It’s worth noting this story isn’t simply about one chapter or one man, or Teke, rather. That may come as a shock given this publication, the prominent figure gracing the cover, and the pages before and after this story. Instead, this is a step back and a look at the bigger picture, because while any still image may say a thousand words, it’ll never give you the whole story.
As for this story, this is more than the journey of the kid born and raised in Southern California who never expected to leave the Golden State, only to travel the world and hit his stride on the slopes of Lake Tahoe. It’s more than a young man who chose to Fight On and attend the University of Southern California, never expecting to join a fraternity but leaving a legacy as a Top Teke.
This isn’t simply the story of just one Teke who has given so much time, talent and treasure to the Fraternity he loves that it’s caused him a little pain—he’ll be the first to tell you that it’s that same pain that makes you feel alive.
Instead, this is the story of a Frater and his best friend, a Top Teke and his TKE Sweetheart, who together have given more than many could ever hope to achieve.
This is the story of Greg and Cay Woodson, because without her, his story isn’t the same. And to understand how she helped to change the landscape of the Fraternity, you have to know where he started.
IT WASN’T SUPPOSED to begin like this: that thing all writers think about but certainly never talk about, the story that covers the real story.
It was supposed to have started with a gentle description about the road that led to the Woodson’s home nestled in the mountains surrounding Lake Tahoe. It should have been followed with a depiction about how a fresh blanket of snow brought an unexpected calmness to the treacherous climb that surely offered an unparalleled view of the quiet town below next to the lake.
But that trip never happened, so we’ll never know.
That same fresh blanket of snow—a skier’s dream—was the result of a chaotic big time blizzard, proving that for all of our modern inventions, Mother Nature isn’t one to be tested.
There was a change of plans. Instead of two members from the Fraternity’s Professional Staff making a trip to personally interview the couple behind the Greg & Cay Woodson Regional Leadership Conference, there was a phone call instead.
But since every piece of every story could easily stand for the whole, why not start with a change in plans?
WHEN GREG WOODSON CHOSE to attend the University of Southern California, he never expected to join a fraternity. After running a successful Orange Julius in high school, he was eager to learn more about business, perfect and hone his skills. That was supposed to be his story.
Woodson’s father attended Cal-Tech and his mother attended Texas Women’s University, so a fraternity experience was not top of mind for Woodson. “In fact, aside from knowing some of the terms, I was totally unaware of what fraternities were,” he says, pausing to build the suspense before laughing at himself. He sees the humor or irony or surprise—whatever you want to call it—that something never thought of would become such a prominent part of his life.
As fate would have it, after moving into his dorm at USC, Woodson was invited to attend a fraternity event, which happened to be at the Beta-Sigma TKE chapter house.
When he arrives to the topic of the event, he picks up speed, like he’s reliving the moment in real time. He talks about the mass chaos typically associated with fraternity recruitment events, and how he even met a friend from high school, Steve Kuznetz, who had already accepted a bid to join the Beta-Sigma chapter, although ‘friend’ might be too close of a term, he explains. “I didn’t really know Steve well because there were 1,000-plus people in my graduation class, but he knew me, more or less.”
In that particular instance, on the phone in the middle of January and some 500 miles from the University of Southern California campus, he describes the rest of the event like he’s there in person.
Woodson’s recollection of his first recruitment event stands unique. Not once does he mention the Beta-Sigma chapter house, which might as well be the Taj Mahal by the way it’s discussed by distant fraternity members who have heard of the residence but never visited. Rather, his monologue focuses on the values and convictions of the chapter.
“I was truly impressed with the men I met,” explains Woodson. “They were honest and sincere. It was a time they sold TKE values very well, and I say sell in a very positive way. I thought about who I was as a person, and I knew that those were the same values I saw in myself ... that was my entry into TKE.”
When Woodson joined the Beta-Sigma chapter with some 20 other potential new members, he quickly realized the chapter was in a restructuring period. The 30-some active members in 1969 were well short of the 125-plus numbers typically associated with today’s Beta-Sigma.
Things were changing, and two men were leading the charge: Chapter Prytanis Ned Sutro and Rush Chairman Rick Silton.
“These men pulled off a huge rush in 1969 for the Beta-Sigma chapter,” Woodson relates. “It was a big rush, and it really turned the house around because they recruited a lot of great men. They were great role models and they were a change agent.”
That’s when he pauses and reflects on the moment and thinks about what those words mean to him: change agent.
“I love change and I think it’s the best thing in the world, whether it’s evolutionary or revolutionary—it depends on the environment—change creates a chance to win. These guys made a major change in how they were running the chapter and it really paid off.”
If there was a way to label 1969 for Greg Woodson, it would be the year of change. From choosing to join a fraternity after knowing next to nothing about them to being part of a transformative era for the Beta-Sigma chapter, change was the only constant and it was becoming a recurring theme. It would come to define the way he operated.
WOODSON REFLECTS fondly on his time as an undergraduate at the University of Southern California, and hones in on specific details of positions and events that stuck with him.
For one, while living in the Beta-Sigma chapter house all four years at USC, Woodson was exposed to more cultural and religious diversity than he had been growing up in the homogeneous San Fernando Valley suburbs of Los Angeles. He elaborates on the perspective he gained from living and working with people from different backgrounds and what it’s done for him today and how it’s a critical aspect in the development for any young man’s life.
Then he sums it up the best way he can, and takes pride in the statement: “TKE at that time was very different than many other fraternities on campus, and that’s what makes TKE great today.”
The other identifiers Woodson is quick to cover are the two leadership positions he held with the chapter as an undergraduate: athletic chair and Prytanis.
“I really enjoyed the athletic chair position because it was great to meet guys from all the other fraternities. It gave me the chance to compare and contrast other fraternities to TKE and it reinforced my belief that I made a great decision in joining TKE.”
The second position Woodson held as an undergraduate is one he skims over and doesn’t provide much insight until prompted. As Prytanis his junior year, Woodson and the Beta-Sigma chapter were given the opportunity to buy a second property next door when another fraternity was coming to a close.
While another chapter was experiencing its own misfortune, Beta-Sigma was riding a two-year upswing with large recruitment numbers and an improved reputation on campus. They had an opportunity to expand their presence by acquiring the neighboring fraternity house—a feat many chapters only dream of.
“Long story short, the university was buying property around campus, including on fraternity and sorority row,” Woodson shares. “Somehow, our TKE housing board convinced the university to let us buy it, because it doubled the number of Fraters we could have in the house. It was really exciting at the time.”
To this day, the chapter continues to operate out of two houses.
Woodson is quick to clarify that he was not a lead player in the acquisition despite being the chapter Prytanis.
“This is where you credit the alumni and the Fraternity for Life. They did the whole thing. All we did was say we wanted it and that it was a good move strategically. The housing board also realized that, and I don’t know how they worked that miracle, but they made it work.”
While this may be only a ‘right time, right place’ footnote in Woodson’s life story, it’s still worth mentioning because as it was nearing the end of his time at the University of Southern California, it was a new beginning for the Beta-Sigma chapter. It was the start of a dynasty, and perhaps more important, it was a real story that Tekes across the country could look to as inspiration for what they, too, could achieve.
WHEN THE DISCUSSION of the Beta-Sigma chapter house comes to an end, Greg takes an opportunity to shift gears to what he actually wants to talk about. It’s a hard transition but it feels seamless, like dropping a gear on an empty freeway in a Porsche 911 just to make sure the turbo still works.
He quickens his pace and tries to act calm about it. And this is when the man who has travelled the world and restructured multi-million dollar businesses turns into a kid again. He’s so excited. You can tell through the phone he’s smiling ear to ear.
“My wife, Cay, who is still my best friend … most days,” he says, chuckling at his own humor before continuing, “is a Pi Beta Phi from the University of Alabama. She’s so nice. She always roots for USC, except for when they play Alabama.”
Cay’s support for the Trojans of USC isn’t solely for her husband. Originally from Los Angeles, Cay opted to go out of state and attend the University of Alabama, where she joined Pi Beta Phi sorority. After two years, she transferred to the University of Southern California for her junior and senior year of school.
“I met Cay at a Business School luncheon,” Woodson explains, laying the groundwork for what is clearly his favorite part of the interview up to this point. “I remember it to this day. My buddy from Sigma Nu was sitting next to the most beautiful lady in the room and there was a spare seat. I was shy, but I wasn’t that shy. I sat down next to them, and I don’t know how, but I got a date with Cay. That was the beginning of a friendship that’s continued to today.”
They’ve now been married almost 44 years.
It’s not long until Woodson drives the conversation back to this story. As he looks back and thinks about Cay, how they met, all they’ve experienced together, all the miles they’ve covered, he thinks about how it began.
He guides the conversation back to the Fraternity, and again his tone changes. It’s different. He’s careful with his words. More than four decades since spending four years at the Beta-Sigma house on the USC campus, he stops to reflect.
“I ask myself, ‘What did I get out of TKE?’ ”
The way he tells the story, it’s easy to assume ‘everything.’
Confidence. Change. Cay.
It’s all started with TKE.
“I was shy in high school,” he says. “I didn’t speak well and I wasn’t great at public presentations in class. I was just a poor speaker. One of the things I gained at the Beta-Sigma chapter was learning about teamwork and leadership skills. I did a fair amount of public speaking at the chapter and that paid off handsomely. Being able to communicate and motivate teams to win, that started with TKE.”
There was a career that blossomed as a result of the experience gained, sure. But that wasn’t all.
“Perhaps the number one thing that came out of my time at USC is that is where I met Cay. She literally was my TKE Sweetheart. That was quite a blessing because she is still my best friend.”
As a senior nearing graduation with countless memories made, a summer wedding planned, and a world of travel ahead, there was only one way to send off a young Frater who had fully lived the Fraternity’s values of Love, Charity and Esteem to the fullest.
In 1973, Frater Jim Ishii of the Beta-Sigma chapter nominated Woodson for a Top Teke Award. Woodson’s contributions in rebuilding the Beta-Sigma chapter and being a part of the expansion of a second house hardly went unnoticed by the Offices of the Grand Chapter. It was clear that Woodson deserved the recognition.
He describes the award as an honor. He attempts to articulate all the more work he could have done and that maybe he didn’t earn it, but maybe he had. The shock of that moment was something that stuck with him, but then graduation arrived and the real world called. It was time for the next chapter, and time didn’t permit for the Fraternity.
"I love change and I think it's the best thing in the world..."
THE FOUR DECADES following graduation for Woodson play out like a Friday night Snapchat story; Minneapolis the first year, Houston soon after, Los Angeles to follow, and then New York, all by the age of 30.
Woodson didn’t venture far following graduation. He remained at the University of Southern California and attended the Marshall School of Business to earn his MBA where he focused on marketing—consumer packaged goods, specifically.
Following graduation, Greg and Cay Woodson, who married in 1973, moved to Minneapolis, where Greg accepted a marketing position with General Mills, working on the company’s Cheerios and Betty Crocker product management teams.
“We were there about two and a half years and I loved the job, but we were not fond of the weather in Minneapolis. The ocean views were poor.”
Woodson’s next opportunity took place with a company under purchase by Colgate-Palmolive in Houston, Texas. After a quick restructure, the Woodsons landed back in Los Angeles. And at 28 years old, Greg Woodson was the director of sales and marketing for a Mexican foods company.
“It was a great business and we doubled it quickly, but Colgate-Palmolive realized they didn’t belong in the food business, so they sold it,” says Woodson.
Woodson was asked to make his next stop in New York City at Colgate-Palmolive headquarters. He explains that he wasn’t eager to go at first, but it was an opportunity to get his career back on track with a major packaged food company.
“I moved back to New York and I had a fantastic career,” says Woodson. “I tell people I never really worked a day in my life. It was a game. I enjoyed the game and the various aspects of it. I loved the change aspect: if you didn’t change, you’d lose.”
Woodson’s passion and desire for quickly creating change for struggling businesses with Colgate-Palmolive earned him the reputation of a restructuring expert. Before long, his reputation extended beyond the United States. Since Colgate-Palmolive is a global business, it was only a matter of time before Woodson would bring change to businesses abroad.
His first overseas posting was Bangkok, Thailand. Greg, Cay, and his three daughters all made the four-year trip.
“It was quite an experience,” he says, laughing at one of his most memorable, yet least favorite experiences. “You couldn’t just pick up the phone and call home to the States. You’d have to call for an international line, then wait an hour or two until they called you back.”
After Thailand, Greg’s journey took him to Denmark for 11 months, then Brussels for 11 months, and then Puerto Rico to resolve issues on the manufacturing side of a business, a position he had never managed previously. After a quick, nine-month stint in Puerto Rico, he landed in Hong Kong for his fifth country of residence in just five years. Because he had spent the past four years in four different countries, Woodson requested that if he accepted the position with Hong Kong, he’d need to be there at least four years while his middle daughter finished high school in Hong Kong. Colgate-Palmolive agreed, but Woodson’s traveling didn’t slow down.
While based in Hong Kong, he was responsible for growing and when needed, restructuring businesses in 11 Asian countries. As if he pulled out a road map from the glove box of his car, he starts rattling off all the countries in which he did business: China, Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Myanmar, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and more.
Despite spending roughly 80 percent of his time on the road, Woodson describes the event as a positive experience, but he’s also quick to comment on the number of miles that puts on a person. Then, in 1997, there was an exciting promotion opportunity to move to New York as a global vice president. Woodson would have to take on a business with lots of challenges and issues that nobody else would want, but this was another opportunity for change and it would return him back stateside. This made the move very exciting. And, yes, changes were made and that led to more promotions and of course, more change.
“As for my career in New York, I love to ski, but skiing in New York is not so great. Cay and I got to the point in my career where I decided to retire because there are only so many ski days in your life. For the five years before retiring, it was hammered in by my better half that you can’t make up a ski day that you miss.”
Greg Woodson officially retired in 2012. The unofficial part, he’s no less active today than when he travelled the world changing the status quo for businesses associated with Colgate-Palmolive.
“I worked 60–80 hours a week back then, and I’m probably doing 50–70 hours right now, but the work is what I enjoy doing.”
He’s associated with an angel investment group in Tahoe, a member of the Dean’s Advisory Board with the University of Southern California Marshall Business School, and hikes, skis and boats whenever he has a chance.
One area of involvement he mentions with an upbeat of excitement is the mentorship and advisory work he does. It’s no question as to why. After four decades of building and leading successful teams around the world, and using change to create a competitive advantage, it’s become an integral part of who he is as a business leader and as a Teke.
Even on a 90-minute phone call covering 65 years of his life, he still finds time to share a nugget from his favorite book that perhaps those listening to the recorded phone conversation and reading this story could learn from. Like a starving artist trying to get his work recognized by someone, or anyone, he recites lines nearly verbatim from a book originally written in 5th Century BC and has since been translated around the world.
The book is Sun Tzu’s “Art of War.”
“It’s a book about leadership and winning with the resources you have,” Woodson explains, sounding like an attorney making his opening case for the court. “There was a story in the ‘Art of War’ about a general and his troops surrounded by superior force with better weapons. So the general who is surrounded decides they’re going to have a last great feast. After dinner, they burn the wagons and the remaining supplies. The general says to his troops, ‘In the morning, we have only one option: fight our way out.’ To me that was incredibly inspiring. People who worked on the business got it. It led to rapid change and great team and business wins.”
And because Woodson is a natural businessman, and clearly an avid mentor, and perhaps an even better Teke, he quickly transitions the conversation back to the Fraternity.
“The other story that I think of is when a chapter is an underdog on campus. Sun Tzu is the guy who said to choose your time, place and method of battle. We’ve all heard that saying for years, but what he is really saying is that if you are the underdog, don’t go the traditional route. Find a strategy and plan where you and the chapter can focus limited resources and win. The big guys will be predictable and go the traditional route. But they can’t cover every opportunity. And that’s where our chapters who struggle will find their victory.”
Woodson’s clear passion for “The Art of War” is something he’s worn as a badge of honor and instilled with many of the people he’s worked with over the years. With every individual he coaches, counsels and advises, he discusses the power of the lessons found within the book. During his Colgate-Palmolive career, he passed out about 300 copies to his executives. As a gift to the Fraternity’s Professional Staff in 2015, he shared 40 plus copies, each with a handwritten note.
It’s his way of giving back and helping others embrace and use change to improve and succeed, just as he has done his whole life.
ONLY A FEW more minutes remain on the phone call that has already blown past its projected time. With a story like this, it was ridiculous to even think that 60 minutes would have sufficed. So only a few more minutes, not because he has to go, but because at some point this story has to be written and there’s not nearly enough time or pages or words to capture the story as is.
Sitting on the other end of the phone line, Woodson says softly, “You’re probably thinking, ‘Why TKE?’ ”
He’s not wrong.
“After all my years of travelling around the world, TKE had kept track of me. I made my donation of $50 or $100 every year, but that was about it. Then, in 1998, when I returned to the states, I was contacted by the TKE Educational Foundation asking if I was interested in serving on the Foundation Board.”
Woodson approached the Foundation Board the same way he had approached the businesses he worked with for the better part of his professional career—working to bring changes to produce meaningful results.
“When I had gotten on the board, there was a minimal expected annual financial donation commitment by board members. So recognizing that the purpose of any foundation board is to raise as much money as possible, when I became chairman of the Foundation, there was a significant increase in the money board members were expected to donate. This change was embraced by the board members and the Foundation assets increased.”
While such a drastic move altered the immediate landscape of members, it changed the dynamic of the Foundation. It reinforced the Foundation’s role to raise funds for the educational programming of current and future Tekes.
Further, it brought clearer guidelines that the Foundation wanted to support more educational programming opportunities across the country, cueing up increased support for TKE Regional Leadership Conferences.
“I love RLCs,” says Woodson, emphatically. “I love them because I’m a business guy and I see the opportunity to annually reach a large number of Tekes and ideally all chapters. The RLCs are effective and efficient in strengthening the participants’ leadership skills and positively impacting their future. And RLCs provide a great ROI. When four or five men come to an RLC, they return to their home chapter with that infectious energy and excitement. It upgrades the quality and leadership performance of the Tekes who attend the RLC and hugely benefits their home chapter when they return.”
Then, he stops talking. Given the sprinter’s marathon of storytelling up to this point, the five-second pause feels like an eternity.
“True story,” he says quickly only to pause for another three or four seconds—another eternity. It’s his sign to buckle up. This is the moment you’ve been waiting for.
“I was the chairman of the Foundation Board while Mark Fite was Grand Prytanis. We had an outstanding joint meeting between the Grand Council and the Foundation Board to discuss and align on TKE Educational program priorities and then discuss funding for these programs. Over the two days, we identified a programing wish list, then worked together to identify which were the top few priorities that would have the greatest positive impact on Tekes and our chapters. At the end, there was consensus and we agreed to focus on RLCs and the Leadership Academy.
“When we talked about funding these two initiatives and the Foundation’s ability to provide financial support, there was quick and unanimous realization that we needed a lot more money to deliver our long-term goal. The Grand Council and Foundation Board agreed that it would be the right time for the TKE Educational Foundation to begin a fundraising campaign with the beneficiary being more financial support for RLCs and the Leadership Academy.
“Everyone knew that our Fraternity did not have a strong history of Fraters donating and this would be a major behavior and culture shift. We would need to significantly raise the bar and ask existing donors to give more and to ask non-donors to make the TKE Educational Foundation one of their preferred charities. While this would be a challenge, we felt confident because we knew these two educational programs were worth the investment and we just had to get that message out to all Tekes.
“Toward the end of that meeting, we had a break. We had come to an agreement on launching a fundraising campaign to increase support for RLCs and the Leadership Academy. At that point, Todd Farmer, a member of the Professional Staff, came up to me and said, ‘Greg, I’d like to donate to this campaign.’ He told me how much he was going to donate and it literally brought tears to my eyes. I came back, restarted the meeting, and whispered to Mark Fite what Todd had told me. We proudly announced that Frater Todd Farmer was the first donor to this major fundraising campaign drive we were kicking off.”
Woodson flew back to New York that night and after driving home to Connecticut, told Cay about the meeting. He shared how moved he was that Todd would make such a generous donation. Greg and Cay Woodson had given in the past what they thought was a lot of money, but seeing what a member of the Professional Staff was giving moved Greg to want to give even more.
As Woodson says, “We never want people to give more than they can afford, but we do ask there be a little pain. It means you’re alive.”
Looking to feel more alive, Greg told Cay he’d like to give another $25,000 to kick-start the new RLC fundraising campaign.
That’s the moment Cay Woodson made her mark on the Fraternity.
Without blinking an eye, she responded, “Greg, you’re the chairman. You’re supposed to lead by example. Why don’t you give them the $250,000 they need?”
In shock, Greg downed the remaining wine in his glass and asked, “Are you serious?”
She responded, “You’re the chairman. If you’re serious about getting there, you have to lead by example.”
As Greg explains, “The rest is history.” The Woodson’s contribution endowed the West Coast Regional Leadership Conference. And as Cay had known, others followed.
Greg continues with a story how Frater Elmer Smith called the Offices of the Grand Chapter and asked the then-TEF CEO to endow an RLC in Atlanta. Not long after, Frater Donald R. Tapia stepped up to endow the Midwest Regional Leadership Academy and rename the Offices of the Grand Chapter for an additional $1 million donation.
“That’s the power of Tekes leading by example,” says Greg.
And again, he’s right. When Greg Woodson, the change agent for businesses around the world, wanted to create a change of his own, he looked to his best friend for help and to lead by example.
That’s why Tekes can thank God for Cay Woodson.
IT WAS HAPPENCHANCE the way the conversation would start after a series of quips referencing the blanket of snow that paralyzed most of the town and denied would-be visitors.
“Let me tell you something about THE TEKE,” said Woodson, taking the initiative to kick off the phone interview, or more accurately, monologue, that broke pace only a handful of times for chuckles and clarification.
“There was a conversation to get rid of THE TEKE magazine completely and go all digital. We didn’t do it because collegiate members and alumni alike saw it as something tangible. We learned Fraters left their magazine on the coffee table because they were proud to be a Teke. They wanted people to know.”
Greg Woodson is no exception.
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Founded on January 10, 1899, Tau Kappa Epsilon is one of the largest collegiate men’s social fraternities in North America with over 294,000 initiated members and 227 active chapters and colonies. TKE’s mission is to aid men in their mental, moral and social development for life. With nearly 12,000 collegiate members, Tau Kappa Epsilon contributes to the advancement of society through the personal growth of our members, and service to others. TKE builds Better Men for a Better World.
With a vision of forward-thinking, growth for Tau Kappa Epsilon, the Grand Council of TKE has released our 2020-2025 Strategic Plan.
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