Eta Mu Chapter of Sigma Chi at Eastern Illinois - Charles Willes ’77: “Ah, the Things We Did for the Chapter”

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Q: Why did you join Sigma Chi EIU in the first place?

A: I joined Sigma Chi during the second semester of my freshman year.  At the time, I really had no idea what a fraternity was, but my sister, a Sigma Kappa, suggested that I join Sigma Chi or Sigma Pi and my father said I could use a little growing up and thought joining a fraternity would be good for me. Gary Munson ’78 and Bill Brown ’78, who lived on my dorm floor, had joined Sigma Chi and, since they invited me to a rush party, I took a look at Sigma Chi.  The guys seemed great and they offered me the opportunity to pledge, so I took it.

Q: What’s your favorite memory from your time in the chapter?

A: I have a lot of memories and it’s very difficult to pick out one memory that I would call my ‘favorite’.  Of course, as you get older, any memory is a good memory and, therefore, a favorite. I remember initiation night and the profound impact it had on me. I remember going to two National workshops, one at LSU and the other at the University of Wyoming. Both of which gave me that feeling that Sigma Chi was a much bigger organization than what I thought when I joined the chapter at Eastern.

I remember living in three chapter houses at Eastern, the little red house on 9th street, where I slept in the basement with seven other guys in a room the size of my bedroom now. I also lived in the green apartment building that Eta Mu called home for that one year. Everybody wanted to live there because it was like living in an apartment (probably because it was).  But my biggest memory is the year I lived in the old yellow barn. I was one of a handful of brothers that lived in the house when it was under construction.  We had no bathrooms in the home until Thanksgiving; we had to go to Lantz Gym to take a shower.   At one point, we were living in a house with no roof.  We could see up to the stars from our beds.  Not sure why the six of us chose to live there, but, if I recall, we were told the chapter couldn’t afford the house unless some brothers lived there from the beginning. Ah, the things we did for the chapter.      

Q: Do you still keep in touch with any of your brothers?

A: I keep in touch with a couple of the brothers and my younger brother was a Sigma Chi at Eastern also. When I went to the 40th anniversary of Eta Mu, people laughed because it seemed like Jim Pritchard ’80 and I picked up our conversation exactly where we left off in 1977. We didn’t miss a beat.

Q: Tell us about the company for which you are President and CEO.                          

A: My company is called Inverness Partners Limited. It acts as a holding company/investment vehicle for the different companies I own and the real estate projects that have been developed. I started the company in 1991 and, over the course of time, I’ve acquired four companies and started up another four companies. We’ve also completed a couple of real estate projects. Our home office is in Rolling Meadows, IL but we also have an office in Dallas, TX.

I’ve had the pleasure of working for large international companies and also smaller startup companies.  Although my career started out working for one of the large CPA firms, I eventually moved into corporate finance/investment banking.  The contacts I made in that field helped me to raise capital for some of my acquisitions and it also showed me what business really is…selling yourself.

I’ve worked for hedge funds that employed me in turnaround situations. I’ve worked as CFO of public companies and CEO of private companies. I’ve sat on the Board of Directors of three companies, the last one being a publicly-held real estate company that was sold in 2007.

Q: How did your time in Sigma Chi help to prepare you for that role?

A: Sigma Chi helped me enormously in becoming the person I am today. I learned that honesty and integrity are not just words or concepts, but when you practice them in life, and even in business, you get an immense return over time because of being that kind of person. It won’t help you with ‘get rich schemes’, but it will help you build your reputation and open doors down the road for you.

The connections I made because of Sigma Chi were invaluable to learning how to be a successful businessman and executive and in finding opportunities. When I graduated from Eastern in 1977, I went to grad school at the University of Illinois. I joined the chapter there (they welcomed me with open arms) and Illinois, being a much older chapter, had a lot of successful alumni who came back to the chapter house.  I would be sitting there in the living room of the chapter house and having conservations with alumni brothers like the President of Jewel, the CEO of Nicor or the Chairman of Harris Bank.  I learned that these top executives were cool guys and it put me at ease for the rest of my career learning that dealing with these ‘big shots’ was no different than talking with them as brothers at the chapter house.

I’ve also learned that no matter how famous or successful other brothers are, if I walked up to them and introduced myself as a Sigma Chi, they always had the time to chat with you and to learn about you.

Q: What would you say is your biggest accomplishment?

A: I’ve been fortunate that all the career and material goals I had when I was younger have been achieved.  I can safely say that I achieved goals without having to change who I was or compromising the belief system I have.  I’ve been fortunate to have many different life experiences that could fill a book with laughter.  I’ve travelled the world for business and I’ve met some interesting people like Putin (he wasn’t President of Russia yet) and Obama (he wasn’t President yet either).

However, my biggest accomplishments I have by far are the kids that I took in as a foster parent. I learned a lot about the other side of society, I learned that I always had time to give to help out, even when I thought I had none.  I found that the most enormous reward I could ever get was the feeling of seeing a kid you gave a home to grow up to be a happy productive human being. In the end, I got back from the experience a lot more than I ever gave.

Q: What advice would you give to future generations of Sigma Chi members?

A: My best advice for the younger generation is to become involved with life—all aspects of it. You need to see life from all sides and you need to stay true to yourself and your values (hopefully the ones that Sigma Chi represent). You may not know the path you are taking to the future, but ,like Columbus, if you never get on that ship, you will never find a new world.

You can view Chuck’s LinkedIn account here.

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