Thursday, December 8, 2022

Renaissance Fund honorees Paul and Nancy Silvis

When the time came for Paul Silvis to sell Restek Corp., the Bellefonte-based, international chromatography supply manufacturing company he founded in 1985, he decided to sell 100 percent of it to his employees through an employee stock ownership plan (ESOP).

“I had a lot of employees that had worked hard to get Restek to where it was. I just felt a sense of obligation that I wanted to make sure they had a more secure future,” he says. “The vision I had was that every employee should retire with a million dollars in a 401(k). They own the company, so as long as they work hard and make good decisions, all of the profit and the value of the company goes back into their pockets.”

That sense of obligation extended to the entire Centre County community, he says, and he believed that an ESOP was the best way to ensure the company’s continued local existence.

“A lot of my friends who started businesses sold to venture capitalists or large companies, and within 10 years they were gone,” he says. “Big companies come in and buy these smaller companies, and pretty soon the CEOs get tired of coming into the State College airport and they want to move it somewhere that is not ruralSo, by making the ESOP, it really strongly planted Restek here.”

This concept of building an enduring legacy is an important value to both Paul and his wife, Nancy.

“That’s sort of a theme for us. We create things that are going to last well into the future, and not short-term, grab-the-money-and-run stuff,” he says.

The Silvises have demonstrated their commitment to this value in many ways, including through the crucial role they played in helping establish Penn State’s NCAA Division I ice hockey program and building Pegula Arena with a $1 million gift in 2011; through leadership roles on the boards of many local businesses and nonprofits, including Central PA 4th Fest, which they helped grow into a beloved institution (Nancy as former chair of the celebration committee and Paul as past president and current board member); through Paul’s passion project of creating a self-sustaining, community-shared tract of recreational land in Brookville; and even through the building of their ”built-to-last” homes in Port Matilda and in Port Saint Lucie, Florida. 

For their enduring contributions to the community and to Penn State, Paul and Nancy Silvis have been named Penn State’s 2022 Renaissance Fund honorees, in support of scholarships for deserving students.

A good team

After 18 years, even the Silvises’ marriage seems built to last. Between them, they have six adult children, as well as seven grandchildren, with another on the way.

They first got together 22 years ago, after Nancy caught Paul’s eye as she sang in the choir at Calvary Church. Both had sons who played hockey, and Paul invited her to bring her boys to skate with his son at a pond party. (It was this hockey connection, and the positive impact the sport had on their children’s lives, that motivated their commitment to help bring a new ice arena to the community.)

Nancy says the two have a supportive relationship.

“We work together as a team pretty well. He’s very understanding of anything I want to do. … We value each other’s interests and time,” she says. “And I feel like we complement each other well. He has certain things I don’t have, and vice versa.” 

For example, while Nancy considers herself a bit of a “rule-follower,” Paul most decidedly does not. (“I don’t do something because I am told to do it; I do something because it makes sense or it’s the right thing to do,” he explains.)

These differences came into play as the couple embarked on Penn State’s Smeal Executive M.B.A. program, becoming the first and only couple to complete the program together. Throughout the challenging two-year program, which began the day after their 2004 wedding, the couple were placed on different teams and continuously pushed each other through friendly competition. 

Paul recalls a time he asked Nancy to look over a paper he had written for the program. “She said, ‘It’s really good, but you didn’t follow any of the directions.’ I said, ‘Well, I’m still submitting it.’ And I got a good grade!” 

“That made me realize, maybe it’s not always that important to follow the rules,” Nancy says.

The entire Silvis clan, including six children and seven grandchildren

Problem-solver

While he is not necessarily a rule-follower, Paul does have some general rules for life that he likes to express through metaphors. One of his favorites has to do with the “racetrack of life.”

“In the racetrack of life, there are hurdles thrown in front of you. Big hurdles, small hurdles, and life’s not fair. You may get 10 hurdles, and I may get 120 hurdles. But the key to life is learning how to go through them, around them, and over them,” he says. “We have always tried to teach our kids that life is not about how many problems you have, but it’s about solving those problems and moving on to the next one.”

The challenge of having a problem to solve is something that seems to excite Paul. 

“I always say, if you blindfold me and take away my clothes and everything I own, and take me to a foreign country and throw me in a ditch, within two years I’ll be mayor of that town,” he says. “I’ve just always had that attitude that I can figure it out, whatever it is.”

That mentality is what attracted him to the field that would eventually become his career. 

After growing up in small towns across Pennsylvania, including Greensburg, State College, Brookville, and Boiling Springs, Paul majored in chemistry and life sciences at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown. He worked part-time as a respiratory therapist for a while before deciding that was not a good career for a person who does not like to follow rules.

Instead, he decided to pursue an advanced degree in mining engineering. During an internship with the Mining Enforcement and Safety Administration, he was introduced to the world of chromatography, a chemical process of separating mixtures for analysis—and he was hooked.

“It was a new field, so every time I went into work there was a new problem to solve, a new thing to fix,” he says. “I used to call a company up here called Supelco at least four times a week to ask advice.”

Soon, Supelco hired him as a research chemist, bringing him back to Centre County.“I loved it. Developing new products, figuring things out; I wasn’t afraid to get my hands dirty,” he says.

Seven years later, Paul’s entrepreneurial instincts kicked in.

“I always had this vision that if I could create a company where employees enjoyed coming to work as much as going home, no one could beat us,” he says.

So, in 1985, Paul left Supelco to start Restek, where he stayed on as president/CEO for 25 years (and chairman for 37), building the company into an international success before deciding it was time to offer the ESOP to his employees and move on to his next challenge. 

In its early years, Restek had developed its own patented technology for chromatography tube coating. Recognizing that there were other ways to use this technology outside the world of chromatography, he made it the basis of a new company, SilcoTek, in 2009. The company now employs over 70 people and has customers across the world in the semi-conductor, medical, and petrochemical industries.

Even during his limited free time, Paul likes to problem-solve and fix things around the house. Nancy jokes that MacGyver is one of his favorite TV shows. 

He also spends a lot of time working on what he calls his “Brookville project,” on land where he enjoyed hunting, camping, and riding trail bikes as a boy. As an adult, Paul started buying more of the land surrounding an acre that his father had owned, eventually obtaining 7,000 acres along the North Fork River. He named the property “Siltop Visions” and sold memberships to local passholders, providing access for hunting, fishing, ATV riding, horseback riding, cave exploration, and more. 

“It’s a beautiful piece of property—five pristine streams, a lot of wildlife. … I spend a lot of time building up this property, building structures, improving it. I love it down there. It’s my happy place.”

Outside the cocoon

Another of Paul’s metaphors goes like this: “If you live in a cocoon and you don’t do anything, you’ll never go through a metamorphosis.”

Nancy definitely is not a person to stay inside a cocoon. She is a true “renaissance woman,” with many varied interests and a strong desire to keep learning.

Born and raised in southern Florida, Nancy attended Brevard College in North Carolina for two years before pursuing pharmacy at the University of Auburn—a career path she chose mainly out of practicality. A passionate animal lover to this day, Nancy dreamed of becoming a veterinarian, but she felt the schooling required for that degree would be too expensive for her parents to afford.

In addition, she says, “My parents had friends getting divorced, and the woman didn’t know how to do anything to support herself, and I thought, ‘I’m not going to be one of those people.’ I went to pharmacy school thinking I’d get equal pay and be able to support myself if anything ever happens.”

Nancy worked as a pharmacist for 25 years after relocating to State College with her first husband in 1982. Even while working as a pharmacist, she was able to explore an aptitude for interior design, helping to design some of Geisinger’s pharmacies. She also put her interior design skills to work at the Mount Nittany Inn, in which she had ownership from 1992 to 2015. 

“I helped decorate the bed and breakfast. I would get antiques and did every room differently with different themes,” she says.

After the inn suffered two major fires, she retired and went on to earn an interior design certificate from the New York Institute of Art and Design. Now, she is finally pursuing her long-time dream of attending vet school through Penn Foster’s online vet tech program. Once she becomes a certified veterinary technician, she hopes to volunteer in a shelter or work part-time in a vet’s office.

The Silvises own a pit bull named Nixon, and Nancy says, “If I could, I’d have every pit bull rescued in the state of Pennsylvania living on our property. Just being around dogs makes me happy.” 

When she is not furthering her education or volunteering in the community, Nancy helps out part-time at their daughter Kristin’s business, Simply Health Rx Salt Spa and Wellness Center. She is an avid reader and a pickleball and tennis enthusiast, and she and Paul enjoy golfing together and spending time in nature and on the water, especially at their Florida home. 

Caring for the community

Nancy has always been in demand as a leader in the local nonprofit scene. She has been involved in many fundraising efforts over the years and is a long-time member of the Board of Trustees of Mount Nittany Medical Center, as well as currently serving on the board of The Village at Penn State. She has also served on the boards of the State Theatre and WPSU. 

Likewise, Paul has been an active leader in the community for many years. Currently he is an emeritus member of Penn State’s Board of Trustees and serves on the Kish Bank board, as well as continuing to serve on the board of Central PA 4th Fest. He mentors entrepreneurs, and he and Nancy frequently host fundraisers for political candidates.

“Since we raised six kids here, of course we want a community that takes care of each other,” Nancy says. “I think we would be very selfish not to look beyond our own needs to make our community better.”

The Renaissance Fund honor is yet another way for them to do that, as an endowed scholarship in their name will be directed to high-achieving Penn State students with great financial need.

“The Silvises’ dedication to the region we call home is wide and deep,” says Blake Gall, a member of the Renaissance Fund Committee. “From economic development to town-and-gown philanthropy, their mark on the university and our local community is indelible. We are proud to honor the Silvises as this year’s Renaissance Fund honorees and, in doing so, recognize two people who set the standard for what it means to be a good neighbor.” 

The Silvises will be honored at a reception at the Penn Stater on November 1. Contributions toward the Paul and Nancy Silvis Renaissance Scholarship Fund are being accepted at raise.psu.edu/Renaissance2022. T&G

Karen Walker is a freelance writer in State College.