Tom Brown’s attention to detail was relentless and his methodology meticulous. He was an Edisonian engineer. He was an ever-present force in the well-being of Tucson.
— Peter Likins, Former President, University of Arizona

A Philosophy of Change

Thomas R. Brown was a modest man with a mission in life – “to provide something of value to mankind.”

That was the official “corporate purpose” of the company he started in his garage and built into a semiconductor manufacturing firm known worldwide for its quality, the Burr-Brown Corporation. That intent also was the foundation on which he raised and educated his two daughters who now lead the Thomas R. Brown Foundations. It motivated him to serve his community, championing issues that ranged from transportation and tax reform to water policy, education and economics. That mission endures today, informing and influencing the work of the foundation that bears his name.

Tom Brown and his core values greatly influenced his daughters, longtime friends, employees, business partners and civic leaders. They recall him as obsessively analytical, frugal, the embodiment of integrity with a wonderful sense of humor. He was born in 1926 and died in 2002.

Tom’s larger-than-life spirit inspires those who knew him – and those who wish they had. He strongly believed in empowering people and encouraging them to “act in their own enlightened long-term self-interest,” a tenant of Burr-Brown’s corporate principles.

The philosophy and objectives of the Thomas R. Brown foundations are derived from the life and accomplishments of its founder and benefactor, Thomas Rush Brown, Jr. (1926-2002). The video below is an acceptance speech by Tom Brown when he was named Arizona Technology Executive of the Year in 2001 by UofA President Peter Likins.

 

Pioneering Burr-Brown Fueled Tucson Economy

Tom Brown was one of the first to realize the limitless potential of the transistor in the electronics industry and manufacturing.  He established the Burr-Brown Research Corporation in Tucson in 1956 with Page Burr, a partnership based on mutual appreciation of the transistor. “When the transistor came along, it represented a windfall change, a watershed change,” Tom has said. “It was the reliability of the transistor that enabled all the new things over the last 50 years which we now take for granted – computers, auto pilot, CT scan, smartphones.”

Burr sold his interest in the company after a few years and Brown continued to guide it for over four decades. Daughter Mary Brown Bernal recalled her father talking about a time when the company was losing equity rapidly. “He went to the bank and borrowed on his personal name to make payroll. His persistence in ensuring Burr-Brown’s success was at a very personal level.”

Colleagues recall Tom as a walk-around manager. He sometimes referred to “watering his flower pots”  - meaning he would go on visiting trips around the plant to see how projects were coming along. He dressed casually, drove an old car and answered his own phone. He treated people with respect. Brown had a manufacturer’s enthusiasm for developing an excellent design, and then replicating it. His attention to detail was relentless and his methodology deliberate and meticulous.

The company was known world-wide for its high quality products. Burr-Brown went public in 1983 to expand into semiconductors. That move required a large investment in the wafer fabrication facility, and the company decided to raise the funds through an IPO.  That investment allowed Burr-Brown to continue to grow and solidify its worldwide impact. “Our market was one third each – Asia, Europe and the United States,” Tom said in a speech in 2001. “We brought all that the money back into the state of Arizona. We didn’t let too much of it get away. So we helped the prosperity of the people of Arizona. In Tucson we made a major impact.”

Tom took credit for starting the company, but he always credited the people of Burr-Brown for making the company a global success. Burr-Brown was his passion, and it was only with considerable discipline that he agreed to sell to Texas Instruments in 2000 (which continues to maintain design and test functions in Tucson). He believed the sale would give the company its best competitive chances for future growth and innovation. The synergies of the two companies were substantial, and once again, the capital investment needed for the next phase of business development enormous.

 

Instilling Passion for Education, Economics

As a child, Tom Brown loved to build things, then replicate them. He was destined for manufacturing. At age 16, he enrolled at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, but after his freshman year decided to enlist in the Navy, where he learned electronics. He returned to MIT more mature and more focused. That’s when he met his college sweetheart, Helen Watson Mason, who attended Wellesley College. They later married and had two girls. After looking at various western communities, they decided Tucson was the best place they found, and where they eventually established the electronics company in their home garage.

Helen passed away at a young age and Tom took the role of single parenting very seriously. The family’s kitchen was equipped with a chalk board and a dictionary, both of which came into use during dinner, Mary said. “Invariably there would be a lecture component when he’d get up and write on the board to illustrate a point. He’d give us a word and we’d have to read the definition and how to use it and how it would be applicable to life. He really tried to influence our minds.”

“In our household it was clear that education was critical to anything we wanted to do in life. College was never something we considered optional,” Sarah said. “He was intent on making us open-minded, analytical, independent and responsible. He took us on international business trips so we’d experience other cultures and appreciate other people’s perspectives. He expected us to attend Burr-Brown board meetings from high school on as guests. We both had summer jobs at Burr-Brown to better understand the company operations.”

Economic principles were fundamental in his undertakings. He thought about efficiency, and the broader context of personal and business decisions. He was not tolerant of wastefulness, and accounting questions were important to him. He believed in the institution of private property and personal responsibility. He stressed the importance of planning, personal initiative and effort, commitment and disciplined work. He encouraged individual achievement and was always a supporter of education and training to enhance the ability of an individual to reach his/her potential.

 

Influencing Friends and Community

Tom Brown had loyal friends. After Helen died, Tom Troup , a close friend from his business school days, quit his job in New York City and moved his family to Tucson, bought a house half a block away from us and became Vice Chairman of Burr-Brown,” Sarah said. “He came to support our dad in his business and personal life through that most difficult moment in time. That’s a pretty significant level of friendship.”

Mary added, “Dad had many enduring and meaningful friendships.”  Two of them were UA economics professor, Gerald Swanson, and John Carter, former IBM plant manager and Burr-Brown CFO. Both moved to Tucson in the 1970s and were greatly influenced by Tom. Over the decades they collaborated in business and civics. Both Swanson and Carter continue to serve as founding trustees of the Thomas F. Brown Foundations.

Gerry Swanson met Tom in 1972. “I was appointed to the tax commission and went up to Phoenix for the first meeting. I did not know who Tom was. All of a sudden this fellow said ‘Is anybody here from Tucson?’ I said I was. ‘Good. We’ll carpool.’ I would later tell my friends the tax sessions were going well, but the drive up and back was like taking a PhD preliminary every time we got in the car. Tom loved to teach – generally by asking question after question until you reached the conclusion he had in mind. He modeled clear and logical thinking.

“We became very involved in trying to get a limited-access roadway to relieve congestion,” Gerry said. They met with corporate executives, community leaders, government officials and legislators about transportation planning. And they did the research – the engineering, the ergonomics, the economic analysis. Years later Tom recalled, “I did the analysis. It was conclusive. It was absolutely correct. We could fix our transportation problems if we would just absorb a 25-cents-a-gallon tax on gasoline. I thought all I had to do was go to legislature and explain it to them and they would do it.” But they didn’t. Gerry said, “Tucson was and probably still is the largest city in the U.S. without a limited access highway.” That was a great disappointment to Tom.

John Carter was transferred by IBM in 1977 to establish its new operation in Tucson. “A few months later I get a call. The voice on the other end said, ‘My name is Tom Brown. I like what you had to say in the newspaper. Let’s have lunch.’ That was how I met Tom. Our discussion was not about Burr-Brown but about the community.”

Sarah said, “Daddy really felt like one of the ways he could contribute was to focus on infrastructure and community development – things that would enable the community to prosper.” He believed in the importance of being a good citizen.

And Tom was persuasive. He routinely persuaded his friends to get involved in pressing community issues – including the Arizona Tax Commission, the Arizona Council on Economic Education and the Citizens Advisory Committee on Transportation, a 10-year crusade to fund a limited-access highway in Tucson. 

 

Empowering Individuals to Shape the Future

The sale of Burr-Brown prompted the Browns to form a family foundation and begin to think about shaping their philanthropy.

Ever practical, Tom said, “Let’s not get involved in solving all the problems of the world. The family decided that a long term time horizon was appropriate, to give special attention to areas that might not otherwise be funded – but were important to productivity and quality of life, and to contribute to the analysis and resolution of controversial public policy issues. The Thomas R. Brown Family Foundation was established in 1998 and began quietly funding programs throughout the community. Highlights since then include:

  • Five endowed professorships at the University of Arizona: two in science, two in business and one in engineering. The Foundation also supports scholarships and fellowships.
  • Programs to provide professional development to K-12 teachers in ecnonomic principles so their students can better apply economic analysis to their everyday choices.
  • An innovative program where science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) teachers are paid to gain real-world experience in industry, some earning advanced degrees in the process.
  • The Flinn-Brown Civic Leadership Academy, a program designed to inform and engage the next generation of state leaders in Arizona government. Diverse groups of midcareer professionals interested in state government and policy and who are well respected by their peers, spend 10 weeks learning about state issues and how to respectfully problem-solve across partisan divisions.
  • The UA scholarship program for students who are often first in their families to attend college, the Arizona Assurance program.
  • Together with the Community Foundation for Southern Arizona and other nonprofits in the region, the Brown Foundations facilitated the creation of Literacy Connects, a merging of five Tucson literacy nonprofits.
  • New facilities and equipment for Pima Community College and TMC to train students for jobs in the healthcare industry.
  • Educational gardens. School gardens in K-12 schools have become an innovative way to facilitate instruction not only in the STEM subjects, but also engineering, English, business and economics, history and the arts. Sarah said. “The gardens provide a context with which to bring all of these areas together – it’s not just biology. It’s a more holistic approach to real-world problem solving. ” 

Looking toward the next 20 years, Mary said, “first of all we have the expectation of following best practices and being good stewards. We’re focused on the process, building a competent team, and being responsible to the public for every penny we spend. We will stay true to our core values of honesty and respect, and our overarching mission to create opportunities for people to be more self-determined, more productive, and able to control more life choices.”

The Foundations have four principal focus areas: Education and Research, Workforce Development, Civic Leadership and Economic Education. Strategies within these general areas may vary, but the central thrust of Foundation programs will be tied closely to one of these main areas.