Max De Pree Oral History Interview


Part one

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SCARPINO: The main recorder is live and the needles are bouncing. Today is June 27, 2013. My name is Philip Scarpino. I am director of Oral History for the Tobias Center for Leadership Excellence at Indiana University–Purdue University, Indianapolis. Today I have the pleasure to be interviewing Mr. Max De Pree at his home office in Holland, Michigan. I am conducting this interview on behalf of the Tobias Center and the International Leadership Association. We will place a biographical sketch of Mr. De Pree with this interview, but in order to get things started: Max De Pree has had a long and distinguished career as a leader and a scholar of leadership. His father established Herman Miller Company furniture manufacturers as a family-owned business. Max De Pree began working for the company in 1947 and served CEO from 1980–1987. He established Herman Miller Company as one of the best managed companies in America.

Max De Pree has written and published a number of books and articles on the subject of leadership beginning with Leadership is an Art in 1987, and most recently Called to Serve: Creating and Nurturing the Effective Volunteer Board (2001). And, Leading Without Power: Finding Hope in Serving Community (2003). The Max De Pree Center for Leadership at the Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, California, is named in recognition of his reputation in the area of leadership and his decades-long commitment to Fuller Theological Seminary.

In 2012, the International Leadership Association awarded him a Lifetime Achievement Award.

Now, in the interest of full disclosure for you and for anyone who listens to the recording or reads the transcript, as part of the background research I talked on the phone to Brian Walker, current CEO of Herman Miller Company; Clark Malcolm, writer and editor at Herman Miller; and Dr. Walter Wright, Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, California.

With that as a lead-in, I’m going to ask your permission to do the following things: to record this interview, to have the interview transcribed, to deposit the transcription and the recording with the Tobias Center, the International Leadership Association, and the IUPUI Special Collections and Archives, and to allow those institutions to make the recording and the transcription available to patrons, which may include putting all or part of the interview or transcript on their websites. Can I have your permission for that?

DE PREE: Yes, you may.

SCARPINO: Thank you very much. Now we get to the good part. We get to talk. As promised, I’m going to pitch you a few softballs, and then we’ll make the questions a little more complicated.

DE PREE: Fine.

SCARPINO: Let’s start with your childhood. I’m just going to ask you when and where were you born?

DE PREE: I was born in Zeeland, Michigan on October 28, 1924.

SCARPINO: For the benefit of somebody who is not up on Michigan geography, where is Zeeland?

DE PREE: Zeeland is about 20 miles west of Grand Rapids and perhaps 10 or 12 miles from the shore of Lake Michigan.

SCARPINO: Did you enjoy the lake as a young boy?

DE PREE: Yes, very much.

SCARPINO: Did you have any brothers and sisters?

DE PREE: Yes, I had two brothers and four sisters. The two older sisters are still living.

SCARPINO: Your brothers are Hugh and …

DE PREE: Hugh and John.

SCARPINO: What were your parents’ names?

DE PREE: Dirk and Nelly.

SCARPINO: Now I’m going to mix this up a little bit and I’m going to ask you some more complicated questions. What I’m probing here for is, obviously, how you are shaped as a person and your attitudes on leadership. I’ll set the first question up. In October of 2011, I had the pleasure to interview Manfred Kets de Vries at the International Leadership Association meeting in London. In getting ready for that, I read an article that he published that really spoke to me. The article was called “The Leadership Mystique.” I’m going to read you one sentence from that article. He said, “All of us possess some kind of inner theater and are strongly motivated by a specific inner script. Over time, through interactions with caretakers, teachers, and other influential people, this inner theater develops. Our inner theater, in which the patterns that underlie our character come into play, influences our behavior throughout our lives and plays an essential role in the molding of leaders.” Well, you are a leader and you are a scholar of leadership and you have served as a mentor to leaders. Here’s the question: If we use Kets de Vries’ term, inner theater, can you tell me about your inner theater? Can you talk about the early experiences and individuals who you believed shaped your character and the person you became?

DE PREE: Well, I grew up in a family of seven children in the midst of the Great Depression. At the time, even though I was a youngster in the early ‘30s, I was very much aware of how difficult life was for the family. My father was an avid Baptist, and one of the family practices was in those days we all ate three meals a day together as a family. Of course, those who went to work walked to work, and those who went to school walked to school. At each meal, we had a time of devotions. My father would pray before the meal, and after the meal he would read scripture and then we would discuss it, and always from the King James Version, and then we would pray again. If friends were gathered for some evening baseball, they waited on the porch until he was ready. In later times—you asked about the influences, right? Any mentors …


DE PREE: First of all, I would have to say that I consider in these later years of my life that one of my great influences was really my mother. Other people have said, “Well, what did you learn from your dad?” Well, I learned a lot from my dad about business, but it was my mother, really, who raised the family. My dad was gone all the time. He was just trying to survive, and there was a period of time when he was convinced he was going to go bankrupt. So I would say my mother was sort of my first mentor. Then later on in life, I could name three mentors who had an enormous influence in my life. The first is Dr. Carl Frost, who was a psychologist on the faculty of Michigan State University.

SCARPINO: He’s the Scanlon Plan person.

DE PREE: Yes, he was the Scanlon Plan guy. He was a consultant at Herman Miller for many years, for well over 50 years. In the process of his doing consulting, he found a way to mentor a number of people in the company, and I happen to be one of those. In those days, those were the early days of the McGregor research on Theory Y and Theory X and so on. Then another significant mentor in my life was Dr. David Hubbard, who was the president of Fuller Theological Seminary. He was an academic and a real scholar but also a world traveler. When I joined the Board of Fuller Seminary in about 1964, we rather quickly connected and we became friends like brothers. I would say he was the next key mentor in my life. The third one I would say is Peter Drucker. At a certain point in my life as a leader, I was aware of some shortages in the way we were working and the things we were doing. So I decided I’d really like to talk to Peter Drucker. I had nobody who could introduce me, so I just called him on the phone. He was very cordial.

SCARPINO: Did that surprise you?

DE PREE: Yes, it did. I mean, he was so well known. Everywhere in the world he was well known. Well, then I have to say what next surprised me. He was cordial and we began to work together on behalf of Herman Miller. What he did with his clients is he would always ask you for the check first. He wasn’t going to do any consulting until he had his check. One day I arrived and he said, “We’re friends now,” and he said, “Let’s talk about whatever is on your mind, but we’re friends.” Well, this opened up a whole new chapter in my life, that Peter felt he and I could be friends. He was a wonderful mentor.

SCARPINO: A couple of follow-ups: we’re going to talk more about each one of these things in a bit, but you talked about your dad and Herman Miller and the Depression. I read that one of the pitfalls that he managed to avoid with his business during the depression was cutting prices. Is that right? In other words, he held that business together in bad times without cutting prices.

DE PREE: I really don’t know. I’m much more aware of other things that he did in holding the business together.

SCARPINO: Such as?

DE PREE: Well, he made a crucial decision to establish a relationship with Gilbert Rohde, who was a very fine industrial designer, but who was going to take the company into arenas my dad had never heard about.

SCARPINO: Do you think that took courage on his part?

DE PREE: Yes, I do.

SCARPINO: Was he a courageous man?

DE PREE: Yes. As I look back, the older I get, the more I’m aware of the qualities of my dad. On the one hand, he was this avid Baptist and he was still teaching adult Sunday school when he was 98 years old. He only had a high school education. When he died, I had to get rid of 3,000 books. He had a great library. He had just continued his own education. He was strong. When I watch people trying to be entrepreneurs these days and trying to start a business, and I look back at how difficult that must have been during the Depression for him to start that business and keep it going, I’m amazed at what he did. I’m sure I never could have done it.

SCARPINO: Did you inherit courage from your dad?

DE PREE: Some, but not as much as he had.

SCARPINO: You mentioned your mom, and you said that she was a great influence and a mentor. What did you learn from your mother?

DE PREE: Well, one of the things in our family is that everybody was assigned work. I can just give you a little story. One time in the middle of the winter, she said, “Well, your assignment is to shovel the path under the clotheslines because after you go to school I have to hang all the clothes out.” We had no dryers in those days. She took me outdoors and she showed me how she wanted it done. Then she said, “If you don’t do this perfectly, I’m going to probably fall with a basketful of wet clothes and I can’t get you back from school.” So she said, “I want you to do it right the first time because it’s very difficult for me to live with it if it isn’t.” Well, that’s a real lesson. I mean, you talk about learning how to delegate; that’s what we do when we delegate.

SCARPINO: Are you good at delegating?

DE PREE: Yes, I think so.

SCARPINO: You mentioned McGregor and Theory X and Theory Y. There are going to be plenty of people who are going to listen to this who aren’t going to know what that is. Could you give a brief explanation?

DE PREE: Well, Douglas McGregor and a group of his research people did the research about what motivates people. Then they wrote this wonderful book. I don’t recall the title now. They really put leaders into categories. One category was people who knew everything and told everybody what to do. The other category was people who understand that everybody comes to work with certain gifts and can be trusted with those gifts. Therefore, what you seek is I would say a sophisticated form of participation so that people can use their gifts at work, whether they’re a defined leader or not. This was kind of a shock to a lot of people in industry when McGregor released his book.

SCARPINO: What kind of an influence did that have on you?

DE PREE: Well, Carl Frost, who was a friend of McGregor, did some of that research and so he transmitted all that directly to us, one on one, and in groups and so on. We all read that book and it kind of became a management bible to us.

SCARPINO: A second broad-based question: I went on the website for Fuller Theological Seminary and, as you well know, they offer a concentration there titled “De Pree Emphasis on Leadership.” I read the description online. I’m just going to read two lines from that description for the benefit of anybody who listens to this recording. The description says “The De Pree Emphasis in Leadership is designed to embody Fuller Seminary's commitment to practicing leadership in line with the values of Max De Pree. Working off of Max De Pree's understanding that "belief precedes behavior," students learn not only practices for leadership, but also values that stand behind those practices.” The description says that students learn leadership practices and the values that stand behind them, so here is my question: what values do you believe should stand behind the practices of effective leaders?

DE PREE: There are a lot of values, of course. We can talk about things like integrity and about preparation. People write books about a number of values. I guess I did that, too. I think the value for me in terms of how to look at leadership is that if you’re a Christian, which I am, you look at relationships always with the understanding that all individuals are made in the image of God and if you accept that—and I know everybody doesn’t—but if you accept that, that not only gives you a sense of direction but it puts a heavy burden on you. If you’re going to accept voluntarily the idea that my relationship with any person working for me is made in God’s image, that’s a guideline for how you deal with people. On the one hand, I accept that as a Christian value. On the other hand, I believe strongly in that as a way of leading people, that you look at people as having the same values you have, many slightly different talents, but in their heart they’re the same as you are. So you try to guide your behavior in that way. Well then, so you have this belief, and I really believe that behavior follows belief. Whether we understand it or not and whether we can articulate it or not, I believe it’s a fact that behavior is dependent on what we believe.

SCARPINO: Not only in the description of the leadership concentration but in several other places you’ve written and said that belief precedes behavior. Can you explain how that works because they’re training leaders at Fuller based upon that bedrock principle?

DE PREE: Yes. Well, of course, the seminary itself believes that, too. That’s one of their principles. What was the question again?

SCARPINO: You’ve argued that belief precedes behavior. I’m wondering, how does that work?

DE PREE: I think it works in the field of human relations. I think it works in matters of industrial design. I think it matters in how we do our engineering. I think it should matter in how we manage our financial affairs. Now, I’m not saying that everybody does that, of course. The free market system has room for a lot of different types of behavior. But for people who are in the headlines, for instance, with their salaries these days obviously believe that that’s the important thing in their life and so they behave that way. We talked about my dad a while ago. Yesterday in the Wall Street Journal, I think it was, there was an article about a man who is going to retire with like a $90 million pension. I think about people in my dad’s category and working their way through the Great Depression, what would they think of that?

SCARPINO: I can’t even get my mind around $90 million.

DE PREE: No, I can’t either. But he’s behaving according to what he believes, and we all have to find ways to live with that.

SCARPINO: So if belief precedes behavior, what happens when a leader isn’t successful? When they come up short, how should they act? What should they do when something doesn’t work?

DE PREE: I think there’s an old military adage and I think it got published first and attributed to—wasn’t it General Wood that ran Sears & Roebuck for years?

SCARPINO: General Leonard Wood.

DE PREE: Yes. I think he said something about 50% of your decisions are going to be wrong. Live with it. When you make a mistake, start over, do it right. Nobody, no matter how much publicity they get, nobody is perfect, and none of the people who work for you are really perfect. So organizations and individuals do make mistakes, and you have to find a way to recover. One of our problems is that we have measurements in business and industry, in particular, which measure a relatively short list of criteria. It’s very difficult to know how to measure in leaders some of the most important things that they have to do. For instance, one of the things a leader has to do is he has got to build trust. It’s very hard to measure that on a scale of 1 to 10. Generally speaking in an organization, the people in the organization can tell you whether or not he has built trust.

SCARPINO: Do you think it’s difficult to quantify some of the things that leaders do?

DE PREE: It is, yes.

SCARPINO: Is accountability an important part of leadership?

DE PREE: Yes, absolutely. You see, that’s where the free market system, for instance, has it all over the political system. In the free market system, everybody is measuring. And you do it in education. You measure your students and you give them grades and so on. But there are some arenas, like the political arena, where it’s very difficult to measure accountability.

SCARPINO: That’s right, isn’t it? We’re going to talk more about Fuller Theological Seminary later on, but I’m going to ask you a different question now. I talked on the phone to a long-time employee of Herman Miller, and I don’t have permission to use this person’s name. I’m going to just refer to what this person said. This person described you as a servant leader and a quiet leader who encouraged people to look inward. Do you think that’s a fair description of yourself?

DE PREE: Yes probably, although I’m sure you can find some people who kind of got ripped up a bit in life. One time Dr. Frost came into my office one day when I was a very young manager and he said, “Tell me what happened out in the plant this morning.” I said, “Well, if you’re asking the question, you already know, don’t you?” He said, “Yes, but I’d like to hear your story.” So I told him that a small team had really screwed up and that I had kind of chewed them out. He said, “I’ll tell you what, next time you feel like chewing somebody out, why don’t you do that at home where they love you enough to forgive you? Here they don’t love you that much.”

SCARPINO: Was that a good lesson?

DE PREE: That was a great lesson.

SCARPINO: How would you describe a servant leader? What’s the profile of a servant leader?

DE PREE: I think a servant leader is a person who is very committed to giving all the people for whom he is accountable a chance to be successful. Everybody has a strength. A lot of us have some weaknesses. I think a good leader spots strengths and builds on them and gives people a chance to be who they can be. Now, in order to do that, you have to know people. You have to take the time to get to know them. You see, good leaders only succeed really through the work of other people. I mean that’s not a very big secret, but it seems to be. This is the way the world turns, is when people get a chance to do their thing.

SCARPINO: Do you think good leaders give those people credit for what they do?

DE PREE: A lot of them do, yes. A lot of them do. This week we’re celebrating the retirement of a long-time president of Hope College. One of the things he’s always been good at is that he gives everybody credit, and people respond to that. All of us in the workforce, we have to have a chance to go home and brag a little bit. You know, “I’ve been working with this dopey leader for all these years and finally he let me do something.” We all need that.

SCARPINO: Robert Greenleaf wrote a book called Servant Leadership: A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness. Did that have any influence on the way you understand leadership?

DE PREE: Oh yes. Greenleaf was a pioneer, and I can say that we were friends. He wrote that wonderful book, but he also wrote a whole raft of essays which were beautifully written and beautifully instructive for anybody who thought they’d like to be a leader.

SCARPINO: How did you meet Greenleaf?

DE PREE: I don’t remember, but I have to say, Phil, that’s been a thing in my life. I seem just to have met an awful lot of people who have been a great influence on me. One of the things that I learned from Bob Greenleaf was that you can be a better teacher by asking questions than by throwing information. That was one of his great gifts in my life. He coined the phrase, didn’t he, servant leadership? Yeah.

SCARPINO: Do you think of yourself as a good teacher?

DE PREE: I do.

SCARPINO: Do you work at it?

DE PREE: I do. Part of my early experience was teaching at Aquinas College, which I did in the evenings. I didn’t really intend to do that, I can tell you that. I did a stint in Europe for the company. When I returned the company was not making a lot of progress. I had an older brother who was CEO and a very good one, and I thought that the company doesn’t really need two of us and since I was younger, I’d better move on. So I responded to an ad in the Wall Street Journal to be a teacher and got an immediate call. It was from right here in Grand Rapids, Michigan. I couldn’t afford to have anybody know I was looking for a job, so the guy was very receptive about that. I said, “If you were somewhere else in the country where I could move to, I’d be glad to talk to you,” but I said, “I really can’t talk to you about leaving Herman Miller. That’s a very private thing I’m doing.” He said, “Well, can we work out something? I would love to have you come and teach.” At the time, the college was struggling and needed to start evening courses for middle managers who wanted to get better. In those days they were all men. We would meet and have supper together in the college cafeteria after we had all worked all day, and then we would find a classroom and we’d go to work. That’s the way I began to teach. Yes, I think leadership is a teaching job.

SCARPINO: We’re going to actually talk more about you and Aquinas later on, but the older brother was Hugh, right?


SCARPINO: I’m going to follow up again on the person I talked to at the company who said one of the things that you do is to get people to look inward.

DE PREE: Yeah.

SCARPINO: When you encourage people to look inward, what do you hope they’ll see?

DE PREE: Well, one of the things I hope they’ll see is that they have a lot of ability. My experience is that a lot of the people have grown up in families where they weren’t encouraged the way they should have been. They weren’t seen for the gem most people are. I thought I was seeing at work people who had more gifts than they themselves thought. So one of the things that I think we did at Herman Miller was we gave people the opportunity to see what they could do. Just two weeks ago, I went to the funeral of a very good friend, Con Boeve, who was one of the early guys in Herman Miller’s international operation. A few weeks before he died, he and I had had lunch together and he made a really wonderful statement. He said, “You know, I think I always did more than I thought I could.” To me, as his former boss, I thought what a great thing to hear, that he could always do more than he thought he could.

SCARPINO: Is that the mark of an effective leader, to get people to do more than they think they can do?

DE PREE: I think that’s one of the marks, yeah.

SCARPINO: I mentioned when I introduced us and the interview that I had spoken to Brian Walker, who is the current CEO. He said something to me that really struck me as very interesting, and I specifically said, “Can I use this when I talk to Max?” He said yes, so I have his permission, so here we go. I’m talking to Brian Walker on the phone and he said that you had told him several times in conversations, lunch or whatever, you would say to him, “I’m over Herman Miller.” So I said, “What do you suppose he meant by that?” He said that he thought that you saw your work in the world as bigger than just your association with Herman Miller. He said that Herman Miller was probably an important chapter in your life but not your whole life, and that you didn’t define yourself as the company. Is that a fair assessment?

DE PREE: Yeah, it is.

SCARPINO: Okay. So then here’s the question: How do you define yourself? Who is Max De Pree?

DE PREE: Boy, that’s interesting. In October, I’ll be 89 years old. I think I’m a pretty good grandfather. I think I’m still a fairly good mentor, although I don’t have the energy I used to have. I still have a few things I’d like to write. I’m working at being a good husband. My wife is more agile physically than I am and some days mentally, too. A good marriage is something you always work on, and that’s who I am today. I’m working on that. I’m trying very hard to be realistic about how much life I have left. I kind of test my thinking about what’s going to happen when I die because I don’t know for sure what’s going to happen. To me, that’s the great mystery.

SCARPINO: It is a mystery, isn’t it?

DE PREE: Yeah, it is. I have certain beliefs about it, but I’m not sure. I don’t have proof about it so I’m at a stage of life where I do that. I’m reading a lot. I like that. My wife and I try to spend time with music. I don’t know if that answers your question or not, Phil. This is an interesting question. I think you’ll find out who I am from somebody else I guess better than from me.

SCARPINO: You know Frances Hesselbein.

DE PREE: Yeah.

SCARPINO: And you obviously knew Peter Drucker.

DE PREE: Yeah.

SCARPINO: When I interviewed Frances Hesselbein, she told me a story that I believe is true. She said that when Peter Drucker was helping her with the Girl Scouts that he said, “If you’re going to have a motto or a slogan, it needs to fit on a T-shirt.” What would go on a T-shirt that would describe you?

DE PREE: First of all, I never agreed with Peter on that. We talked about it.

SCARPINO: I just used it to set up my question.

DE PREE: Sure. I think organizations that are very sophisticated and broad-reaching need to say more about themselves then you can put on a T-shirt. I suspect that’s true of a lot of us in life, too. You probably ought to ask my kids that question.

SCARPINO: You know, the way a child would answer that question is going to shift as they get older.

DE PREE: Yeah.

SCARPINO: I was thinking as you were talking about your dad that it’s amazing how when we look at our parents, they get smarter as we get older, isn’t it?

DE PREE: That’s right, yeah.

SCARPINO: I read an article in the Huffington Post, and the article was called “Bullying in the Public Discourse is Not Leadership.” The person who wrote this article was partially writing about you in a flattering way. I copied one line out of there. It said, “Max De Pree, former CEO of Herman Miller, constantly reminded those of us who served on the leadership team that “Leadership is a serious meddling in other people’s lives.” How is leadership a serious meddling in other people’s lives?

DE PREE: Well, in the free market system, one of the ways in which you meddle is with a person’s ability to get a job done. Another way is you meddle in his personal life because of the demands that are put on a person and his family. You meddle in terms of you have something to say about their future. Whether it’s right or wrong, you do. I mean, you get to make decisions about people, about whether they’re promotable or not. You make decisions about whether or not they did a good job. You make decisions about whether or not you think you can trust them with something more than what they are doing. So I think in lots of ways that’s a very good statement. It sounds like somebody who worked at Herman Miller is working at Huffington now.

SCARPINO: Probably. The same author also said, “When I got too full of myself and used my position to dismiss or exclude people, Max would pull me aside and whisper: ‘Leaders don't inflict pain, they bear it.’” Did you ever say that?

DE PREE: Yeah.

SCARPINO: What does that mean?

DE PREE: There are many ways in the work situation where a leader can inflict pain by penalizing somebody or not promoting somebody or just by criticizing somebody or by failing to give somebody recognition. There’s a whole series of ways in which we interact with each other. One of the things that happens, too, is occasionally you have to deal with layoffs or you can’t give promised pay level changes that you really hoped to do. A lot of these things do inflict pain, but I think the way the leader has to see it is that it’s his or her job to bear some of that pain. If you think about it in terms of bearing pain, it will have an effect on how you do your job and how you supervise and how you lead. But a person has to reach an understanding of that before she can implement it. That’s an important part of that, and in a way it comes back to belief and behavior. This idea that I looked inside of things, that’s true. I tend to be a philosopher at heart, and I do like to think about things like that. I’m not content with everything that’s so visible.

SCARPINO: When I asked you how you defined yourself a while ago, one of the things you talked about was reading. Do you think leaders should read?

DE PREE: Absolutely. One of the reasons they should read is that people under them aren’t always going to tell them the truth. Sometimes that’s a big risk. Actually, I believe that leaders should read broadly because when you’re a leader, you tend to be focused in ways you might not like and people make demands on you. It’s hard to have breadth in your life if you’re a leader, and one of the ways you get it is through reading. Another way is you ought to work at your outside relationships.

SCARPINO: Outside of work?

DE PREE: Outside of work, yeah. I wouldn’t feel good about working for a CEO in business who doesn’t know any musicians or poets or never goes to a concert, that just thinks that after work all there is is the NFL. I like to know that somebody I have to interact with is interested in a lot of things.

SCARPINO: What are you reading right now?

DE PREE: Right now I’m reading a really wonderful book on the end of World War II on the Western European side, not the Russian side. The Russian is a whole different thing. It’s a long book. It’s over 650 pages. The prologue is 40 pages. That’s what I’m reading now. I’m also reading a mystery by a Danish writer named Hoeg. I like murder mysteries but not the—I’m more a fan of P.D. James rather than Ken Follett, for instance. I read a certain amount of other stuff. One of the magazines that I subscribe to that I like very much is “First Things,” which is a Catholic magazine. I happen to be a protestant, but I just like the intellectual level of the magazine. It’s a big help to me.

SCARPINO: Brian Walker, again, told me that he believed that one of your gifts is the ability to help people put things in a bigger context, to help them figure out what they can do to help themselves. In fact, he said you were a philosopher. Then I talked to Walter Wright who you know from Fuller Theological and he said that you excel in creating space for other people to shine and succeed. Do you think those are fair descriptions, accurate descriptions?

DE PREE: I hope so.

SCARPINO: Good. So how do you create spaces for other people to shine and succeed?

DE PREE: One thing you do is you help them to prepare themselves and then give them a tough job and coach them as they go along. You don’t throw anybody to the wolves. It’s kind of nice when you’re ready to promote somebody and they say to you, “I’m not sure I can do this. Are you sure?” And I always felt the best answer was, “Yeah, I’m sure. I’m not going to mess around with your life. I really believe you can do this, and I’m going to count on you.” That makes a big difference. And some of that is kind of philosophical.

SCARPINO: Maybe part of inspiration is getting other people to believe in themselves.

DE PREE: Yeah, it is. Sure.

SCARPINO: I’m going to shift to a more chronological approach because I’ve been just sort of trying to pull out some ideas that we can work with later on. You mentioned you were born in 1924 and grew up in your teenage years in the Depression with a large family. Where did you go to high school?

DE PREE: Zeeland High School.

SCARPINO: A public school?

DE PREE: Yeah.

SCARPINO: Were you a good student?

DE PREE: No, not especially. It wasn’t very demanding.

SCARPINO: What were you interested in in high school?

DE PREE: I’d say probably sports and girls.

SCARPINO: That sounds like most of the other teenage boys.

DE PREE: Yeah. I don’t remember anybody ever talking to me about what was I interested in in high school. I went off to college with no idea.

SCARPINO: I hope this comes out right. Do you think that’s because of who you were? In other words, did people assume because your family was probably better off than most others and that you had a family business that you were sort of locked in?

DE PREE: Yeah, there was certainly some of that, sure. But I was thinking, I don’t remember in my family anybody ever sitting down with me and saying, “You know, you’re getting ready to go to college; what do you think about this? What do you think about that? I kind of think you can do this.” I remember with our oldest daughter, we talked quite openly about her strengths and weaknesses and so on. I don’t remember that anybody ever did that with me.

SCARPINO: Why do you think that was?

DE PREE: Maybe my folks were just too busy.

SCARPINO: Neither of your parents went to college, right?

DE PREE: My mother had one year of college and was briefly a school teacher.

SCARPINO: When you were in high school, when you were a teenage boy, you mentioned your parents, but were there any other people who significantly influenced the adult or the leader you became?

DE PREE: Yeah. There is a man named Tom Dewey, who taught math and was a principal and he was a coach. He had some influence on my life. I remember admiring him. I was impressed with the way he handled discipline in school. I played a little basketball, and I still remember one game where he was a ref and he never gave me any indication that he knew me in that game. As I look back, I admire him a lot. I guess I wasn’t serious about school and maybe it all was too easy in those days. We never had homework.

SCARPINO: When you were in high school or when you were a teenager, do you remember how you thought your life was going to turn out or what you wanted to be when you grew up?

DE PREE: Well, there was a stage where I apparently thought I was going to be a doctor. I went to Wheaton College for one semester and then into the Army in World War II. I must have put on all the Army forms that you fill out, I must have identified myself as pre-med. The Army is very predictable. That’s where I was the rest of my life in their mind.

SCARPINO: I want to ask you about the Army in a minute, but why Wheaton?

DE PREE: I was number five in my family. My brother was older and three sisters were older, and they all went to Hope College. I was the first one to go away to school. For one thing, my parents wanted me to go to a Christian school.

SCARPINO: Which both Hope and Wheaton are.

DE PREE: Yeah. I never felt there was anything against Hope. I think my dad, in particular, probably just decided I ought to go to Wheaton. I don’t remember a lot of discussion about it.

SCARPINO: You were at Wheaton for a semester in the middle of World War II, 1943, I believe.

DE PREE: Yeah. I started at Wheaton in September of ’42.

SCARPINO: And you ended up in the Army Medical Corps?

DE PREE: Well, I was a medic, but there really wasn’t such a thing as a medical corps. Actually I was a surgical tech by definition. Today in civilian life, that’s a scrub nurse. I was in an operating room all the time.

SCARPINO: So you were not a combat medic; you worked in the operating room.

DE PREE: That’s right. I was in an operating room. The field hospital, battalion aid station, and later General Hospital.

SCARPINO: Can I ask you what unit you were assigned to? Can you remember that?

DE PREE: What do you mean by what I was assigned to…?

SCARPINO: What unit were you assigned to in Europe?

DE PREE: I was a part of the 240th General Hospital, and they were in Nancy, France. I didn’t actually get there until almost the war ended in Europe. I was on a different assignment away from the hospital. I don’t remember all of that. It’s a long time ago. Even in this book I’m reading, I find stuff that I didn’t realize that was going on, you know.

SCARPINO: They sent you to Europe. Basically, where were you stationed when you were in Europe?

DE PREE: During the time of the war, I was in the last two or three weeks of the Battle of the Bulge. I was in the Third Army, Patton’s Army. I was a part of a shop team; two surgeons and two enlisted guys, who sergeants. We had a small vehicle and a radio connection. We were sent from place to place. We would replace surgeons who had worked all day, and then we would work all night and they could sleep and come back in the morning. Then we would get some sleep and then by radio we would be assigned another place to go. I have an Army book which lists places I was, but I don’t remember being there.

SCARPINO: You were driving around the countryside while the Battle of the Bulge was going on?

DE PREE: We were lost, you know, we didn’t know what the heck was going on. We’d show up and they’d be so glad to see us. They’d clean up the surgical suite and we’d go to work. It was chaos. My kids have asked me about it. Actually I think I was with a group who actually got to Bastogne. I don’t know if you know about the war.

SCARPINO: I do, yeah.

DE PREE: I remember working in Bastogne for a while after…

SCARPINO: …the battle was over.

DE PREE: No, the battle was still on, but the northern part of it hadn’t been settled yet. Patton broke through a little earlier than Bradley did from the north. I just remember working on the second floor of a building with no windows in Bastogne.

SCARPINO: And you set it up as an operating room?

DE PREE: Yeah, it was an operating room.

SCARPINO: So you were really face to face with what people do to each other in war.

DE PREE: Yeah. I never did it to anybody and nobody did it to me, but I know what the consequences are.

SCARPINO: What did you take away from that? What kind of an impact did that have on you?

DE PREE: (becomes emotional)

SCARPINO: We’ll come back to that.

DE PREE: Maybe later, yeah.

SCARPINO: I understand.

DE PREE: As I get older it’s worse.

SCARPINO: I understand. We’ll try it a different way. Did you learn anything about leadership from being in the military? Good or bad, up or down?

DE PREE: I think mostly good. I had some terrific leaders that I worked for. I learned about how you delegate. I remember people for what they told me I should do, and I had no idea what to do, how to do it. They just said, “You can do that.”

SCARPINO: Was that a takeaway for you?

DE PREE: Yeah, oh yeah. I never forgot some of that.

SCARPINO: I read, and I didn’t verify this, that while you were still in the military you went to the University of Pittsburgh, Haverford College and the University of Paris, is that true?

DE PREE: Yeah.

SCARPINO: How did that happen? That’s quite a panoply in a short amount of time.

DE PREE: Yeah, that’s an interesting part of my life. There were two genius-type things that were done during the war. One was the GI Bill of Rights, which preserved the colleges and all that. The other was each military group had a college program. The Army had ASTP, Army Specialized Training Program. I didn’t know about it until in basic training I did something that was a little unusual and afterwards the captain up on the podium with the bullhorn said, “Get that guy’s name.” I was one out of about 600 in the battalion who did something different. That evening, a second lieutenant came to the barracks and he wouldn’t come inside, of course, but he sent word that he wanted to see me out on the street. I went out there and he said, “You don’t know me and you don’t have to remember me for this,” but he said, “In a few days, the captain is going to call you in and offer to send you to officer training school, OCS. He said, “That’s fine if you want to do that. If you want to be a second lieutenant in the infantry, you do that.” He said, “But if you turn that down, he’ll wait a week and then he’ll call you in and he’ll ask you if you’d like to go to college.” He said, “This is against the rules, but I think you ought to know,” and he left. And it happened just like that. The captain offered me OCS and I said, “No thank you, sir.” A week later, he said, “Would you like to go to college?” And within three days I think it was, I was at CCNY in New York to start. I went to City College of New York first for math refresher and then to Pittsburgh.

SCARPINO: What were you doing at Pittsburgh?

DE PREE: Science, pure science. I never had any liberal arts. I had to get that all later on. And then the pre-med thing turns up again and I’m sent to Haverford College as a pre-med.

SCARPINO: It’s a private Quaker college in Philadelphia.

DE PREE: Yeah, a wonderful school. That was a great experience, too. Both of those were wonderful experiences. The first symphony I went to was in Pittsburgh. I never had been to a symphony before I was in the Army in Pittsburgh, and we lived in that skyscraper. They had that Tower of Learning.

SCARPINO: The Cathedral of Learning?

DE PREE: The Cathedral of Learning, yeah. I could watch the Pirates play from my bunkroom.

SCARPINO: My father’s uncle was the head usher at Forbes Field.

DE PREE: Is that right?

SCARPINO: I saw Roberto Clemente play there; that was in the 1950s when I was a little kid.

DE PREE: Yeah. Then we finished at Haverford and by then I was in a class of about 20. At Pittsburgh, it had been a couple thousand. They said, “Well, you’ve all been accepted at Temple University Med School and you’ll move across city in a short time.” We were overjoyed. This was a promise you weren’t going to go overseas. Then a couple weeks later, they called and they said, “We’re sorry, everything is being stopped. You’re going to Texas to get ready for going overseas.” So we all went to Texas and then I ended up in Glasgow, Scotland, and then in France.

SCARPINO: What was it like for a relatively young boy, who had grown up in a Christian house in relatively rural Michigan, to be in the Army in big cities and different parts of the country and different parts of the world? What did you learn?

DE PREE: I learned a lot. For one thing, I see myself as having been a slow developer. I took basic training with a bunch of guys from Kentucky and a few guys from Detroit. At first, I thought the guys from Kentucky were kidding when somebody would say, “What did you do for a living?” and they’d say, “We stole from each other.” We all would kind of laugh, but it wasn’t a joke for some of them. The guys from Hamtramck settled everything with their fists. Yeah, that was an awakening, but I learned a lot.

SCARPINO: Did you go to the University of Paris?

DE PREE: Yeah, for a little while. That wasn’t serious. The Army had, what, three million guys; what do you do with them? See, then the atomic bomb dropped. We were being processed to go to the Pacific, and the bomb dropped and that all changed.

SCARPINO: So was my dad, by the way. He was on a boat headed to Japan when the bomb dropped. So after military service, you did go to Hope College and graduated from there.

DE PREE: Yeah, I did.

SCARPINO: 1948, is that right?

DE PREE: Well, I finished in 1948. I didn’t graduate until quite a few years later. When I was teaching at Aquinas, I thought, “Here, I’m teaching at Master’s Program and I don’t have a B.A.”

SCARPINO: So then you went back and finished it up?

DE PREE: Yeah, the guys at Hope College were very sensitive about that. They rechecked all the stuff and they said, “Well, you can’t graduate without a bible course.” The guy in charge said, “I know you can’t come here three days a week to go to class. I’ll see if I can get a tutor.” He found a guy who was happy to work with me who was also a veteran. We had lunch every Friday at the Holiday Inn and I got my bible credit.

SCARPINO: This is going to sound facetious, but I think you got your bible credit eating meals with your family.

DE PREE: Oh yeah, I did.

SCARPINO: You probably knew more about the bible than the guy who was teaching you.

DE PREE: Sure.

SCARPINO: You married Esther in 1947, is that right?

DE PREE: 1946.

SCARPINO: Can I ask you how you met?

DE PREE: Yes. She was standing in the doorway of the chemistry classroom when I spotted her.


DE PREE: No, in high school.

SCARPINO: Oh, in high school.

DE PREE: And I just sort of knew immediately that was the one for me. I asked her for a date and we started dating and never changed. After the war we got married.

SCARPINO: This was a situation where you guys knew each other and had dated before the war and then you came back and got married.

DE PREE: Yes. I can say, before I went overseas we were committed. She didn’t have a ring or anything, but we had committed to each other.

SCARPINO: How many children do you have?

DE PREE: We have four.

SCARPINO: Boys and girls or…

DE PREE: Two of each.

SCARPINO: Do you see any similarities or differences between being a good and effective leader and being a good and effective father?

DE PREE: Yeah, I would say so. I think the servant leader thing holds true for parents. I think the idea that you bear pain, you don’t inflict pain is especially true with your kids. I think the idea of nurturing somebody even comes more natural in a family than in a business, but nurturing is one of the things leaders do. The idea of developing, let’s say, a workable unity in a group certainly applies to a family like it does in a business. That’s one of the things a leader does. He tries to develop a workable unity because it isn’t just you and me; it’s you with a hundred other people or with 12 people or whatever. You’ll get nowhere if you don’t know how to establish a workable unit.

SCARPINO: Do you think, for you personally, was it harder or more challenging to be the leader or be the dad?

DE PREE: I think it was harder to be a leader in the business world than to be a dad. We didn’t have a heck of a lot of trouble with our family, with our kids. But I also traveled a lot of the time. I give Esther a lot of credit for the quality of our kids.

SCARPINO: When I asked you to talk about yourself, one of the things you talked about was working on your marriage and all that stuff. What kind of impact did your wife have on your personal growth as a leader?

DE PREE: That’s a really good question. One of the turning points in my life was on a Sunday evening after church, we were riding home and I said to Esther, “Tomorrow is going to be a very difficult day. We’ve got to lay off about 30 guys.” She was quiet for a minute and she said, “You know, those are not just guys; those are families you’re talking about.” The next morning at breakfast, she said to me, “I know your problem today,” but she said, “While you’re in the meeting, I’m going to be praying it won’t work.” And it didn’t. This is the way she’s been all my life. She never went to college. Her dad told her he would try to pay for it, but she knew he couldn’t. But she also felt she ought to work during the war, so she did.

SCARPINO: What did she do?

DE PREE: She was a secretary in a chemical company here in Holland.

SCARPINO: I’m going to talk to you about Herman Miller and your association with them. Even though you’re more than Herman Miller, it’s a big part of your life.

DE PREE: You’re very good at this, Phil.

SCARPINO: I will tell you with this recorder on, I’m just so pleased that you were willing to talk to me. I’m going to start with Brian Walker again, the current CEO. He was ready, he knew what I wanted and he was pleasant. I’m sure he’s a busy man and he gave me about a half an hour. He told me on the phone that while the company was under the direct control of your family, he basically wanted to divide it into three phases; the leadership of your father, your brother and yourself. He said that your father established the basic principles of the corporate culture and moved the product line from traditional to more modern. He said your brother turned Herman Miller into a big business. And he said you codified the corporate culture so it could sustain itself after the family was no longer running the business. I want to ask you, as the guy who was there, is that a reasonable summary?

DE PREE: Well, if you had called Dick Ruch, who succeeded me as CEO and was CFO part of the time I was…

SCARPINO: Chief financial officer.

DE PREE: Yeah. He would give you a little different picture about what happened during the eight years I was CEO. I say this because I’ve heard him do this in public. He talks about the real growth happened then. I don’t remember the figures because I’m never good at figures, but the value of the company increased by five times in the eight years I was CEO. We did a much better job of growth. We reached the Fortune 500 during that time. I think the company tripled in size. Other than that, I don’t have a problem with how Brian saw it.

SCARPINO: I’m going to ask you questions sort of along that line. If I read correctly, you started at Herman Miller in 1947 at age 23, is that right?

DE PREE: In 1947, yeah, that’s right.

SCARPINO: You were a young man. Did you always expect to go into the family business?

DE PREE: No, there was a time before the war and while at Wheaton, I apparently thought I was going to be a doctor. I’m sure the experience in the Army changed me. I wasn’t interested anymore in all that. I guess I’d had a life full of that stuff.

SCARPINO: So here you are, a young man, and you’re going to start in the family business. Were you okay with that? Did you look forward to it?

DE PREE: Yeah, I did. Yeah, I really wanted to. I can also tell you, Phil, that one time one of the surgeons I worked for in France was from Grand Rapids, Michigan. That was quite a coincidence. I worked with him quite a bit. After the war, a few years after the war, my wife and I met him and his wife leaving a symphony concert in Grand Rapids and we had a great reunion. Afterwards, he said, “You should have been a surgeon.” He said, “He was a surgeon.” I loved surgery and I could do surgery. I mean we did surgery, you know. We were trained on the job.

SCARPINO: So in the situation you found yourself in, you actually with your level of training were operating on people?

DE PREE: Well, I could lay a guy on his belly and take all the shrapnel out of his back. I sent a lot of guys home with bad sewing…

SCARPINO: But alive.

DE PREE: That’s right. Scars, but they were alive. Yeah, I did some of those things.

SCARPINO: Did that help you put things in perspective when your kids fell down, stubbed their toes, had bloody noses or whatever?

DE PREE: Oh yeah, that’s right. One time our younger daughter tried to run through a storm door and cut her artery off, and it was perfectly natural for me to know what to do with that.

SCARPINO: When you started with Herman Miller, what did they have you do? How did you work your way around?

DE PREE: Well, the story starts earlier than that. In high school, my brother and I both worked in the factory during summers. Because we were the boss’ son, we did get some dirty jobs. They had counted on us to clean the boiler all the time. The millwright always loved giving us the dirty jobs because he had a little power. Then later, we both worked in a cabinet room and in the machine room. I don’t remember what else he did, but I became a master upholsterer before I went in the Army.

SCARPINO: So you were actually yourself sewing the upholstery?

DE PREE: Yes, I could do a sofa like that.

SCARPINO: As you worked your way up through the company, did the fact that you had done those things with your own hands, did that help you?

DE PREE: Oh yeah. That was a big help, because you work in a factory and there’s a society there and they all know a lot about what’s going on. One of the things I never did, I never underestimated people who worked with their hands. I knew what they were doing and I had done it, and I did some tough jobs in the Army, too. They know if you can do something, and they respect you if you do it. But then after the war, I remember doing jobs like scheduling and things like that. I remember moving up into purchasing and so on. My brother and I both did an awful lot of those jobs.

SCARPINO: So purchasing would involve the raw materials that went into the factory?

DE PREE: Yeah, and all of the additional parts. We didn’t make castings like that. We had to buy that stuff from other companies.

SCARPINO: How many years was it before you were working in a position that one might describe as junior executive or middle management?

DE PREE: Just guessing, I would think by the time I was 30 that people saw that the three De Prees were kind of running the company.

SCARPINO: By that time, you had done a great deal of different kinds of work.

DE PREE: Yes. And also, my brother and I had the feeling that we were going to be growing and we did a lot of going to school. We went to Michigan State for continuing courses. I went to the American Management Association in New York for continuing courses in management, leadership and so on. We developed those programs for a lot of people in the company.

SCARPINO: So you went to school, learned whatever it was that you wanted to learn and then came back and developed training programs?

DE PREE: Yeah.

SCARPINO: I’m going to talk a little more about the company and about leadership, but in order to do that and in order to help the people who are either going to listen to this recording or read the transcript, I have about three lines of company history here. I hope this is right, because I’m going to be embarrassed if it’s not. Herman Miller was founded by your father, D.J. De Pree, who bought the Michigan Star Furniture Company in 1923 with his father-in-law, Herman Miller, and a small group of local businessmen. The original plant was located near Grand Rapids. De Pree renamed the company Herman Miller Furniture Company after his father-in-law, who was a major shareholder. D.J. De Pree was a religious man who moved the company in the direction of moral responsibility and commitment to employees. Is that a reasonable thumbnail?

DE PREE: Yeah, but the company was always in Zeeland. It was not near Grand Rapids. D.J.’s own father was also an investor, and several of the sales people were investors. In fact, I was named after a man named Max Bath, who was one of the company’s sale reps.

SCARPINO: I hope this isn’t too silly of a question, but is the original building still there?

DE PREE: No, but it was destroyed only 10 years ago or so.

SCARPINO: In 2013, the American National Business Hall of Fame profiled your father. The first sentence of that profile reads as follows: “This is the story of a Christian business leader who proved by example that a highly successful business could be built on principles of faith.” Do you agree that your father was a Christian business leader who proved by example that he could build his business on the principles of faith?

DE PREE: No, not entirely. He was a Christian business leader, but he had to deal with people who would talk to him about this being a Christian company. He would always say, “No, theologically you can have a relationship with God but not as a company.” He used to talk about this is a place where there’s space for everybody. D.J. employed the first woman manager at Herman Miller, which was quite a big deal at the time. D.J. grew up in the business with important Jewish members of the company. He would never say this is a Christian company.

SCARPINO: Would it be fair to say that his faith influenced the way he led?

DE PREE: Yes, absolutely.

SCARPINO: You spent a lot of time with your dad, but what kind of faith-related principles influenced his leadership?

DE PREE: Well, in truth and fairness, he used to refer to the Book of James where it talks about how you treat people. He was an admirer of the Old Testament prophet, Amos, who wrote about some of that. There was even one period in time where he talked about sensing his obligation to meet the payroll as a biblical matter. Somewhere he found in the Bible that you pay your help almost daily or something. He went through a period where he struggled with that.

SCARPINO: The citation for your own Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Leadership Association describes your family management of the Herman Miller Company as covenantal. In 1993, another article by Manfred Kets de Vries describes the relationship between your family and the employees of Herman Miller as a “covenant that works both ways.” Lots of writers have used that word “covenant” or “covenantal” describes your understanding of the relationship between employees and employer at Herman Miller?

DE PREE: Yeah, I do. It’s basic. I wrote about it in one of my books, comparing it to the contractual relationships, that there’s a very important difference between a contractual way of working together and a covenantal way of working together. I don’t know who that person is that you quoted.

SCARPINO: The first quote came from your International Leadership Association.

DE PREE: Yeah, but the guy in Europe?

SCARPINO: Manfred Kets de Vries. He’s a psychologist. He’s another award winner. He was born in Holland. He taught for decades in Paris.

DE PREE: Okay.

SCARPINO: In your mind, does the idea of a covenant have biblical roots?

DE PREE: Yeah, it does. In scripture, it’s kind of a regular thing where God refers to his relationship with us as being a covenant.

SCARPINO: Since a covenant is both an agreement and a promise, what do leaders who follow a covenantal approach promise to their followers? What promise do you make?

DE PREE: Well, I don’t want to sound trite, but I think the heart of that first book, Leadership is an Art, is an elaboration on this whole idea. Chapter by chapter, you can go through there and you find the roots are in this kind of thinking. By the way, the statement of “leaders don’t inflict pain, they bear pain,” that actually came from my friend David Hubbard. He was the origin, as far as I’m concerned.

SCARPINO: I have read most of Leadership is an Art, but maybe people will listen to this recording who haven’t read it. Could you explain what you see is the difference between a covenantal and a contractual model of leadership?

DE PREE: Well, that isn’t so easy. A contractual arrangement for work is one in which you can write down the elements of the contract and you can both understand them, and you can together measure them and reach a conclusion about what has happened or is not happening. For instance, if you’re hiring a baseball player and he’s got to hit 300 in order to stay the next year, you both know what he’s doing. In a covenantal relationship, there’s a different understanding about who each of us is and what our commitments are to each other. I, the leader, am going to make a commitment to your success, and I’d like you to do the same thing. I understand that you can’t do as much about that as I can. I do have some power, and that’s kind of crucial in this relationship. As a leader, if I’m going to make a commitment to a covenantal relationship, there are requirements of me that are not necessarily required of me if it’s only a contractual relationship. One of the things that comes back, I’m going to be concerned that because I’m meddling in your family affairs, I’m meddling in your life, so I’m going to try to spare you the pain. I’m going to try to bear some of your pain, and I’m really going to try to be your teacher. I really care about you because I understand that deep down what counts for me is how good you can be. I know from experience that if I’m going to treat you covenantly, the odds are much higher for good performance than if I’m going to just depend on a contract.

SCARPINO: Is that kind of relationship both more liberating and more challenging for the employee?

DE PREE: Yeah, it’s much harder. The leader has to work harder. One of the reasons a lot of the Scanlon plans have failed, including at Herman Miller, is because nobody wants to work that hard.

SCARPINO: We’re going to talk about Scanlon in a bit, but your assessment is that it ultimately failed at Herman Miller?

DE PREE: Yeah, they gave up.

SCARPINO: How did you feel about that?

DE PREE: Well, like Brian said, I moved on. Have a new life.

SCARPINO: Do you think it’s important for a leader, particularly the kind of leader you’ve been, to also be a role model?

DE PREE: Oh yeah. One time, walking through the plant, I stopped and I picked up some trash in an aisleway and put it in the dustbin. A little later I got a call from the guy who ran that department, the supervisor, and he said, “I just want to say thank you for picking up that crap you picked up this morning.” He said, “Now I don’t have to talk about it for a week.” Just the example, you know, people are watching all the time.

SCARPINO: Were you always cognizant of that, that people were watching?

DE PREE: Yeah, I figured that out I think in the Army. I think that’s when that started to dawn on me. A lot of things dawned on me in the Army.

SCARPINO: It has a way of happening, doesn’t it?

DE PREE: Yeah, it does. You watch people, and one of the things that I’m very aware of is that there are people who observe and who listen to other people. And then there are people who don’t pay attention. The ones who observe and listen gain.

SCARPINO: When you and your brother were in high school working in the plant, did you ever feel as though people were watching?

DE PREE: Yeah, we did.

SCARPINO: The boss’ kids and how you were going to respond and act.

DE PREE: Yeah, that’s right. One time I quit. They had a pay raise in the plant as a general increase and I didn’t get it. I went to the foreman that I worked for and I said to him, “How come I didn’t get that raise?” He said, “You’ve got to get it from your dad.” I said, “No, I don’t.” I said, “Either I get it from you or I quit.” He said, “I’m not going to give you a raise.” So I quit. Then I got out the door and I thought I can’t go home and just tell my dad I quit. So I spent a few hours and I found a job working in a hatchery in Zeeland.

SCARPINO: A fish hatchery?

DE PREE: A chicken hatchery. So when I got home that afternoon at quitting time, I arrived at the backdoor and I was pretty dirty. My mother said, “What happened?” I said, “Well, the guy wouldn’t give me a raise so I quit and I got a job at Cable’s Hatchery.” She said, “Good for you.” I got cleaned up and she explained to my dad what happened.

SCARPINO: Did you stay at the hatchery?

DE PREE: I stayed at the hatchery until I went to college.

SCARPINO: Why was it important to you that the foreman give you the raise and not your dad?

DE PREE: Well, I just felt that was the fair thing. I just felt I’m an employee here and you’re my boss, everybody else gets a raise, I ought to get a raise. I just thought that was fair.

SCARPINO: We’ve talked off and on about your leadership philosophy grounded in Christian faith and covenantal approach. How do you reconcile that with capitalism and factory production?

DE PREE: I think for me it enhanced my ability to be a worthy leader. I don’t have a theological or philosophical disagreement with the free market system, but I have a lot of disagreement with the way some people practice it. That’s really a pity. I believe that some of the people who are taking such a big share out of the system have no idea what they’re doing to the system. So I’m a little fearful about what’s going to happen because the more people misbehave, the more the government has to move in. That to me is a bit of a problem because I don’t see government as being very efficient. I think the generally agreed-upon principles of the free market system are probably the best system we could have. I think more people are better off under that system than anywhere else in the world. I think that’s pretty much established. One of the things that my brother and I did about this, and I think I was really the inspiration for this, is when we knew we were going to go public we made a deal with a group of the senior people, maybe a dozen of them, that one of these days we are going to grow and then go public and so we said, “We’ll make a deal. We won’t bring in anymore family. We’ll make a commitment to have no more nepotism here beyond the two of us, but then we want you to make a commitment to get to be the best managers you can be. We want you to go to school, we want you to do all these things to build up your ability. In return for that, we’re going to start selling you family stock at a favored price, so that if we do well, you’ll do well.”

SCARPINO: This is before the company went public?

DE PREE: This is long before the company went public.

SCARPINO: You were basically planning to go public and planning for succession?

DE PREE: Yes, we made a commitment that succession was not going to be inside the family. D.J. had about 14 grandchildren at the time, including my brother’s oldest son who was out of work at the time and his wife was pushing hard that that grandson should be in the business. But we felt we couldn’t do that. We couldn’t just keep adding family and be successful.

SCARPINO: Because that creates an opportunity ceiling for other people, right?

DE PREE: Sure it does. So the other people who were showing promise, they worked hard, they did the education requirements, we all did that, and they started buying stock from the family and every one of them did well. When we went public, they were just in good shape. Then later after we were public, we started a second program where everybody in the company for a year gets to be a stockholder.

SCARPINO: So they could buy the stock, or they were paid in stock?

DE PREE: They had to earn it. We didn’t give it to them. They earned it through profit. Part of the profit bonus was paid in stock. They were also given the opportunity to buy. They could have a deduction from their pay to buy more. So they all knew they had earned it. Do you know what an ESOP is? Employee Stock Option Program.

SCARPINO: I know what that is.

DE PREE: Well, we didn’t want that because that meant the employees could not sell their stock. In our program the minute they got it they could sell it.

SCARPINO: So they really owned it.

DE PREE: They really owned it. They were really stockholders.

SCARPINO: The better the company performed, the more they would get?


SCARPINO: So there’s an incentive for them to work for the company.

DE PREE: That’s right, and they got dividends. They learned how to be stockholders, yeah.

SCARPINO: I’m going to back up and ask you a question about something you said a little while ago. When I asked you about reconciling your faith-based philosophy of leadership with capitalism and a free market, you talked about generally agreed-upon free market principles were the best system we have. What do you think those generally agreed-upon free market principles are?

DE PREE: I think the first one is that every citizen has the right to own property. I think that’s basic to the system. I think another one is that we all agree that our actions are going to be governed by law and not by the rich or not by the government, but we’re going to have laws that we all agree on and that we will operate according to. The other one is that there will be a level of transparency, that everybody can be measured by how they behave, what they do. The other thing is that there is going to be a public method of accountability. Then you can all figure out the game.

SCARPINO: We already brought this up, but I want to make sure I have this all in one place. The company went public in 1970. Before the company went public, you and your brother had decided that in effect the survival of the company depended upon no more De Prees and that would then create opportunity for other people.

DE PREE: Yeah.

SCARPINO: So this was a plan to try to ensure the longevity of what began as a closely-held family firm?

DE PREE: That’s right. See, we weren’t saying none of the De Prees were able. They were able. We were saying, “Here’s a group of people who have already earned this; how can you take it away?”

SCARPINO: I’m going to ask you another question about your dad and I’m going to roll politics into this one. This just really struck me. I read that as a young man that your father became a democrat in a solidly republican part of Michigan.

DE PREE: That’s right.

SCARPINO: Why do you think he did that?

DE PREE: I think he was always for the smaller guy. We used to tease him because he did occasionally vote republican. I can remember he voted for Willkie. But no, he was a strong democrat. He marched with the democrats in town. I have some sympathy for that. I was a democrat for quite a while, too, until I got to see some of the inside operations of the Clinton administration. I was involved with them a little bit. I was on one of Al Gore’s committees and so on.

SCARPINO: You were a grown man by the time you made this decision?

DE PREE: Yeah, I was a democrat until then, and now I’m independent. I don’t want to be allied with either one of them.

SCARPINO: Do you think that when your dad did this that he was sort of exhibiting independence and a willingness to follow a path that was different than other people expected of him?

DE PREE: Well, that could well be. That could well be. He was kind of a gutsy guy.

SCARPINO: Is that one of the things that made him good at what he did?

DE PREE: Yeah. He had to deal with some difficult things. He was kind of persona non grata in the Grand Rapids furniture industry group. They were all very cliquey.

SCARPINO: Because he was a democrat or because of his business practices?

DE PREE: Partly because of his design program which they kind of laughed about.

SCARPINO: But he laughed all the way to the bank.

DE PREE: Yeah, he did. Most of those families who had those businesses, they’re all gone.

SCARPINO: I’m going to end with a question that relates to design. In 1930, with the company being beaten up by the Depression and struggling for profits, your father became affiliated with a young designer named Gilbert Rohde.


SCARPINO: Gilbert Rohde moved the company’s line of furniture in a more modern direction, and he worked with Herman Miller until in died in 1944.


SCARPINO: He was a powerful advocate of modern design of furniture and interiors. What impact did his relationship with Rohde have on Herman Miller?

DE PREE: I think it meant the survival of the company, and I think my dad always thought that, too. He thought if it weren’t for the relationship with Gilbert Rohde, the company would not have survived.

SCARPINO: The shift in design and everything that went with it?

DE PREE: Yeah. It shifted the way the product was made, shifted the design, shifted the way it was sold. That all had to be different because selling something that is brand new is not easy. People don’t gravitate to innovation.

SCARPINO: People don’t like to change, do they?

DE PREE: No, they don’t like to change.

SCARPINO: Do you think he laid awake nights worrying about that?

DE PREE: I’m sure he did. One time in the midst of it all—I only learned this maybe 10 years ago from my older sister. She said one time our dad came home from work and called my brother, Hugh. He was the oldest, and my dad, based on the Old Testament, always gave him favored treatment. He called Hugh into the parlor where we never went and explained to him how bad things were. And he said, “For a while I can’t even take any salary anymore. There’s no money there.” I didn’t know that story until about 10 years ago.

SCARPINO: Do you think affiliating himself in the company with Rohde was another one of his gutsy moves?

DE PREE: I believe it was an answer to prayer, and he always said that.

SCARPINO: Then I’ll ask the question a different way.

DE PREE: Let’s do it tomorrow. I can tell you the story.

SCARPINO: So we’ll wrap up on this and we’ll pick up here tomorrow. He may have been praying for that, but when he got whatever inspiration he got, he still had to have the courage to act on it.

DE PREE: That’s right, he did. You bet. Absolutely.

SCARPINO: We’re going to wrap up there because you have an appointment and I promised we’d be done by 11:30. So we’ll pick up here tomorrow. Let me turn the recorders off.

DE PREE: Okay.