Auburn’s Samuel Ginn pioneered development of wireless communication industry

Published: July 22, 2019
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It’s ironic that Samuel Ginn was told repeatedly by his high school principal that he’d never make it at Auburn University.

He not only made it at Auburn, but he made a name for himself as a pioneer in the development of the wireless communication industry. His name is synonymous with the College of Engineering at Auburn.

Ginn said his high school principal doubted Ginn’s ability to be successful on the Plains and would end up back in Anniston, Alabama, pumping gas.

“I never had a chance to tell him that while I didn’t find myself back in Anniston pumping gas, I did serve on the Chevron board of directors for more than 20 years,” Ginn said with a smile.

When Ginn started on the Plains in the 1950s, Auburn University was known as Alabama Polytechnic Institute. He said the small village was so quiet, “you could hear the train rolling through town every night.”

“Football was big, we won a national title in 1957 and I treasure all the pep rallies, bonfires and celebrations,” he recalled. “Men outnumbered women 4 to 1, which made it tough to get a date.

“The emphasis on academics was strong. It made an average student, like me, work hard.”

Ginn said Auburn academics not only shaped his life, but so did the Auburn Creed.

“Those values are always close to my heart and I think it is an excellent guidepost on how I have tried to live my life,” he said. “Beyond academics, Auburn prepared me for life. What Auburn gave me was much more than an academic education.”

One day at Auburn, Ginn made an “impulsive decision” that changed the direction of his life forever.

“When I went to the armory to enroll [in ROTC], I just wanted to get out of there as fast as possible, so I got in the shortest line, which happened to be the [U.S.] Army Signal Corps,” he recalled. “It’s interesting that that decision dramatically impacted the rest of my life.”

The Army Signal Corps creates and manages communications and information systems for the command and control of the combined armed forces.

Ginn graduated from Auburn in 1959, earning a degree in industrial engineering and a commission from Auburn ROTC. After a tour with the Signal Corps, he began his telecommunications career, beginning as a student engineer for AT&T in 1960.

He had worked his way up into the management and operational ranks by the time AT&T had to break up the Bell System into several independent telephone service providers. One of those new companies was Pacific Telesis, which Ginn joined in 1978 as vice president-Los Angeles. He would go on to serve as chairman and CEO of Pacific Telesis from 1988 until 1994.

Initial thoughts of wireless communications were tested at the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. Ginn said people were invited to make calls to whomever they wanted. Most were amazed they could talk without wires, but validation for a wireless system came from the event crews.

“Working the games, we discovered that workers at the venue sites needed constant communication,” Ginn said. “Multiple times people asked me, ‘Can I borrow your phone?’ This confirmed that this was an exceptional service and all of society would benefit. That conclusion was the foundation for us becoming very aggressive and entering the wireless market.”

Ginn created AirTouch that went public in 1994 with an IPO of $10 billion. Vodaphone acquired AirTouch for $65 billion five years later and Ginn became chairman in the United Kingdom. During his tenure, Vodafone merged with Verizon to create Verizon Wireless, the largest wireless telecommunications network in the U.S. Ginn retired from Vodafone in 2000.

Like many alumni, Ginn credits much of his success to his Auburn education. However, a Stanford University education also played a role. Ginn was a Sloan Fellow at its business school in 1968.

“Stanford, in some ways, was a completely different experience from Auburn Engineering,” he explained, “but for me when you combine the technical background of Auburn with Stanford’s business school focus on management and enterprise, it was a great combination.”

In the 60 years since earning an Auburn degree, Ginn has remained a generous supporter of Auburn Engineering. His $25 million donation has been a leading force in boosting engineering educational programs, including the notable establishment of the nation’s first bachelor’s degree in wireless engineering.

“When former Dean Larry Benefield approached me, he wanted to increase the stature of the College of Engineering, and move up in the rankings by growing research, the quality of the faculty, quality of the students and to encourage other alumni to help build the program,” he said. “I was impressed by that. Dean Chris Roberts is much the same. He has put a leadership team together to make it happen. I and a lot of other alumni are in strong support of Dean Roberts taking on this significant challenge. I believe Auburn Engineering has the leadership to make it happen.”

As chair of the college’s Strategic Leadership Team, Ginn recently kicked off the college’s Top 20 Initiative with a leadership gift of $5 million and a $10 million bequest. As a result, members of the Strategic Leadership Team have since donated an additional $20 million to this initiative.

Ginn resides in California with his wife, Ann. He is “not quite retired,” as he became founding director of Ondot, a Silicon Valley start-up company, six years ago. He is also an overseer of the Hoover Institution at Stanford and on the Eisenhower Hospital board of directors.

Auburn University is a nationally ranked land grant institution recognized for its commitment to world-class scholarship, interdisciplinary research with an elite, top-tier Carnegie R1 classification and an undergraduate education experience second to none. Auburn is home to more than 30,000 students, and its faculty and research partners collaborate to develop and deliver meaningful scholarship, science and technology-based advancements that meet pressing regional, national and global needs. Auburn's commitment to active student engagement, professional success and public/private partnership drives a growing reputation for outreach and extension that delivers broad economic, health and societal impact. Auburn's mission to educate, discover and collaborate drives its expanding impact on the world.