The PSLC Story

The Public Service Law Center is made possible by a generous gift from Michael ’67 and Janet Finn.  Read Finn’s story below:

Michael Finn: Leaving his mark on the world

Michael Finn ’67 owes his life to a cheap, folding card table and a (likely stolen/don’t ask any questions) Afghanistan War-era Russian helicopter.  While the Himalayan Mountains battled one of the worst early season winter storms the region has ever seen, Finn and his wife Janet, with a group of trekkers, perched contently on a mountainside campsite waiting out the flakes with storytelling, hot meals cooked over a camp stove, and jokes and teasing about “answering nature’s call” as the snow built up. It was all fun and games until a huge section of mountain above decided to let loose and send an avalanche tumbling their way.  Hearing the roar, Finn and his wife dodged under a card table and held on while the avalanche barreled through camp.

Finn says the card table saved their lives. All 10 members of the trekking team survived unscathed. The same could not be said for the trail that was their only way down the mountain.  They tried to navigate their way down through eight feet of snow, but were promptly stuck.  A few hours passed. The group – still pumped up on the adrenaline that comes with surviving – didn’t worry. By day four, that changed.  Two Sherpas, native to the area and acclimated to the elements, had set off earlier to try and find their way down the buried trail, scaling mountain passes as they went, in an effort to find help for the group. Since they left, there had only been silence. It was cold.  They hadn’t anticipated a blizzard. Half the tents were lost in the avalanche so they crammed together as best they could. The adrenaline high had long passed. Jokes weren’t funny anymore. The group didn’t know it, but 26 climbers died on a nearby mountain that day when the snow broke away.  Nearly a hundred more were dead in the villages below. People throughout the region were panicked and overwhelmed as lives and infrastructure had been crushed. That happens when it snows eight feet in a 36-hour period.  The storm had been fueled by a late season cyclone in the Bay of Bengal.

As it turns out, the two Sherpas did make it down the mountain. They found another Sherpa who knew a Russian pilot with a helicopter that somehow had made its way to Nepal  after the Russians retreated from Afghanistan in the 1980s. He flew it to where he thought the trekkers might be.

The helicopter breaking over the horizon at the camp is a great moment for Finn. But, actually, this is not his best cocktail-party story. It isn’t the pinnacle of his lifestory. He’s climbed Kilimanjaro. He and his wife recently scoured through jungles of India following tigers. He helped discover a rumored lost community in the Mustang District high in mountains of Tibet (true story). He has stood 22,000 feet above sea level in the Argentinian Andes. Once he ran in to Tom Brokaw on a little-worn, barely recognizable footpath halfway around the world.

The man you hope finds you when you are lost in a foreign airport

What Mike Finn’s life story is really about is the people he has met.  He talks about his fellow travelers – the native sherpas and guides he has walked side-by-side with for hundreds of miles – like they are his brothers.  He has not summited Everest and he never will. Would you ask your brother to risk life and limb to haul your gear up an infamously dangerous mountainside just so you could say “been there”?  Everest? No. But he and Janet support a school in a remote Himalayan village for Tibetan refugee children.

When asked about a recent trip to India, Finn told the story about how on one flight back, he noticed a young man looking woefully underdressed for the vicious winter weather and out of place. Finn struck up a conversation.  The traveler was an exchange student from Dubai on his way to Athens, Ohio for the first time. “How are you getting from Columbus to Athens,” Finn asked. “I am not sure,” the student replied.  “Do you have a phone number to call or anything?,”  Finn asked. “No.” Finn sensed trouble. As flights were delayed and gates changed, Finn kept an eye out for him, moving him along in the chaos that is O’Hare on the coldest day of the year. Upon landing in Columbus five-hours late, Finn was guessing he was about to have an overnight house guest. “I couldn’t just leave him in the airport,” he said.  “Of course I was going to take him home and figure out how to get him to Athens the next day.” There was no one at the gate; baggage claim was deserted. Ahh, but there in the corner, Finn spotted someone who looked like he had been sitting there for hours and had no idea who he was looking for. Adding two and two, Finn inquired, and, yes, the benchwarmer was to pick up an exchange student from Dubai. Oh, and now back to the reason this story started in the first place: What about the tigers he travelled halfway around the world to see? “Oh, truly amazing,” he said.

The start of a center

It is not immediately obvious why Finn donated the funds to start the Public Service Law Center. Although an Ohio State law grad, Finn is clearly a business man, not a practicing lawyer.  He hires lawyers when business requires.  He admits he started law school in the 1960s with a grand vision of changing social policy and the world. That was quickly lost when he took his first business class and was hooked. He started an M.B.A. program right after taking the bar. The path not taken? A lingering regret? No, he says, he just really loves business.

Finn is the president of Central Power Systems, a company he has owned since the early 1970s. Its talent? Productivity and problem-solving.  It “moves parts and products with speed, precision and efficiency down the supply chain from the people that make them to the people that sell them.” Since Finn has owned the company, there has been great growth, acquisitions, mergers, and, of course, change. An incredibly detailed inventory system that measures productivity to the second allows the team to process more than 2,000 orders a day and provide next day delivery 98 percent of the time. It is quite possible that lawn mower part you ordered from shipped from Finn’s group in Columbus.

So, how exactly does one go from growing a modest business into an industry leader to founding a Public Interest Law Center?

“It is really simple: I asked the dean what he needed,” Finn said. “We are always trying to build an ever-better institution and I am forever in favor of that as much as I could possibly be.”