Coming Full Circle to Where It All Began

Tim O’Leary ‘81 knew it wasn’t in his blood to follow a traditional path in business. As a third-generation Montanan growing up in Billings, his first experience in entrepreneurship was watching his grandfather, and then his father, run their family-owned enterprises successfully. Setting foot on The University of Montana campus, O’Leary sought not only a good foundation in business principles, but an opportunity to express himself creatively.

That combination of interests ultimately led O’Leary to obtaining a degree from the School of Business Administration while actively participating in the Creative Writing Program of the College of Arts and Sciences.

“I was never acclimated to getting a classical business education; I was always interested in the intersection of business and creative pursuits,” said O’Leary. “Because of the tremendous faculty and environment of the University, I was able to create my own educational track whereby today I am able to sit down and analyze a financial statement and understand organizational structure, but I can also write.”

“Serendipity” is how he describes his experience at UM.

“One of my first on-campus student jobs was with ASUM as the advertising director,” said O’Leary. “Suddenly, I found myself working on advertising in all kinds of media, like print and radio, and for all kinds of organizations and events, such as concerts, businesses, and plays. In essence I was running my own little advertising agency—and I loved it.”

Word got out that O’Leary was good at his work. Small businesses from the greater community, who needed marketing support for their products and services but couldn’t afford the high costs of big-firm ad agencies, sought O’Leary’s services.

“Pretty soon, I was getting the best on-the-job training in an industry that I really enjoyed,” O’Leary remarked. “That was over 30 years ago. It was a great start, and it served me well as I embarked on my career in marketing and advertising. But more importantly, the relationships I made during that time, I have been fortunate to maintain and cherish through the years. It’s simply been a fantastic journey.”

Now O’Leary is coming full circle. He helped pioneer direct-response television and is a leader in television and online marketing with his company R2C Group. In January, President Royce Engstrom announced that O’Leary and his wife and business partner, Michelle Cardinal, have included a $1.25 million commitment to UM in their wills.

O’Leary and Cardinal’s gift will benefit students in the School of Business Administration and the Creative Writing Program with the following endowments:

  • The Mary Ellen Campbell and Dennis O’Donnell Faculty Fellowship in Business, honoring two of O’Leary’s favorite faculty members: $250,000
  • The O’Leary/Cardinal Endowed Opportunity Fund for Marketing Analytics: $750,000
  • The Tim O’Leary and Michelle Cardinal Prose Scholarship in Creative Writing: $125,000
  • The Tim O’Leary and Michelle Cardinal Opportunity Fund for CutBank literary magazine: $125,000

“The Department of Management and Marketing in the School of Business Administration plays a pivotal role in moving Montana forward, while the Creative Writing Program attracts talent from around the world,” said UM President Royce Engstrom. “Through the generosity of Tim O’Leary and Michelle Cardinal, two of our premier programs are about to get even better.”

In addition to the couple’s generous gift, O’Leary has given freely of his time to benefit UM. He served on the School of Business Administration’s Department of Management and Marketing Advisory Board for several years and was a regional committee member during the Invest in Discovery campaign. Since 2009, O’Leary has been a member of the UM Foundation Board of Trustees. He is currently chair of the Foundation’s Marketing and Communications Committee and is a member of the Executive Committee.

“Tim graduated from the School of Business Administration and quickly made a name for himself as a savvy entrepreneur,” said School of Business Administration Dean Larry Gianchetta.“For ten years, the School of Business Administration has awarded the O’Leary/Cardinal Family Scholarship to students interested in advertising and marketing. Today Tim and his wife, Michelle, continue their legacy of giving.”

Splitting their time between homes in Carson, Wash., and Santa Barbara, Calif., the couple raises trout and grows olive trees. O’Leary is an avid fly fisherman, water conservationist and board member of the Freshwater Trust.

“Tim O’Leary and Michelle Cardinal are a force for good,” said College of Arts and Sciences Dean Chris Comer. “As business partners, they lead R2C Group, an advertising agency based in Portland. As an alumnus and friend of the University, they are ensuring that Montana’s entrepreneurial and creative spirits soar in our students. It is truly a story of coming full circle, and we are grateful for the sincere dedication of Tim and Michelle and the legacy that they will leave to UM.”

“Michelle and I love Montana,” said O’Leary. “It is almost a better experience to come back to the place where it all began. I have a better appreciation for how the faculty cares and how the institution cares. I have been incredibly fortunate.”