Where Can We Find Job Creators Like John Crean?

I’ve been around extraordinary leaders only a few times in my life. Each one of them had three character traits that truly set them apart:

  • Abounding self-confidence without being overbearing
  • A genuine love for people
  • Quiet generosity beyond compare

Early in my career, I was blessed to work with just such a leader…

John Crean

I sensed something special about him from the very first time we met.

It happened on a Monday.

After my usual 30 minute commute to Fleetwood Motor Homes through the rolling hills of Northumberland County Pennsylvania, I arrived at the plant and settled into my office to begin my day. At the time, I was their Eastern Regional Sales Director.

I hadn’t even hung up my jacket when the plant general manager walked into my office and said:

“Mike, I’d like you to meet John Crean.”

I turned around and there standing before me was John Crean, CEO and Founder of Fleetwood Enterprises. He was wearing faded blue jeans, a pair of cowboy boots…and a large western-style belt buckle I can’t even begin to describe.

John founded Fleetwood in 1951, and at the time of our impromptu meeting, Fleetwood was a $1 billion Fortune 500 corporation (later to reach $3 billion).

John never attended college, avoided public speaking, hated to fly, and was a man of few words. Not your typical Fortune 500 CEO.

But I love the man.

My brief meeting with John Crean lasted no more than 10 minutes, but I learned some astounding life lessons that linger with me to this day.

Here are some excerpts from our conversation:

John: Mike, if you have any questions for me, fire away.

Mike: I’ve always been curious as to why you built so many small plants across America (50). Wouldn’t it be more efficient and profitable to have six or seven large regional plants?

John: Probably…but then that wouldn’t be very good for my employees.

Mike: Why is that?

John: I like to keep things simple. Don’t you think people are happier and work better together if they know everyone? Plus small plants are easier to manage and can weather downturns better. I hate to layoff anyone.

Mike: Yeah, sure, but…

John: Another reason I decided to have lots of small plants is to attract and keep the best leaders in our industry.

Mike: What do small plants have to do with that?

John: I never planned on growing Fleetwood into a billion dollar company. I’m not that smart. Everything I have, I owe to my extraordinary employees…and I treat them like co-owners. If I don’t grow, I won’t be able to promote my people. I don’t want the best leaders in the industry going to one of my competitors.

Mike: [speechless]

John: And another thing…I always pay cash for my plants.

Mike: You pay cash?

John: Yes…you see…I don’t believe in debt. It almost ruined me once and I vowed never to borrow money again. (At this time Fleetwood was debt free with 50 plants in North America and $100 million in the bank. All “the experts” told him he was nuts to do this because our competitors would grow much faster than us. Just the opposite happened.)

Mike: So…let me get this straight…your expansion goals are not motivated by profits or bowing down to Wall Street?

John: That’s right. I figured if I took care of my people, the sales and profits would follow. I make more money than I deserve…and I believe in sharing the wealth. (I was humbled to find out after John died in 2007, that for many years he gave away 50% of his annual earnings to numerous charitable causes. When he was young and struggling to get Fleetwood off the ground, John said he could only afford to give away 10% of his annual income until he got on his feet. And as soon as he did–get this–he increased his charitable contributions to 20%, then 30%, and finally 50%. This commitment continued until the end of his life.)

John: Any other questions for me, Mike? I’m late for an important meeting.

Mike: Are you meeting with the rest of the executive team?

John: HELL NO. I’ve already spent 10 minutes with each of them. That’s plenty. Now I’m going to spend the rest of the day with the people who pay all of our salaries.

Mike: The stockholders?

John: NO…the hourly folks down on the floor. I love those people!

My conversation with John Crean took place many years ago. Some folks may read this and say the world is different now,…or things don’t work that way anymore…or this is too simplistic.

I disagree.

John left all of us a beautiful legacy of leadership:

Love people more than profits…avoid debt like the plague…and success will find you.

Imagine how many jobs would be created, and how many problems would simply go away if the world had more leaders like John Crean.

Written by: Michael Petras – Principal at Lodestar Executive Search, South Bend, Indiana. To subscribe to my blog, scroll to the bottom of this page and enter your email. Back to my Blog Page for more articles you might enjoy. 

One response to “Where Can We Find Job Creators Like John Crean?”

  1. Jim Gazdick says:

    Michael, great piece. I also had the good fortune to spend about 10 minutes with John Crean myself. It was 1991, and I was working in the Omaha facility as an up and coming production manager; the cowboy boots and belt buckle were a dead give away to who it was that walked into the office.

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