Former Apple executive gives $20 million to Cal Poly

Peter Oppenheimer
Peter Oppenheimer Courtesy photo

Peter Oppenheimer, the former chief financial officer of Apple Inc., and his wife, Mary Beth, have pledged $20 million to Cal Poly. The largest cash gift in the university's history will give the agricultural department a huge boost — paying forward what they believe Cal Poly gave them as students.

"We had an amazing experience at Poly," said Oppenheimer, 51. "We knew that the people who came before us made that possible. We felt strongly that we wanted to give back."

The gift will be used to build new facilities for Cal Poly's College of Agriculture, Food & Environmental Sciences and to modernize many of the existing teaching units in the animal science department.

Oppenheimer graduated from Cal Poly with a degree in agricultural business management in 1985. His wife graduated from Cal Poly the following year with a degree in home economics with a concentration in interior design.

University President Jeffrey Armstrong said the donation was exciting for Cal Poly students as well as the Oppenheimers, and he hopes that it will resonate with other potential donors who want to make a longstanding impact on the university.

"This is going to be transformational beyond what we can even imagine," Armstrong said. "It's going to impact students now and in future generations. And it will also have an impact on other donors and other alumni who hear about this gift."

"Peter and Mary Beth are paying it forward," he said.

Expanding ag operations

The money will allow the university to fund a new agricultural events center, featuring a 70,000-square-foot arena that can seat up to 2,500 people. The center would support livestock events, conferences, student experimental learning programs and classrooms. It will be located where the beef unit currently exists.

The donation from Oppenheimer and his wife, who share a love of horses, will also be used for a new equestrian pavilion. Two 60,000-square-foot arenas, both partially enclosed and covered, will be built near the agricultural events center, with added parking and supporting facilities to accommodate visiting horses.

There will be a new farm store, which will support the sales of all meat, poultry, dairy, crop and horticulture products produced by Cal Poly students on campus. It could not be learned where the store will be.

In addition, the funds will modernize and expand facilities and equipment at the current animal teaching and research centers. The swine unit, for example, will be completely rebuilt, Oppenheimer said, and the beef feed lot will double in size.

The university has not announced a timeline for the projects, or estimated costs.

However, Armstrong said the university will immediately begin the process of getting the projects approved, with the goal of breaking ground within a year.

"It depends on how quickly the process will go," Armstrong said.

To move forward, the capital project will require the approval of the California State University Board of Trustees because it costs more than $1 million. The CSU trustees also will have to approve the project’s financial plan and potential environmental impacts.

Projects would complement others being eyed

The Oppenheimer projects could coincide with a string of new construction at Cal Poly.

The university is weighing whether to move forward with a $155 million hotel, conference center and events center to bolster the university’s hospitality degree program. The hotel complex would include a 120-room hotel, a 12,000-square-foot ballroom and a 22,000-square-foot conference center. The 166,000-square-foot events center would feature sporting events, rodeo activities and concerts.

Those new facilities would be tied to an expanded, upgraded interdisciplinary Cal Poly hospitality degree program coordinated through the College of Agriculture, Food & Environmental Sciences and the Orfalea College of Business.

Armstrong views the projects funded by the Oppenheimers' donation as complementary to the conference and events center projects. The hotel and events center projects would be done on a much larger scale, serving the dual purposes of hosting larger performances for the community as well as furthering the university's educational programs and its "learn by doing” philosophy.

Cal Poly commitment runs deep

The Oppenheimers were motivated as well by their strong belief in Cal Poly's philosophy of hands-on learning. Oppenheimer, who recently retired from Apple, said the company hired Cal Poly grads who were able to "hit the ground running hard."

They have remained deeply committed to Cal Poly for the past 30 years and they had an understanding of where some of the "great needs were" in the university’s agriculture program and a desire to help transform the facilities and programs for the good of current and future students.

The Oppenheimers will continue to support the Cal Poly Scholars program, the university's meal voucher program and the new food pantry. Oppenheimer is a founding member and current vice chairman of the university's foundation board, which helps support Cal Poly's philanthropic efforts.

When he announced his retirement from Apple last spring, Oppenheimer said he planned to return to San Luis Obispo, where his youngest son is in his third year at Cal Poly, studying mechanical engineering.

Under Oppenheimer’s 10 years as Apple’s CFO, the company’s annual revenue grew from $8 billion to $171 billion, Apple CEO Tim Cook said last spring.

Oppenheimer was once the highest paid CFO in the country, known for helping Apple legally avoid paying billions of dollars in taxes by allocating profits overseas, according to The New York Times. In 2012, he was awarded a $68.6 million package. Cook made $4.17 million that year.

"I love Apple and the people I have had the privilege to work with, and after 18 years here, it is time for me to take time for myself and my family," Oppenheimer said in a news release upon his retirement.

"For quite some time,” he continued, “I have wanted to live on the Central Coast of California and get more involved at Cal Poly, my alma mater; spend more time with my wife and sons; travel to interesting parts of the world; and something I have wanted to do for years — finish the requirements for my pilot's license."

Oppenheimer is also a director of investment firm Goldman Sachs.