ORONO, Maine — Dennis Carey worked his way through college waiting tables at Pat’s Pizza and, sometimes, ironing shirts for his fraternity brothers at 10 cents apiece.
“My family didn’t have any money,” he said. “I did whatever jobs I could do to survive.”
In the 40 years since he graduated from the University of Maine, the Rumford native has gone on to hold senior executive positions at General Electric, AT&T, Home Depot and Motorola. He’s now executive vice president of Nortel, a global telecommunications firm in Toronto.
Carey was back in Orono on Saturday as a keynote speaker for the third annual Maine State Collegiate Business Conference, where he imparted his own wisdom to dozens of soon-to-be business graduates. His advice was simple and often blunt.
“Hard work alone does not make it,” he cautioned. “You need results.”
The host of Saturday’s conference was the UMaine chapter of the American Marketing Association. The day included keynote speeches by Carey, Nicholas Wilkoff of L.L. Bean, and Frank Moore, a lawyer specializing in commercial litigation and bankruptcy.
Several breakout sessions addressed topics such as branding, globalization, research and tourism, language barriers, and landing a first job or internship.
Omar Khan, one of the organizers of the conference, said its theme, “Bringing Tomorrow into Today’s Choices,” was designed to get students thinking about how the decisions they make today will directly affect tomorrow.
Carey touched on that topic by detailing his own career, which started at GE, one of the largest companies in the world.
“They had the best leadership program,” he explained. “But it was real competitive. Everybody there with you is looking to get ahead. You have to find an edge.”
Carey said his edge was a focused competitiveness and a knack for making the company money. After 25 years at GE, where he rose to the No. 2 position in the company, the UMaine graduate was looking for a new challenge.
“I’ve always been fascinated by new experiences,” he said. “But you have to love the business. You have to be passionate.”
Despite his successes as a businessman, Carey admitted his current firm, Nortel, is struggling like many others in the volatile economy.
John Richardson, Maine’s commissioner of economic and community development, delivered opening remarks at the conference and touched on those economic woes.
“These are tough times,” he said. “I wouldn’t be telling you the truth if I didn’t say otherwise. But people in Maine are innovative. You will get a job.”
Richardson predicted that the next big industry in Maine will be clean or “green” technology, something President-elect Barack Obama has pledged to make an economic priority in his first term.
“Many states are chasing that [industry], but we’re poised to really benefit,” he said.
For the students, Saturday’s conference was a chance to hear success stories like Carey’s, but also to network.
“You can think you’re the best person for a job, but if you don’t make that clear, how will they know?” said one business student during a break.
“It seems like who you know is really important,” said another.
Carey offered this piece of advice: “Do your homework. Make sure you’re the person in the room who stands out.”