Businessman and philanthropist Paul Fireman advised Suffolk University Sawyer Business School graduates that keeping their integrity may be a challenge during their careers, but that doing so will pay off both personally and professionally.

In one of a series of anecdotes, Fireman, founder and chairman of the Reebok International athletic wear company, told of his reluctance to even meet with the National Football League about merchandising due to his dislike of the NFL’s mode of licensing. But a former employee told Fireman that his employment with the NFL would be threatened if Reebok did not attend the meeting. What followed was truth-telling that culminated in Fireman’s advising that the NFL merchandising business be given to Nike rather than split between Reebok and its rival.

The NFL decision-makers went out into the corridor, then came back into the meeting “and gave it all to me,” said Fireman. Exclusive contracts with the NBA and NHL followed.

“The moral is not about how big a business that made us; it’s about sticking to what I promised to do: to tell the truth.”

More than 1,000 students received undergraduate and advanced degrees at the Sawyer Business School commencement exercises on May 19 at the Bank of America Pavilion on the Boston waterfront.

Fireman is the chair of Fireman Capital Partners. His Reebok International rose to the top of the athletic apparel industry in the 1980s when it pioneered the concept of melding fashion with athletic gear. The firm also championed human rights around the world. Fireman eventually sold the company to Adidas.

Encouraging words

Fireman’s commencement speech included warm references to family, accounts of inclusionary business meetings where mid-level employees came up with brilliant ideas, and encouragement to graduates as they launch their careers during an economic recovery.

“There’s no great time, and yet this is the best of times,” said Fireman, advising the Business School graduates that opportunity always comes to those who look for and recognize it, as it did for him when he founded Reebok in 1979 – in the teeth of a long recession.

“But what I’m most proud of is that we helped change the world through Reebok’s human rights efforts,” he said, urging graduates to pursue fulfilling careers that also “mix a little bit of giving something positive to the world.”

Honorary degrees

The following honorary degrees were awarded during Sawyer Business School exercises:

  • Fireman received an honorary Doctor of Commerce degree.
  • James T. Brett, MPA '76, president and CEO of The New England Council and an advocate for public policy issues such as health care, education, financial services and energy, received an honorary Doctor of Public Service degree.
  • Catherine D’Amato, president and CEO of The Greater Boston Food Bank and a tireless advocate for the hungry for more than three decades, received an honorary Doctor of Public Service.

Student Statistics

Sawyer Business School bachelor’s degree candidates: 591
Sawyer Business School master’s degree candidates: 514

Three commencement ceremonies

Kraft, chairman and CEO of The Kraft Group, which in addition to the Patriots, New England Revolution and Gillette Stadium, holds assets in paper and packaging, real estate development and a private equity portfolio, will speak at the College of Arts and Sciences commencement on Sunday afternoon, May 19, when more than 1,100 undergraduate and graduate students will receive their degrees.

Chris Matthews, host of MSNBC’s Hardball and The Chris Matthews Show on NBC, will speak at the Law School ceremony at 10 a.m. Monday, May 20. Matthews went from the Peace Corps to staff jobs on Capitol Hill and worked as a speechwriter for President Jimmy Carter before making his mark in newspapers and gaining national and international recognition in broadcast journalism. More than 475 juris doctor and master of law degrees will be awarded.