The waitress immediately recognized Monte Ahuja.
The former CEO of Transtar Industries was eating lunch with Ron Berkman at Lockkeepers restaurant in Valley View. The server recognized Cleveland State University’s then-newly hired president, too. But, as an MBA student at CSU, it was Ahuja she most wanted to talk to.
So she approached the table, pardoned the interruption and introduced herself to the man Berkman calls one of Cleveland State University’s “two or three most successful alumni.”
Berkman was there to talk to Ahuja as well. After arriving in town and embarking on his mission to improve CSU’s image, increase its community presence and reinvent the campus itself, he had a long list of people to recruit to the cause: politicians, businesspeople, donors. But toward the very top was Ahuja.
“His name has a resonance in this community like few others,” Berkman says.
Ahuja’s eight-figure donations have put his name on buildings at two major institutions in the region. His influence spreads from top executives to business students and hospital patients.
Ahuja still remembers the date he arrived in America: Dec. 28, 1968. He had left India five days earlier with just $15 in his pocket. Snowstorms and delays had stretched a two-day journey into five. By the time he reached Columbus, he didn’t have enough money for a cab ride to Ohio State. Eventually, a professor let him share a cab and paid the fare.
Ahuja’s father, an accountant with the Indian government, had scraped together the money needed to send Monte, the third oldest of his nine children, to America. Upon his arrival, Ahuja vowed he would never ask his family for more. Empty pockets or not, he was going to make it.
Two years later, Ahuja graduated with a mechanical engineering degree and made his way to Cleveland for graduate school. He developed a business plan in one of his MBA classes at CSU. That plan became Transtar Industries, which was founded in 1975 and subsequently grew into the world’s leading distributor of automotive transmission parts.
Ahuja sat on CSU’s board of trustees from 1991 to 2000, serving as its chair for a record six years. In 2000, he established the Monte Ahuja Scholarship for business and engineering majors. But by the time Berkman arrived, in 2009, Ahuja had drifted out of touch with the school. He needed to win him back. Rather than ask for money, Berkman solicited his ideas.
When Berkman struck a partnership with Northeast Ohio Medical University to establish a medical campus at CSU, he consulted with Ahuja about the project. Ahuja liked the plan, but felt that putting NEOMED’s Cleveland campus in a renovated building lacked flair. Maybe it warranted a larger gesture, Ahuja suggested. Berkman agreed. A plan was born to tear down Viking Hall, erect a new building and further increase CSU’s presence on downtown’s skyline.
“Until he strategically thought about what kind of statement this partnership makes for the university as a whole,” admits Berkman, “I had not thought about it in that way. [It shows] the quality of his mind and the creativity of his ideas.”
Even after his record $10 million donation, Ahuja has no official title with the school, but he continues to influence it. He meets with Berkman almost every week. They talk over lunch or golf.
The CSU gift isn’t even Ahuja’s largest donation. In 2006, he gave $30 million to University Hospitals to help build a new hospital in Beachwood, now named the University Hospitals Ahuja Medical Center.
Ahuja’s passion for health care is rooted in personal experience. Now 65, he had heart bypass surgery at 49. He felt strongly that top-tier health care shouldn’t be reserved for millionaires. So Ahuja joined UH’s board in 1999 and spent four years as chairman.
“My wife and I talk about doing something that makes a difference for rich people and poor people,” Ahuja says. “I feel if I’m not going to take [my money] with me when I die, and as long as I’ve taken care of my family reasonably well, I’ve got to do something with it. And that something is building a lifeline.”
Ahuja spearheaded UH’s Vision 2010 strategic plan, which included the construction of several new facilities, including the Ahuja Medical Center and the Seidman Cancer Center in University Circle. The sheer size of Ahuja’s $30 million gift, says University Hospitals CEO Tom Zenty, has inspired other magnanimous gifts from other donors. Although Ahuja doesn’t solicit or recruit potential benefactors, he often talks to them late in the process before they make a final commitment.
Zenty says Ahuja isn’t powerful only because he has the ear of the wealthy and influential; he says Ahuja holds sway because of the number of people his work affects.
“At the Ahuja Medical Center, he will literally touch hundreds of thousands of lives of people today,” Zenty says, “and for generations to come.”
Ahuja sold Transtar Industries in 2005, but is still CEO of Mura Holdings, a Beachwood-based investment company. He bought the Stern Advertising agency in 2010 and this year purchased a $5.7 million bank note on Aurora’s Barrington Golf Club. When he’s not in Cleveland, he splits his time between Arizona and Florida. But those are just houses, he has said; Cleveland remains his home.
“I just feel if Cleveland is doing anything to help the community, I can be a part of it,” Ahuja says. “I have a lot of contacts and friends, and I’m privileged enough to be a part of it.”