leader network logo

What experiences have been vital to your development?

At first thought, that seems an easy question. Upon reflection it’s extremely complex. Are we even capable of knowing which experiences have been vital? Without over analyzing it, the following “experiences” come to mind.

• Growing Up: Growing up in Fort Wayne, Indiana, with loving parents in a neighborhood full of other kids. Most were my friends, but some were not. I remember them all vividly and fondly, and I’m still in touch with a number of them; indeed some remain best friends. There were always many things to do and, though it sometimes bordered briefly and mildly on a “Lord of the Flies” type existence, being surrounded by so many friends created a sense of well being. And, there was always plenty of competition which in retrospect created opportunities to play at leadership. We shouldn’t underestimate how important play is in learning.

• Learning my father’s story: My dad was born in Jamestown, New York, in 1910. His mother died when he was born and his father deserted him. I didn’t find out until after he passed away that he had an older sister. My wife found that out talking to a cousin of his in Jamestown. She also found out that during Christmas break one year my father had “come home” from college to Jamestown but really had nowhere to go. His cousin found him on the street corner and took him in. It is cold in Jamestown in the winter now, and it was a lot colder 75 years ago. The rest of what I know of his story was pieced together in a similar fashion, mostly from things my mother told me. It was different then. Men of his era did not tell their stories and certainly didn’t confess to having suffered any hardships.

My dad was raised by his maternal grandparents. His older sister, we later came to find out, was raised by his paternal grandparents. I suspect, but I’m not certain, that there was a significant cultural gap between the two families. My father’s maternal grandparents spoke only Swedish having emigrated from Sweden in the late 1800’s. My father learned to speak English in grade school. The Swedes--at least my father’s grandparents--believed in hard work. He worked his way through high school in a furniture factory. His grandparents weren’t convinced that anything beyond an 8th grade education was really necessary. In addition to working his way through high school, somehow he saved enough money to go to college. He was attending Tri State College in Angola, Indiana, during the Depression when the banks failed and he lost his savings. He worked on the railroad in the summers and as a short order cook in a café in Angola in order to pay his college tuition and other expenses. Somewhere in there he met my mother; I’m not exactly sure how or where, but as my mother’s father worked on the railroad I expect that was how the connection was made. My mother’s family lived in Montpelier, Ohio. I think it was the Wabash Railroad that ran through Montpelier, and I suspect there was a line that somehow made its way from there through Angola to Chicago and points west (just as there was a line which made its way through Ft. Wayne to St. Louis and points west). That’s speculation on my part. Someday, I hope, I’ll research it.

My father received his Electrical Engineering Degree and went to work at Magnavox. In relatively short order, my father, as the story goes, had a role in running Magnavox’s Research Department. Frank Freimann, again as the story goes, though not a Magnavox employee at the time was involved in the research effort as well. The Depression, as you know, wasn’t a single event but a series of economic shock waves. Magnavox put itself in voluntary bankruptcy in 1938. At that point my father left (perhaps he was laid off) and took a job with the local telephone company . . . “The Home Telephone Company.” He came to know more about that phone company, its technology, and how everything worked than anyone, but from that point on he always turned down any offers to become part of management. He wanted the security of a union job. There may be a lesson in that; perhaps we can only overcome just so many setbacks in life, so perhaps it’s important to choose the risks you take in a measured way. My dad of course had his “risks” dealt to him; he didn’t choose them. By 1938, at age 28, he’d had enough of them I guess. Frank Freimann, on the other hand, stayed with Magnavox, rather than repay a loan Magnavox had made to his outside company, he joined Magnavox as an employee, perhaps working for pennies a day; he sold or mortgaged everything he could, as the story goes, and bought Magnavox stock. He became International President and a multimillionaire back when a million was truly a huge amount of money. There is a park in downtown Fort Wayne named after him. I think funding to build it came from his estate. Talk about turning points.

I think my dad was a pretty good engineer. I know he worked hard. I remember being snowed in more than once and he’d walk a couple of miles to catch a bus to get to the phone company; I can’t remember him ever missing a day of work because he didn’t feel well. Like I said, I think he was a pretty good engineer. When NASA was just starting up its operations, they tried pretty hard to recruit him. But, we were settled in Fort Wayne, and he didn’t want to uproot the family.

When I’m facing a tough situation or a bad set of circumstances, I try to think about the tough situations my father faced, how he overcame them, and understand that what I face isn’t really that tough at all. Even though I didn’t grow in up in the Depression . . . I was a baby boomer and the Depression seemed as distant as the Civil War . . . in some significant measure some of my thinking is a product of the Depression. I think I absorbed a lot from my parents.

So what comes out of all that autobiographical mish mash . . . not much . . . except one piece of advice. Although he may have, I don’t ever recall my father telling me he was proud of me and, I don’t ever recall telling him I was proud of him. The advice . . . whoever you are and whatever you are doing, no matter your goals, figure out who you’re proud of and tell them. I am proud of my father; I hope he knows.

• My early college years: For reasons that are now hard for me to understand, I wasn’t particularly interested in school until I was fortunate enough to have a couple of truly great professors, that is, great teachers, at the Indiana University regional campus in Fort Wayne. One in particular, Mike Downs, taught Introduction to Political Thought. He unleashed my passion for knowledge and learning in general and for political thought in particular. He inspired me to want to learn and he inspired me to want to teach. He inspired me to go to grad school at Notre Dame. Academic success is a prerequisite to most leadership opportunities in business and teaching is central to leadership. Therefore, Professor Downs’ influence was vital. One of my great regrets is that a few years ago he died suddenly, way too young and before I had told him, face to face, how important he was to me. I hope he knew. One piece of advice I’d give everyone is take the time to tell those who were and are important to you, how important they are and have been.

One last item (no pun intended). At one point Professor Downs told me I didn’t have enough “last thoughts.” Actually I had more “last thoughts” than he realized but I have many more now. What did he mean by “last thoughts?” Thoughts about the legacy you want to leave, the positive impacts you want to have on other people, the intangible things (which are the really important things) that you will leave behind at the end of life. He never told what he meant by “last thoughts,” but I knew instantly. That’s important advice for leaders . . . make sure you have enough “last thoughts.”

• Watching Joyce work too hard: In 1973/74 I was an Associate Instructor at Indiana University Bloomington teaching, as an assistant, Introduction to American Government and American Constitutional Law. If I remember correctly the stipend was $2,200 per year. Now even in 1973, $2,200 didn’t go very far. My wife, Joyce, was working two jobs. During the day she was a secretary (they called them secretaries then) at IU. In the evenings she worked in a clothing store at a local mall. I couldn’t take that experience very long. With an undergraduate degree in hand from IU (double major in Government and Economics with a smattering of business courses . . . enough for a “minor” I guess . . . I found business courses to be pretty shallow and uninteresting) and a Masters in hand from Notre Dame (Government and International Studies emphasizing Political Thought, Comparative Government and American Government) I decided not to finish work on the PhD but to get a job. Fortunately, an economics professor I had as an undergrad (I was a pretty good Econ. student) had left the University to become an economist for a regional mortgage company. As I recall he was developing a model to predict the outcome of Fannie Mae auctions. In any event, over the back of his recommendation, following interviews of course, I was hired at Colonial Mortgage Company in Fort Wayne. If I remember correctly, the starting salary was $8,500. Not a lot by today’s standards, but a lot more than $2,200. D.G. “Jack” Norton was Chairman of Colonial Mortgage Company. He wasn’t in the best of health, but I learned a lot about leadership by observing Mr. Norton. He was always positive and optimistic, and he always treated me--and everyone so far as I could tell--as if they were and what they had to say was important. I would have worked hard and have done my best in any event, but feeling valued I wanted to do even better, and I worked even harder. There is a very important leadership lesson in that.

• My son and daughter: My kids, Adam, who is now 26 and my daughter, Summer, who will be 20 in August . . . watching them grow up has been an experience vital to my development. They both were (and are) so much more thoughtful, mature, patient, understanding, and empathetic than I was at any of their ages. And, they both worked so hard academically and in athletics . . . they have really given me something to live up to. I not only love them both, but I admire them both and that’s a great thing to be able to say about your kids.

• Mistakes: As I reflect on my life, other experiences come to mind, of course, but I’ve already been way too autobiographical. Among the other experiences were lots of mistakes. I think I’ve learned from them, and I think in that learning I became a better person and a better leader. Usually I don’t have to make the same mistake more than a half dozen times or so to learn that it was a mistake and stop making it. But I always have been able to find new mistakes to make and learn from. There’s a point in there about leadership . . . you can learn a good deal about what to do and what not to do by observing others, reading theories of leadership and studying past leaders . . . but ultimately there’s a significant measure of trial and error involved and, as you go through that trial and error process, you have to be able to forgive yourself for the mistakes you make.

What have been the turning points in your life?

To some degree, “experiences” and “turning points” blend together.

Meeting my wife, Joyce, in high school, and marrying her after finishing my Masters work at Notre Dame; I can’t leave those points out.

Deciding not to pursue an academic life but rather to make a living in business. That is certainly one.

Moving from Fort Wayne to Columbus, Ohio, in 1979 to start an investment banking firm, Cranston Securities Company, with two other fellows to provide tax-exempt bond financing for affordable housing was clearly another. I had actually accepted a job in St. Louis with a commercial mortgage subsidiary of a St. Louis bank (Mercantile Bank) when my future partners began trying to persuade me to move to Columbus. They did a heck of a job “recruiting” me to join them. Thank goodness they succeeded. As part of that process in 1979 I met a number of people in Columbus including John McCoy. Knowing John was key in a subsequent turning point. I learned a number of important lessons in that endeavor and many of the people with whom I worked early on in that enterprise, either as customers or as partners, are now part of RED CAPITAL GROUP or customers of ours. From a business standpoint, moving to Columbus to start that firm, learning what I learned, and meeting the people I met is the fulcrum upon which my professional life turned.

For something like 6 months while we sold our house and made other arrangements to move, we lived in Fort Wayne; I’d drive from Fort Wayne to Columbus each Monday morning and then back to Fort Wayne each Friday night. It was about a 3-1/2 hour drive, but I’d always arrive at the office in Columbus early on Monday. I remember in particular how eager I was to get started the very first day. I couldn’t sleep. Finally I got up around 2:00 a.m., drove to Columbus, arrived at the office a little before 6:00 a.m. and as I didn’t yet have a key waited for roughly 2-1/2 hours to get in. That firm split in half circa 1980, setting up a subsequent turning point.

In the late 1980’s we sold Cranston to a subsidiary of Kemper Insurance. After a stint commuting to work in New York, in early 1990 I rejoined David Meuse and Jim Chapman, who had left the Cranston firm in the early ‘80’s to found Meuse, Rinker, Chapman et al. I joined as “free safety.” I didn’t know quite what that meant, but it was nice to have a job; and joining Meuse Rinker was the beginning of another turning point. In short order I began assembling a multifamily housing and health care finance business. Over the coming months and years, partners and friends from previous firms gravitated to our little business. In late 1990 Bank One acquired the Meuse, Rinker firm, and we became Banc One Capital Markets. By the time of the Bank One/First Chicago “merger of equals,” we had built a thriving little business.

Sometimes turning points aren’t really points at all, but rather big sweeping turns. Joining Meuse Rinker in 1990 was the beginning of such a turn, and the Bank One/First Chicago merger in 1998 or ’99 was the apex of that turn. It quickly became evident that the institutional side of the new Bank One would be led by and largely staffed by First Chicago people while the retail side would be a Bank One domain. Banc One Capital Markets, as it existed pre-merger, was dismantled at a fairly rapid rate, and First Chicago Capital Markets was renamed Banc One Capital Markets. It was my good fortune to have met John McCoy in 1979, to have gotten to know him to some degree in the early ‘80’s, and to have had the opportunity to demonstrate to him that I was a serious person in those 10 years at Banc One Capital Markets prior to the Bank One/First Chicago merger. It was to my even greater good fortune that John is fair, thoughtful and a genuinely good person. I wrote John expressing concern about our little housing and health care finance business (which is now RED CAPITAL GROUP) suggesting that it was too good a group of people with too much potential to be swept aside as part of a general reorg. John called me right away. He must have called me as soon as he read my letter. He told me he would keep the business, own part of it, or sell it, as we preferred. Although we tried to find a spot to attach it, there was really no way for the new Bank One to keep it. It simply didn’t fit. True to his word, John put the wheels in motion to sell the business. Unfortunately (and wrongly in my view) 6 months or so thereafter John came under increasing pressure at the new Bank One; ultimately he resigned his position as Chairman. In John’s absence disinterest in our business mounted rapidly; we were left without much in the way of infrastructural support and provided precious little assistance in finding a buyer. Somehow we held the business together, grew it, made money, served our customers well and grew our customer relationships, built the required infrastructure (technology, back office, accounting, etc.) and ultimately sourced a purchaser offering a price acceptable to Bank One. That was the origin of RED CAPITAL GROUP and certainly a “turning point.” And, that experience brings to mind one of Coach Holtz’s sayings, “There’s nothing we can’t accomplish if enough people care.” As we worked through that very difficult period, we were fortunate in that everyone cared. Making certain that “enough people care” may be one of the most essential responsibilities of leadership.