On Saturday, members of the Chicago business and civic communities celebrated the life of a legendary CEO, philanthropist and gentleman – John H. Bryan, Jr. When I learned of his passing, my mind instantly flashed back to the countless lessons this gentle giant taught me about business, global citizenship and civility.
Thirty years ago, I entered “Mr. Bryan’s” magnificent office for the first time. I can still picture him sitting quietly at his elegant desk – with the top button of his suit coat fastened – ready to greet each visitor with a clever quip and always prepared to address the subject at hand. No matter whether it was ‘board week,’ a tier-one media interview or a session to finalize the annual report, John always carried himself with a calm demeanor and a quiet confidence (unlike those of us who worked for him on the frenzied 46th floor below).
John shared his office with ‘Skating Girl*’ – a bronze sculpture created by Giacomo Manzù. ‘Skating Girl’ peered over the Chicago lakefront from a precarious perch, adjacent to the floor to ceiling window in this captain of industry’s office. This confident, bold skater symbolized John’s commitment to women, his love of the arts and his unique ability to be poised and balanced through his almost 82-years of life.
John valued and promoted the perspectives of women, long before it was popular. He understood that without the enthusiastic support and endorsement of women, the Sara Lee brands – Hanes, Coach, Douwe Egberts, Dim, Hillshire Farm, Kiwi and many other household brands – would never thrive in the marketplace.
At Sara Lee, if your brand wasn’t No. 1 or 2 in its category, you were “in the barrel.” If your business results didn’t improve in a quarter or two, the chopping block was your next stop. Harsh as that may sound, John had high standards and liked to win. He did so with integrity, level-headedness and a sense of compassion. We were all clear on the rules of the road and we all benefited from the rewards (or suffered the consequences).
John embraced a global mindset long before it was fashionable. As the EU launched and the Berlin Wall fell, Sara Lee became the most acquisitive company on the planet. John was as comfortable touring Bryan Foods in West Point, Mississippi as he was exploring the Musée d’Orsay or the Hermitage Museum. He served as an informal ambassador for employees, investors and customers, by negotiating cross-border business deals and fostering trans-Atlantic art exchanges.
Despite the fact that John took control of Sara Lee at 38-years old, you never felt he was ‘winging it.’ He had a vision. He had high standards and an unwavering value system. John was simply a born leader and a man people instinctively wanted to follow.
I now realize how fortunate I was at 28-years old to have been hired by Sara Lee and have John H. Bryan as my ‘first’ CEO. He influenced and shaped my view of the world and became the gold standard for me. He taught me about being principled, not popular. John defined purpose and authenticity long before those phrases became cliché and pedestrian.
Communities around the globe should be appreciative of John H. Bryan for his innate ability to mobilize his fellow leaders to support big, audacious causes. Because of John’s deep commitment to business and the arts, coupled with his generous spirit, generations to come will experience a richer, more cultured life.
John H. Bryan left the world many treasures. His family shared the gift of John with all of us.
Let his genteel, infectious approach serve as a force for good, especially in these days as we search for genuine leaders with true character, charisma and commitment.
*Skating Girl’s new home is the Museum Beelden aan Zeein The Hague, The Netherlands. She was donated as part of the $100 million gift to 20+ museums in 1998.