University Trustee Emeritus Steven G. Rothmeier, 1946-2014

Steven G. Rothmeier, MBA’72, was a risk-taker as a businessman, a decorated Vietnam-era veteran and a Trustee Emeritus at the University of Chicago. Rothmeier died on May 14 at age 67 in a Florida nursing home after a long illness.

Rothmeier was elected to the University’s Board of Trustees in 1987. He served on the audit, development, financial planning, investment, and trusteeship committees, and in 2007 he was made a Trustee Emeritus. He served as board chair of the ARCH Development Corporation, a UChicago entity that provides seed money for venture capital projects. He also was a life member of the Booth Council and a member of the Harper Society Founder’s Circle.

“Steve and I met the very first day of school at orientation for the graduate students in 1971,” recalled John Edwardson, MBA’72, a University of Chicago Trustee and the retired chairman and CEO of CDW. “He was freshly back from Vietnam, and we just hit it off and became good friends and stayed good friends. He was a vigorous, tough, but fun-loving guy. We enjoyed our time together at Booth.”

In the business world, Rothmeier was known as a no-nonsense executive who remade Northwest Airlines in the 1980s. He joined Northwest Airlines in 1973 as a corporate financial analyst and five years later, Rothmeier was promoted to vice president for finance, treasurer and CFO. At age 32, he was the youngest CFO in the history of the company and the youngest in the U.S. airline industry. A few years later, Rothmeier was named Northwest Airlines’ president and chief operating officer.

Rothmeier engineered the $884 million acquisition of Republic Airlines by Northwest in 1986—at that time, the largest-ever airline deal. In 1989, he successfully negotiated the sale of NWA, Inc., the parent company of Northwest Airlines, for $3.6 billion. He described himself as developing a reputation as a “risk-taker” during this merger, as he steered the company through difficult times in the late 1980s.

Edwardson worked with Rothmeier at NWA as CFO for a few years before moving on to become president of United Airlines and chairman and chief executive of CDW.

“I’d describe his management style as tough, but fair,” Edwardson said of Rothmeier. “He was very demanding, but the airline industry is a very demanding one that requires leaders to be tough and forceful in their jobs. He was never mean-spirited or vindictive. What most people didn’t know was that he had an absolutely wicked sense of humor.”

Following his time at NWA, Inc., Rothmeier became president of IAI Capital Group. In 1993, he founded and served as chairman and CEO of Great Northern Capital, his own merchant banking, consulting and investment-management company. He retired in 2012.

He also served as a director on the boards of more than a dozen New York Stock Exchange-traded corporations. In 2011, The Wall Street Journal named him one of America’s eight most effective corporate directors. Rothmeier also co-founded and directed the Lumen Christi Institute in Chicago. He was the past director of the American Council on Germany, a former trustee for the German Marshall Fund of the United States and former vice-chairman of the U.S.–China Business Council.

Rothmeier was born in Mankato, Minn., and raised in Faribault, Minn. In 1968, he received his BA in Business Administration from the University of Notre Dame, where he also played varsity football. After graduation, Rothmeier served in the U.S. Army in Vietnam and was awarded the Army Commendation Medal and Bronze Star Medal. He then came to UChicago to earn his master’s degree. 

He is survived by his mother, Alice; two brothers, Michael and Jay; three nephews and two nieces. A requiem mass was held in St. Paul on May 28.