Edward M. Smith (1954-2024) passed away with his family at his side on January 3, 2024.
A champion of the American Labor Movement with a visionary business mind, Ed Smith left a tremendous impact on the labor world and touched the lives of many. From his earliest days at LiUNA, through his tenure as Chairman and CEO at Ullico Inc., he moved boldly—seizing opportunities, developing winning strategies, and leaving every place he worked better than he found it.
His impressive accomplishments were rooted in his sharp business acumen and practical knowledge of the labor world, but also in the way he treated people. At the end of each day, Smith asked himself, “Who have I helped today?” It was a habit he learned from his father, but it also spoke to his generous spirit, moral conviction, fierce loyalty, and infectious optimism.
Born in Cairo, Illinois, Smith thought of the labor movement as his calling rather than a job. He inherited this passion from his father, Connell Smith, who served as the Laborers’ Local 773 business manager from 1942-1976. Ed joined the union at age thirteen, worked as a laborer not long after, and took over as Local 773 business manager by age twenty-one.
Building a Movement
Smith was a unique combination of experience, intelligence, and personality that produced success in everything he touched. He was the first LiUNA member in the country to graduate from the National Labor College. He participated in the Harvard Trade Union Program—attending classes with Harvard MBA students and debating case studies in labor history. Observing the critical role politics has played in advancing labor’s interests, he devoted himself to understanding the legislative process and developed relationships with politicians and lobbyists. All this experience allowed him to develop a comprehensive understanding of the labor world. That knowledge, paired with his strong will and passion for supporting working people, fueled a tremendously successful career.
He focused his efforts at LiUNA on using innovative strategies to protect labor rights. With his signature “all-in” approach, he led forty organizing drives during the 1970s and ‘80s with groups across southern Illinois, including police, government workers, healthcare employees, and highway workers. Thirty-nine of these drives proved successful, boosting Local 773’s membership from 300 to 4,000.
Over the course of his career, he moved up through the ranks within LiUNA, winning election for the Southern Illinois Laborers’ District Council Business Manager in 1985 and later becoming Chairman of the Central Laborers’ Pension Fund. In 1994, he was appointed Midwest Regional Manager—enlarging the region from three to ten states during his tenure. He earned a seat on the LiUNA Executive Board and an appointment to the Illinois State Board of Investments—eventually becoming its Chairman.
He greatly expanded LiUNA’s political influence throughout the Midwest Region, lobbying at statehouses and urging members to run for local office. Smith pioneered regional Tri-Funds programs for contractor cooperation and worker protection. A committed advocate for protecting construction workers’ rights, he helped forge the National Alliance for Fair Contracting.
Over the years, his experience on pension boards fueled a passion for leveraging the financial power of the labor movement’s pension capital. Frustrated that investment managers often invested union funds with companies that were anti-union, Smith began formulating plans for an infrastructure fund that could offer a competitive return on investment dollars while also including union construction mandates and neutrality on worker organizing efforts. This goal set the stage for Smith’s next chapter at Ullico Inc.
A New Chapter: Ullico
Smith joined Ullico in 2008. At the time, the company was facing serious financial obstacles, which were only exacerbated by the ensuing Great Recession. Undaunted, Smith assembled an experienced management team, fought to give them the resources they needed, and worked hard to redouble the company’s commitment to the labor movement.
Rather than play it safe, he offered bold leadership and strategic ideas to move the company forward. As there was no labor-friendly infrastructure investment fund in the marketplace, Smith set out to start one. Despite vocal critics saying it couldn’t be done, he hired the right people and started traveling the country to convince labor leaders to invest in what was then just an ambitious idea. Eventually, Smith’s force of will, deep network of relationships, and practical understanding of the labor world helped him and his investment team raise the capital necessary to launch the fund. More than a decade later, the Ullico Infrastructure Fund is a pillar of the company’s five-year run of tremendous success and record profits.
Smith was proud of running a profitable company, but he was adamant that Ullico would do it the right way. Smith urged his insurance team that when there’s a close call and when possible, lean in favor of the claimant, arguing that as labor’s company, Ullico should favor protecting union members. During Smith’s tenure, Ullico enhanced its insurance program for union leaders and benefit plan trustees, and grew its union-supporting commercial real estate financing fund. Under his leadership, Ullico generously gave back to the community, donating millions of dollars each year to philanthropic causes. Internally, Smith was insistent that the company take care of its employees. He built a culture that put people first. In addition to offering a robust benefits package, he maintained a personal touch—sending birthday cards each year to every employee.
He believed in treating people with dignity. As Smith would say, “It’s all about the people.”
Of course, Ed Smith was more than a list of professional accomplishments. He was a devoted husband to his wife and closest advisor, Betty, and father to Jordan and Matt. He was also known to spoil his grandchildren and his dog. A loyal friend, Smith would be the first to congratulate you during the exciting moments of success or be there to offer support if you experienced a tragedy.
He never knew a stranger and made friends wherever he went. He was an avid reader and found great joy in discussing labor history with any curious listener. A sports fan, he rooted for the Kentucky Wildcats, who also happened to wear his favorite color—blue. Smith had a sweet tooth and carried a particular fondness for chocolate chip cookies. He had a booming voice and an easy laugh.
Ed Smith will be dearly missed, but his profound impact on Ullico and its employees, the labor movement, and those around him will live on through his accomplishments and the countless stories told by all those whose lives he touched.
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