidt wisely decided to stock away cash—a move that would eventually pay big dividends. He bought an old Volkswagen Beetle that he had to push to start and initially slept on the floor of his apartment in a sleeping bag.
He also validated Professor Lebsack’s prediction. Over the next 13 years, Mobil consistently promoted Schmidt and moved him to such cities as Columbus, Ohio; Chicago; Los Angeles; Minneapolis; and finally New York City.
While the last stop placed Schmidt squarely in the big time, he realized it wasn’t for him. “I was living in Stamford, Conn., and commuting to Manhattan,” he says. “I got tired of it. My commute was long, and there were just too many people in too small of an area.”
Back to His Roots
Like many expatriated Midwesterners, Schmidt felt a tug back to his roots. In 1986 he moved to Sioux Falls and tapped into his savings to buy and sell homes. The venture eventually turned into Vintage Apartment Rentals, which specializes in classic apartments. “Our buildings are preserved exactly the way they were when they were built, but with electric heat and modern appliances,” he says. “We now have four large apartment buildings on the Historical Registry.”
Schmidt hasn’t forgotten where he got his start. Over the past several years, he has been a generous supporter of Minnesota State Mankato and was named the University’s Philanthropist of the Year in 2013. For all of his success, however, he remains humble. “I’m no big deal—there are millions of people like me out there,” he says. “I just believe strongly in giving.
“I was always met with open arms at Mankato,” he adds. “It offered me the vision and tools to move to a bigger stage. It feels tremendous to be able give something back.”