By Robert Trigaux
Tampa Bay Times, St. Petersburg, Fla.
A 78-year old woman raised in a one-school-room town in Germany, who wore wooden shoes as a child and emigrated here with $30, and who later started and sold a successful surgical instrument company, is now the University of South Florida St. Petersburg’s top benefactor.
The university announced this morning that it has received a $10 million gift to name its business school the Kate Tiedemann College of Business, effective immediately.
The gift is by far the largest ever in USF St. Pete’s 49-year history and binds a successful entrepreneur and Pinellas County resident to a business college gaining national attention for its entrepreneur studies.
“Ms. Tiedemann’s personal story of overcoming challenges to fulfill her dreams and to give back to the community is a true inspiration for us all,” USF System Judy Genshaft stated.
“This is truly a momentous day for USF St. Petersburg,” said regional chancellor Sophia Wisniewska, describing an immediate personal connection with Tiedemann. “Given our backgrounds and immigrant families, we share deep appreciation for the opportunities America afforded us in education and business.
The announcement shortly before noon drew two standing ovations in the ballroom of the school’s student center, where USF’s Board of Trustees was meeting. About a dozen students stood behind Tiedemann wearing green t-shirts that bore the new name of the business college.
In an interview with the Tampa Bay Times, Tiedemann displayed an easy sense of humor, a slight German accent and a strong regard for putting the rewards of her business success to work in the Pinellas education and health care communities.
In 2010, Tiedemann provided a substantial gift to the Doyle Women’s Health Initiative at Morton Plant Mease hospital in Clearwater.
Why give such a heady sum to USF St. Petersburg? To leave a “legacy,” acknowledged Tiedemann.
She has often wondered what more she might have achieved with a formal education. The gift, she added, is mostly “to give young people an opportunity to learn what they have to do for business and do it a lot faster than I did.”
Is it impressive to have a woman’s name on a college of business? “I think it’s wonderful,” Tiedemann beamed. “I think it’s absolutely terrific.”
There are only a few business schools named for women scattered across the country, including the Moore School of Business at the University of South Carolina, named in 1998 after a $25 million donation by Wall Street financier and USC graduate Darla Moore.
Tiedemann’s rise to business success is a classic American business tale of a young immigrant who — eager to leave Germany’s harsh, post-World War II economy — arrives with little, works hard, takes risks and succeeds dramatically.
Landing by steamship in New York in 1955 at 18, she spoke no English and without formal education soon found herself seeking employment as a house maid in Manhattan.
At the end of the interview, she asked the interpreter what happened. Tiedemann had gotten the job — working, to her surprise, for former New York Gov. Thomas E. Dewey.
She later learned typing and shorthand and was hired as a “Girl Friday” at a New York business that sold surgical instruments.
After years of learning the business and working for several surgical instrument companies in increasingly responsible roles, Tiedemann decided to pursue her own business.
In 1975, Katena Products (short for Kate North America) was founded in her New Jersey basement.
Tiedemann worked with ophthalmic surgeons around the world to design and develop instruments for eye surgery. She then had fine craftsmen hand-make the instruments, with Katena having the sole rights to sell them, which Tiedemann did by relentless travel to medical shows and conferences.
Her passion for her work remains. “I loved the eye instrument business and there was never a day I did not look forward to going to work,” she said.
Five years ago this month, Tiedemann sold Katena, which now markets 1,400 products to more than 7,000 surgeons, to a private equity firm.
She’s finalizing the sale of her house in Denville, N.J., and is now a full-time Floridian after years of living here part-time in condos and, finally, a waterfront home south of Clearwater.
Tiedemann’s choice of Pinellas was serendipity. While she was in Orlando at a conference years ago, a New York friend with a Boca Ciega condo near the Pinellas beaches invited her to visit. Tiedemann got to know the area over time, later living in several condos of her own before deciding to build.
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She spoke lovingly of her waterfront sunsets, watching dolphins, and her obvious gulf coast bias.
“I would not go to the east coast of Florida if you paid me,” she laughed.
The $10 million gift will be split, with $6 million devoted to an endowment to provide long-term income to support the College of Business. The remaining $4 million will be committed to upgrade academic content, with feedback from the faculty.
Wisniewska, who heads USF St. Pete, also sees the $10 million gift as a strong incentive to attract a high-level College of Business dean, a position that is now open.
“The perception and prestige this carries is significant,” she said.
None of Tiedemann’s gift will go to financing the new College of Business building, slated to break ground in March and be completed by the fall of 2016. State funds totaling $15 million so far have been secured by the university to start construction.
Another $15 million or so will be required to finish the facility. USF St. Pete still hopes it can separately sell the naming rights to the new business building.
The combination of Tiedemann’s generous gift, the soon-to-rise building on campus and a new dean suggest better things to come for the College of Business.
The business school for years had leased space in a building adjacent to the university but eventually gave up those quarters. It had once coveted the old Salvador Dali Museum building as a home of its own but the cost to convert its interior proved prohibitive. After years without a formal base of its own on campus, the stars may be aligning for USF St. Pete’s College of Business.