These interviews took place on June 27 and 28, 2013, at De Pree’s home in Hope, Michigan.Learn more about Max De Pree
Max De Pree
Part oneSkip to next interview transcript
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?
DE PREE: Yes.
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.
SCARPINO: At Hope?
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?
DE PREE: Yes.
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.
DE PREE: Yes.
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.
DE PREE: Yes.
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.
SCARPINO: Today is Friday, June 28, 2013. This is a second interview with Mr. Max De Pree. Just to be on the safe side, I’m going to ask you one more time for permission to record this interview, to have the interview transcribed and to deposit the transcription and the recording with the IUPUI Archives and Special Collections, the Tobias Center, the International Leadership Association where those organizations will allow their patrons to use those products.
DE PREE: Yeah, okay, I understand that. Yes.
SCARPINO: Thank you very much. We had a very interesting conversation yesterday and I was a good boy. I went home last night and listened to it, or back to the hotel. You and I chatted this morning and you said that you wanted to make a slight correction on what you said about serving at Bastogne, and then we’re going to pick up where we left off yesterday.
DE PREE: Right. My understanding is that yesterday we were not clear about when I was in Bastogne during World War II, the Battle of the Bulge. I responded, yes, I thought Bastogne was still under fire, but I don’t think that’s correct. I think Bastogne was well cleared out of Germans before I got there.
SCARPINO: Okay. So when we left off yesterday, we had begun to talk about Gilbert Rohde and your father, and how in 1930 your dad really took what was a pretty bold move. He engaged the services of Mr. Rohde, who we might describe as a young designer, a modernist, who took the company’s product line in a new direction and caused him some teasing and some resentment from his colleagues in the furniture business in that area.
DE PREE: Yes.
SCARPINO: Then we sort of wrapped that up, but I’ll give you a chance if there’s anything else you want to say about the relationship between Gilbert Rohde and Herman Miller or your dad, you can do that. Then I’ve got a question I can ask you.
DE PREE: Well, I think this is a good opportunity to kind of give you the background to that meeting between D.J. and Gilbert Rohde. My dad at that time, along with his key sales manager, Jim Eppinger, both felt the company was going to go bankrupt. They had been making some plans to deal with that. But the one thing that my dad was doing, especially, was he was praying about it. He wasn’t praying that Gilbert Rohde would show up. He was just asking for help to prevent the bankruptcy of the company. He wanted to preserve the company. When Gilbert Rohde walked into the Grand Rapids showroom, my dad figured he had already been declined or turned down by other manufacturers who were bigger and richer. So my dad was kind of aware of that. Then he didn’t really like the designs that Rohde showed him. Then it occurred to him, but I’ve been praying about this and maybe this is my answer. I’d better not just turn him off. So he said he’d give it a try, but he wanted to know how much was Rohde going to charge. Rohde told him what his fees were and D.J. said, “Well, I can’t afford that. As a company, we don’t have that kind of money.” Rohde said, “Well then, let’s do another innovation. We agree to do this together and you pay me a royalty on whatever sells. If it doesn’t sell I don’t get anything, but if it does sell I get three percent.” My dad thought, well, fine. So in a way they invented a whole new thing for the furniture industry. Then when the first drawings arrived, D.J. reacted negatively to them and told Rohde he didn’t think that this would work. But Rohde insisted that D.J. should try to learn about all this, and he did. I think that’s a mark of courage, where he kind of abandoned himself to Rohde’s superior experience and training.
SCARPINO: This was the first time that he had worked with a professional designer?
DE PREE: Yes.
SCARPINO: And Rohde was quite a bit younger than him?
DE PREE: Yes.
SCARPINO: Different background?
DE PREE: Yes, completely different background. Until then, Herman Miller had copied their designs out of museum books, which is what most of the industry was doing and still does, as a matter of fact.
SCARPINO: So by engaging Rohde, not only did he have the courage to do something new, he really took his part of the industry in a new direction.
DE PREE: He did. He did, and against some interesting criticism. Can I go one more step?
DE PREE: In the process of developing this line and introducing it to the market, the Chicago World’s Fair was about to begin. They had in their plans the idea of building six houses which they called The House of Tomorrow. Each was a House of Tomorrow. Rohde succeeded in getting them to accept the proposal of Herman Miller to furnish one of those houses. That then enticed the Wanamaker Company from Philadelphia to buy this stuff. Then later, Jim Eppinger had to move from New York to Philadelphia to train the Wanamaker sales force because they didn’t know how to sell it. So Rohde put the company through enormous change; design, marketing, manufacturing, everything changed.
SCARPINO: Do you know some of those Houses of Tomorrow are still in existence?
DE PREE: A few are, aren’t they, yes.
SCARPINO: They’ve been moved to the Indiana shore of Lake Michigan and managed by the National Park Service.
DE PREE: Okay, yeah, and one of them is in St. Paul, Minnesota.
SCARPINO: I didn’t know that. How about the one furnished by Herman Miller, did that survive?
DE PREE: We don’t think so.
SCARPINO: One of the things that Rohde did, if I’ve done my homework, was in 1942 they launched the Executive Office Group.
DE PREE: Yeah.
SCARPINO: Can you talk a little bit about what that was and the kind of impact it had? This was in World War II. This must have been a hard time to sell office furniture.
DE PREE: It was, yeah. The company was making a variety of products for the government at the time. For instance, standup desks for factory supervisors and things like that. So the EOG started in 1942, huh?
SCARPINO: That’s what I read.
DE PREE: Yeah. Before that, Herman Miller only made for residential use. So here we have Rohde bringing them to a new market. Rohde designed some really wonderful, rather expensive personal desks for executives. My recollection is that they were not geared particularly to the way people worked. That came later when George Nelson designed new office furniture. Rohde’s furniture was kind of modern adaptations of the way executives saw themselves working in those days. But the important thing was it put Herman Miller into one more market.
SCARPINO: At that time, the early 1940s, was Herman Miller still in one factory in Michigan or had they branched out?
DE PREE: There was one factory in Zeeland.
SCARPINO: When the company began to manufacture Rohde’s furniture, did that require retooling inside the factory, new machines, new ways of doing things?
DE PREE: I’d say it required new skills because one of the things that happens when you make the traditional furniture, which is copied from European designs, some of what you do covers up a lack of precision. Just like when you build a house, people put the baseboards down and the ceiling board up to cover the way the joint comes together. With Rohde’s designs, the joints were visible. They didn’t cover them with nice moldings and so on. So it changed the precision of making stuff and, therefore, changed the precision of some of the machinery work that was going on and the assembling of cabinets.
SCARPINO: Just a little bit of background; D.J. De Pree’s decision to follow the advice of a designer, we have established that was probably a pretty gutsy move. Did that influence company policy in terms of working with top designers in subsequent decades? Did that start a pattern?
DE PREE: Yes, absolutely. Gilbert Rohde died of a heart attack in a restaurant in New York I think in 1944 or 1945. D.J.’s immediate reaction to that was to go on a search for another designer.
SCARPINO: A little bit more background for the benefit of somebody who is listening to this. Gilbert Rohde, as you pointed out, died in 1944. D.J. De Pree found a new designer, George Nelson, and your brother, Hugh, wrote the following about George Nelson. He said, “George was not only a designer at Herman Miller but also a leader, a consultant, a resource, a teacher. He contributed so much.” When I read that, it seemed to me that part of Nelson’s success, which we’re going to talk about in a minute, was based on your father and your brother’s willingness to give him room to succeed, to trust him.
DE PREE: Yeah.
SCARPINO: Is that a fair conclusion?
DE PREE: That’s a very good conclusion, yes.
SCARPINO: So, here’s the question that I just set up, I hope. Is knowing who and when to trust an important quality of leadership?
DE PREE: Oh yes, because if you’re going to trust somebody with important decisions and important work, he can’t do his best unless he believes that you trust him. In fact, there was a famous quote by George Nelson to I think a writer in New York, who said to him, “How is it that you can do such wonderful work for this little company in Michigan?” And he said, “They trust me.”
SCARPINO: On the subject of trust, when I introduced you yesterday, I only mentioned a few of the books that you have written. One that I didn’t mention and I will mention now is called Leading Without Power: Finding Hope in Serving Community. You said something in that book that caught my attention, and here’s what you said. You said, “Earning trust is not easy, nor is it cheap, nor does it happen quickly. Earning trust is hard and demanding work. Trust comes only with genuine effort, never with a lick and a promise.” I have a couple of questions about that. As a leader, how do you know when you can trust somebody?
DE PREE: Well, wouldn’t you think that in some ways it’s easier to learn how not to trust somebody, you know, if something doesn’t work. And you don’t always know as a leader because you delegate important stuff to people and you really don’t always know what’s going on in another area of the company. I think one of the ways in which you measure the existence of trust is through open communications. If people in the company feel that they could, for instance, trust me, then they will tell me things that go on. I think we all do that in our lives. If you can establish an atmosphere in a company where people will not be punished for bringing the right kind of data, then you’re going to get trust and then you can measure it, I think.
SCARPINO: Again, when you said, “Earning trust isn’t easy, nor is it cheap, nor does it happen quickly. It’s hard and demanding work,” when did you learn that? Was there a particular “aha” moment, or did you suddenly wake up one morning and realize that that’s where you were?
DE PREE: I can’t imagine knowing when I learned that. So much of what one learns kind of gathers steam over the years, doesn’t it? I think in some cases, you learn something when you’ve been hurt. In other cases, you learn something when you’ve been successful. In some cases, when people whom you respect comment on what’s going on, then you think, well, yeah, that works, I’d better do that. I do think that one of the advantages that I had is that I feel I was quite an open person. Even to this day, I find without my urging that people tell me stuff. One of my favorite stories was about the young woman who was a new employee who was at one of our sessions where we would get a dozen people together for a brownbag lunch. She had only been with the company a few weeks and she really accosted me. She said, “Why don’t you believe in adoption?” I said, “I do.” “No you don’t,” she said. And this went back and forth and I still remember her name. Her name was Nancy. I said, “Nancy, where do you get that from? How do you decide that?” She said, “The company pays for natural birth children, they don’t pay for adoptions and it’s just as difficult and just as expensive.” Well, it took us about two weeks to change the policy.
SCARPINO: When you had that brownbag lunch with Nancy and she raised that issue and your company was paying for natural birth, was that a norm for the industry at that time?
DE PREE: I think so, yes. I think so. I can imagine, Phil, that if somebody in the senior management team had adopted a child or had an adopted grandchild, we would have suggested we have to add this. But it took Nancy to tell us.
SCARPINO: So it paid off to listen.
DE PREE: Oh yeah.
SCARPINO: We’re going to talk more about George Nelson later on, but again, for the benefit of anybody is listening to this and who doesn’t know much about Herman Miller, a couple more lines of background. By 1950, Herman Miller sales had increased to $1.7 million. Also in 1950, the company initiated the Scanlon Management Plan named after its inventor, a lecturer at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The plan was based on the belief that employees could serve as a valuable source of ideas for operations and cost effectiveness and should be called upon to participate in management decisions. I read that your father and your brother, Hugh, heard about the Scanlon Plan from a Michigan State professor named Carl Frost, who we mentioned briefly yesterday.
DE PREE: Yes.
SCARPINO: Do you know how your father and brother heard about that plan, and what attracted them to such a plan?
DE PREE: It takes a little history. When John Hannah was president of Michigan State University, he was a great innovator. He had all these overseas programs and so on. One of the things that he insisted, since Michigan State’s origins were that it was a cow college and had to serve people, and so Dr. Hannah insisted that as many professors as could should be out in the boondocks working. A lot of them, of course, were from the veterinary school and so on. D.J. and Hugh somehow were invited to hear Dr. Frost speak at some event in Grand Rapids, and that’s when they met him. That was kind of an eye opener because he brought to them a new language about human relations, and they were smart enough; they followed up. They asked if they could come and see him. That’s how the relationship began.
SCARPINO: We’re going to talk some about what Frost was advocating through the Scanlon Plan, but for right now it seems to be that when your father and your brother decided to pursue that plan that it was a little bit like your dad agreeing to work with a modern designer.
DE PREE: Yes, I think it was.
SCARPINO: I mean, his peers were not doing this.
DE PREE: No.
SCARPINO: Were they all having a cup of coffee one morning going, “There he goes again…?”
DE PREE: I can imagine, yes, I can imagine that. Again, at that time, D. J. in particular felt that he wasn’t doing a good enough job in the manufacturing side of the business. In those days, they had a piecework system. The piecework system was not entirely fair for either management or labor.
SCARPINO: So employees were paid by what they produced?
DE PREE: Yes. For instance, when I was an upholsterer, if I did a sofa like that, there was a tag on the sofa that gave me so many minutes and I could tear that off. Then before payday I would turn that in, and my pay would be determined partly by those numbers of minutes. Well, if I was having a really good week but then the next week not such a good week, I would maneuver those minutes so I got a fairly steady income. This then threw off the data the company was gathering. The company didn’t really know what it was costing them to produce some of these things.
SCARPINO: Or what schedule they were producing on.
DE PREE: That’s right. D.J. knew that he was in trouble with that so he was eager to look for something better. That was one of the interesting things about him. A small town boy without any great formal education had this somehow inside himself that he had to be open to what he didn’t understand. He had to constantly be learning.
SCARPINO: When you were a young man, did you understand your dad had that gift?
DE PREE: Yes.
SCARPINO: When I asked you yesterday what kind of an impact he had on you, would you put your ability to recognize that gift in him as one of the influences he had on you? Are you like that?
DE PREE: Yeah, I am. Recently I saw a DVD which my children did, and one of the things that they said is—our older son was talking about me and he said, in today’s language he said, “We’d have to say that our dad was an early adopter.” Yeah, I think I probably grew up learning that from him. That’s true of my brother, too. He was that way.
SCARPINO: Your dad became a democrat, he shifted the focus of the company to modern design and then to office furniture. He embraces the Scanlon Plan. Every time he did that he took a risk.
DE PREE: He did.
SCARPINO: He sort of in effect jumped into the void. I assume he did his homework and it wasn’t completely a void, but do you think knowing when to do that is a quality of leadership?
DE PREE: Yeah, but not everybody can have that. I’m must say that in business today, the whole structure of Wall Street doesn't encourage real innovation. They want the sure thing. D.J. would have been a stormy petrel for the Wall Street guys if he had still been around when we went public. They exert the wrong influence on innovation. I have to add, too, part of what we talked about earlier is that D.J. was a persistent prayer. He would pray about all these problems and these decisions and so on. So, I’m willing to accept that, but I think also that somehow he had a knack for knowing who he was dealing with. Bob Propst, who became a great innovator for Herman Miller, invented the whole Action Office thing, D.J. met him in kind of an unusual way out in Denver, Colorado, and he comes back with this strong feeling that there’s something here and he tells Hugh to go to Denver and get to know this guy.
SCARPINO: So, you would say that your dad was good at picking talent?
DE PREE: He was.
SCARPINO: Is that a mark of a leader?
DE PREE: Oh yeah.
SCARPINO: Are you good at it?
DE PREE: Oh yeah.
SCARPINO: Can you pick talent?
DE PREE: No, I’m not as good as he was. No, I’ve made some big mistakes. But I would say that for leaders, that’s a really important part of what you do, and if you don’t do it well yourself, you should find somebody who knows how to pick people.
SCARPINO: Did you have somebody who knew how to pick people?
DE PREE: Yeah, there were some good people at Herman Miller who knew how to select people. I don’t think I was so good at it.
SCARPINO: Can you summarize when your brother and your dad began to implement the Scanlon Plan, what were the basic tenets of that plan? What did it call for?
DE PREE: Well, I think to begin with, it called for a recognition that everybody brings something to the game, that there are not great differences between higher management and what we call direct labor. People are similar in lots of ways and, generally speaking, if you treat people well, you can depend on them. But one of the reasons that not many people besides D.J. did this in those days was that most business people were not ready to share the financial information, which you have to share if you’re going to have a participative management program, whether you call it Scanlon or whatever. The same thing happened when we gave everybody a chance to own stock. Then one of the things that happens is they get to read a proxy and they see how much you’re making. So that was difficult for a lot of people in industry in those days. You had to be transparent. But another really good thing about it is that everybody had to agree to be measured. And measuring performance is one of the real important elements of leadership. You have to decide what you’re going to measure, and then you measure it.
SCARPINO: Now as the leaders, did you also agree to be measured?
DE PREE: Yes, we did.
SCARPINO: I’m going to take this Scanlon Plan idea and move a little bit ahead in time. You became the CEO of Herman Miller in 1980.
DE PREE: Yes.
SCARPINO: Dr. Walter Wright, who we mentioned the other day, at least partially retired from Fuller Theological Seminary, told me that Carl Frost, the professor who originally introduced your father and brother to the Scanlon Plan, became one of your most important mentors.
DE PREE: Yeah.
SCARPINO: What did he do for you when you were about to take the reins of the company? They were right there and you were reaching for them.
DE PREE: Well, by that point, I had known Dr. Frost well for 30 years. We had been working together. So he had been a help all along in that. He had been my key mentor in terms of human relationships, although I’ll have to say that another key mentor in that field is my wife, Esther, who is a natural relationship builder. She makes friends everywhere, and keeps them, and she’s trusted by people. She was crucial to me in developing good relationships. But Carl Frost was a born teacher and he was a mentor, but he was also an instructor. He really did instruct us in a lot of things that had to be done in the business, in the same way that George Nelson did that. We were completely ready to accept George’s gifts in terms of design, but then it turned out he knew more about marketing than we did. That was kind of interesting. And Frost was no dummy when it came to marketing. Frost was a psychologist, but he understood the financial side of the business and so he was a great integrator of these various disciplines. On your question about getting ready to become a CEO, the other person who was a big help to me was Peter Drucker. He gave me both good business advice and occasionally fatherly advice.
SCARPINO: And you mentioned, you just made a cold call and said hi.
DE PREE: Yeah. In that first call, I told him, I said, “I’m with a company called Herman Miller, Incorporated.” He said, “Yes, I know all about your company.” That was a shock to me. Well, it turned out later that he and George Nelson were friends.
SCARPINO: Did you continue to apply or refine the Scanlon Plan during your years as CEO?
DE PREE: Yes. In fact, there was a period—I’m not clear on the dates for this, but there was, while I was there a very formal re-awakening about the Scanlon Plan. There were a number of people—I can name people like Roy Keech and Dick Ruch and Michele Hunt and others who took the lead in re-evaluating and re-establishing the Scanlon Plan because we had kind of run out of steam.
SCARPINO: And you mentioned it’s hard to do.
DE PREE: It is. It’s very hard work because you find yourself in endless meetings explaining to people what’s going on, but also those are teaching moments. You get in front of 30 or 40 factory workers. I know one time I got a question on the floor. We would have a monthly meeting with 300 people gathered there, and one time I tried to explain how the function of the credit department was directly connected to the quality of the product when it went out. A few days later I was on the factory floor and a woman stopped me and she said, “You know, I didn’t catch on to all that. Will you go back over that with me? How is my work connected to the credit department?” Well you see, I know a lot of managers who won’t do that. They’re not going to take their time for that. But if you want the benefits of a thing like the Scanlon Plan, you do it. With the Scanlon Plan, we worked hard on it, but we also made money and we had a good company.
SCARPINO: That’s the way business is supposed to work, isn’t it?
DE PREE: That’s right.
SCARPINO: So it wasn’t just altruistic? I mean it clearly was a way to make the company function more efficiently and effectively and profitably.
DE PREE: Oh sure. In certain ways, it was as hardboiled as you could get because we were so transparent with all the data and everybody would get these figures. But you have interesting experiences with this, too. I can tell you one little story. In one of those monthly meetings, we had about 300 people in the room and then we had people hooked up by telephone around the country. This was before digital. They were all on the phone. In the course of the question and answer period after we had given our monthly report and showed what the data were on how we did, a man named Harlan Moore, who was the manager of our Venice, California, factory, he just trapped me on something. He said, “Max, I’ve got a request for you.” He said, “I’d like you to do something about keeping your corporate seagulls out of here.” You know, I fell for that. I said, “Harlan, what’s a corporate seagull?” And you know what the answer is.
SCARPINO: I don’t know.
DE PREE: In front of all these people, he said, “These are some of your top guys, you know, that fly in, eat our lunch, shit on us and go home.”
SCARPINO: Oh my goodness.
DE PREE: Okay, you think you’re the CEO and the guy accuses your people of shitting on him, but that’s okay. You’ve got to be open to that stuff. It goes on. Even if you don’t think it goes on, it goes on.
SCARPINO: So in the end, that may have been helpful information.
DE PREE: It was.
SCARPINO: Although he definitely blindsided you.
DE PREE: Yeah. He could have been more diplomatic, but on the other hand, you see, he felt safe doing it. And isn’t that a wonderful thing?
DE PREE: I mean that’s something I can be grateful for.
SCARPINO: For a few minutes I’m going to switch topics, here. I mean they’re all related. When talked to Clark Malcolm, he told me that your association with architects and designers was an important part of your personal and professional persona and development. I have spent a fair amount of time looking into this, and the list of designers and architects with whom you worked reads like a Who’s Who in those professions.
DE PREE: You’re well prepared.
SCARPINO: I guess Malcolm knew what he was talking about.
DE PREE: Yeah.
SCARPINO: I’m going to start with a quote by an architect who worked for Herman Miller and served on your Board, and that’s William Caudell.
DE PREE: Yeah.
SCARPINO: He was an architect and was a Board member at Herman Miller, and he said the following. He said, “Great buildings stretch human potential through inspiration.” I’m wondering if in that he at least partially captured the reason why you’re interested in architecture and design.
DE PREE: Yeah. Well, I think I’ve been interested in design all my life because, well, I mean since maybe I was eight years old. Growing up, I thought everybody had sectional sofas in their house. Then I go to the neighbors’ houses and they didn’t have them. In those early days, we didn’t go out to restaurants very much to eat, partly there weren’t a lot of good restaurants around and we couldn’t afford all that. So people were in our home. You know, George Nelson was in the house and Bucky Fuller was there for dinner sometimes.
SCARPINO: Do you mean Buckminster Fuller?
DE PREE: Yeah. I think I probably should have been an architect, but somewhere I got this natural inclination for architecture and design. To me, a good architect is a poet. Even during the war when I was in Europe, I was alert to old architecture. Man, those few weeks at the University of Paris, I remember that across the street from where I lived was one of the very important buildings that, oh, what’s his name? Now I’m losing my vocabulary. The great French Swiss architect. Well, we’ll come back to that sometime. We’ll find his name. But I was aware that that was his building. As a 20-year-old kid, I knew that. So I kind of grew up in that atmosphere.
SCARPINO: I’m going to raise some of the names. I’m not going to be able to get you to talk about everybody you knew. I’d be like in Social Security when we got done. Actually, I can do that now. So, George Nelson, I guess maybe together with Charles and Ray Eames was one of the founders of American Modernism, probably.
DE PREE: Sure.
SCARPINO: How did you get to know him? I mean he worked for the company, but that’s not the same as getting to know somebody.
DE PREE: No. Well, George, like so many of the people I got to know, was a natural teacher. He graduated from Yale School of Architecture. He won the Rome Prize. He was a musician. That isn’t generally known by people. George, when he was working his way through college, he played the organ for silent movies.
SCARPINO: What a great gig!
DE PREE: Yeah. There was a lot to this guy, but George personally was also a mentor, which Charles Eames was not. Charles Eames was a guy who took advantage of people. George always tried to bring the best out of the people. I got to know him just in working with his office, but there are things that stick in my memory, a shopping trip together on Third Avenue years ago where with his advice I bought a very rare thonet chaise.
SCARPINO: Is this Third Avenue in New York City, just to be on the safe side?
DE PREE: Yes. You’re good at this. And you know, when it was delivered to our house, I was neglectful. I don’t think I told Esther it was coming. She told the driver dropping it off, she said, “Well, it doesn’t belong here.” She said, “I don’t want that here.”
SCARPINO: Oh no.
DE PREE: But George had told me that was—and I had it for years. I had it in this room for years. We had it in our home. Now, it’s in my daughter’s home. George and I made a trip to Philadelphia in his convertible to buy machinery together one time. You know, George was—he was special in my life. He taught me a lot about design and about management and marketing and so on.
SCARPINO: What do you think he taught you about design? How would you pull that together?
DE PREE: Well, he would point out examples of good design. We could walk down the street in New York City and he would explain something to me about a building. So that started to become a part of who I was in understanding that.
SCARPINO: What did his mentoring and his relationship with you mean to your development as a person?
DE PREE: I think George was in my life one of the early people I respected who conveyed to me that I had capability. I think he tried to explain to me that I didn’t understand who I was. Do you know about the Aspen Design Conference that used to take place in Aspen years ago?
SCARPINO: I can say I knew it took place, but that’s about what I know.
DE PREE: Well, one year when George was chairman of the committee that put that on, he asked me to give a talk.
SCARPINO: Oh my.
DE PREE: I said, “I can’t do that, George.” He said, “Sure,” he said, “We can do that.” We can do that. And he guided me on how to put that together. I can say I got a standing ovation at Aspen for my talk. That never would have happened without George.
SCARPINO: What do you think his contribution was to Herman Miller?
DE PREE: Generally speaking, besides establishing Herman Miller as a real design leader, in graphics and everything, all areas of the company, I think George was a mentor to quite a number of people in the company; maybe not as many as Dr. Frost, but George was key in people’s lives. Even to this day there are a still a few people around who will be glad to tell you about some long evening of drinking with George and what they learned and how much fun it was and so on.
SCARPINO: Are you one of those people?
DE PREE: No, because I wasn’t a drinker at that time, I mean a little wine now and then, but no, I never fitted into that. But George and I had some wonderful times together, just the two of us in New York.
SCARPINO: So you had Carl Frost and George Nelson in the company at the same time?
DE PREE: Yeah. Isn’t that something?
DE PREE: And then a little later on Peter Drucker and Charles Eames.
SCARPINO: I’m going to ask you about both of them in a minute, but I ran across a lot that George Nelson wrote, but one thing kind of struck me. He once wrote, he said, “Herman Miller is not playing Follow The Leader.” That’s one reason why George Nelson & Associates worked with Herman Miller for more than 25 years. What do you think about that?
DE PREE: Well, that’s right. But see, all the things you and I have been talking about, we didn’t play Follow The Leader. Herman Miller was always innovative in what it did, and in some cases choosing to be innovative, in other cases being pushed into being innovative because, for instance, if you offer innovative products, you’ve got to have a very good marketing program because it’s hard to sell innovation.
SCARPINO: Marshmallow sofa?
DE PREE: Yeah. That was never serious, in a way, but it was an expression of who we are. See, and at the heart of all this was a thing that D.J. talked about and that I think I kind of expressed in the books, is this idea that you have to abandon yourself to the gifts of others. I think one of the reasons a lot of leaders live a hard life is because they find that so hard to do. They think they’re supposed to know everything, and you can’t. When you get to be the CEO, you’re kind of an amateur, because you may have a specialty in marketing or finance or whatever, but now you’ve got five or six disciplines that you have to oversee, and everybody in each of those disciplines knows more than you do about that discipline. If you can’t abandon yourself to their gifts and their knowledge, you’re in deep water.
SCARPINO: Speaking of deep water, you have to know enough to keep the ship sailing in the right direction.
DE PREE: Yeah, you do.
SCARPINO: But they keep it going.
DE PREE: That’s right. Yeah.
SCARPINO: The L-shaped desk?
DE PREE: Yeah, by George?
DE PREE: Well, you see, that was the first time anybody was talking about a desk adapted to the function rather than to the appearance. People used to love those big desks because they kind of were protected by it. George’s approach was entirely different. Yeah, the L-shaped desk was a wonderful product. It sold really well.
SCARPINO: What were your competitors doing at that time?
DE PREE: Oh man.
SCARPINO: Stuck in tradition or copying you?
DE PREE: Yeah well, Steelcase, the one we respect the most to this day, were really making steel desks for big groups of people.
SCARPINO: Among the designers and so on were Charles Eames and his second wife, Ray. How did you meet Charles?
DE PREE: Charles and Eero Saarinen, both architects…
SCARPINO: You knew the Saarinens?
DE PREE: Yeah, a little bit, the son. I didn’t know the eldest Saarinen. They entered a contest at the Museum of Modern Art in New York with some very modern furniture intended to be manufactured and sold at low prices for young people, and they won one of the prizes. George Nelson went over to see what was going on, and he called D.J. and he said, “You’ve got to get Charles Eames involved.” And D.J.’s response was, “We can hardly pay you. What are we going to do with another designer?” George said, “Well, Eames is different. He’ll do things I don’t do and I’ll do things he doesn’t do.” He said, “You really need both of us.” And so D.J. went after him.
SCARPINO: And was successful?
DE PREE: Was successful, yeah.
SCARPINO: I read that during the war, Charles and his wife were doing things like producing molded plywood objects for the Navy and that kind of thing.
DE PREE: Yeah.
SCARPINO: Then after the war, they took those skills and techniques they developed and applied them to design.
DE PREE: Yes.
SCARPINO: Is that a fair conclusion?
DE PREE: Yes, that’s correct. The main thing that they did for the Navy was they designed a wooden leg splint because it would float, and through that, they learned all about molding plywood. And one of their early products for us was molded plywood chairs.
SCARPINO: Is that the Eames molded plywood chair that won the chair of the century?
DE PREE: Yeah. See, that came out of the work on the splint, the floatable splint. Those splints now are collectors’ items.
SCARPINO: So, I assume the idea was if the sailor gets injured, needs a splint, you don’t want to put plaster on the person because if they go overboard they go to the bottom.
DE PREE: That’s right. That was the idea, yeah.
SCARPINO: The 670 swivel lounge chair, did he make that for the company?
DE PREE: Yeah.
SCARPINO: Designed that?
DE PREE: Yes.
SCARPINO: What was the innovation there?
DE PREE: His goal there—and I have to say that most of the design of that product was done by a man named Don Albinson, who worked for him. But Charles’ goal there was to provide a chair that had the function of an old armchair in an English club but was as comfortable as a first baseman’s mitt.
SCARPINO: Oh my goodness.
DE PREE: That was the design charge. And he did it again using molded plywood for the seat and backs. I don’t have one in here anymore. I used to have one here, but they’re so low I can’t get out of them anymore.
SCARPINO: So he designed them for the spry?
DE PREE: Yeah, he did. It’s a beautiful chair and it’s been on the market since the late ‘50s, and people collect them. Eames did a lot of products for the company.
SCARPINO: Such as, for example?
DE PREE: Well, he did storage cabinets, dining chairs, tables, small tables, coffee tables, a couple of sofas. He did quite a bit of work for the company. He designed a very innovative dormitory room system for colleges.
SCARPINO: I’ve paid for a few of those.
DE PREE: Yeah, yeah.
SCARPINO: What was your relationship like with him?
DE PREE: Well, it was different. Charles—now I’m not giving away any secrets. He has been criticized by many people for being primarily concerned for Charles. He almost never gave anybody else any credit. Most of the time, I had a fairly good relationship with Charles. One time he designed a house for me which we built.
DE PREE: Yeah. Where did you find that?
SCARPINO: I have a good research assistant.
DE PREE: Okay. Yeah, and that house exists in Zeeland today. The company owns it. I don’t know what they’re going to do with it, but they own it.
SCARPINO: He didn’t design very many houses.
DE PREE: No, maybe three in this country. There’s a rumor he did one for somebody in Austria, but nobody seems to be able to find it. He did one for John Entenza, who is the editor of Arts & Architecture magazine.
SCARPINO: That’s pretty heady company.
DE PREE: Yeah.
SCARPINO: So, Bill Stumpf, S-T-U-M-P-F…
DE PREE: …Yeah.
SCARPINO: …began working for Herman Miller in 1970, joined the staff of the Herman Miller Research Corporation, which is what I actually want to start with.
DE PREE: Okay.
SCARPINO: In 1960, Robert Propst, P-R-O-P-S-T, and your brother, Hugh, established the Herman Miller Research Corporation.
DE PREE: Yes.
SCARPINO: What was that all about and why is that important?
DE PREE: We—Bob Propst, and we, did not see himself as a designer so much as an inventor. He was interested in coming to work for us but not to design furniture and not to be in Zeeland, Michigan. He also didn’t want to go to New York. He was happy in Colorado. He was an outdoors guy. And I must say he was a special guy. He was in the Marines in World War II. Do you know what a beachmaster is?
SCARPINO: I don’t, no.
DE PREE: Well, when an army lands on a beach, somebody has to be in charge of that beach...
DE PREE: …and direct traffic. And he did that.
SCARPINO: My goodness.
DE PREE: Yeah, and he once told me, he said, “I knew then,” he said, “if I survived and I could do this,” he said, “I knew I could do anything.” Isn’t that interesting?
SCARPINO: That’s a life lesson, isn’t it? Because if you’re the beachmaster, you have to stay there.
DE PREE: That’s right. Yeah, that’s right. You can’t go back and you can’t go ahead; you’ve got to stay there and you’ve got to direct traffic. Yeah. So I think Hugh was—Hugh did a good job with us. He and Bob worked out a program where they would establish the Herman Miller Research Corporation. It would be in Ann Arbor; it wouldn’t be here. We asked Bob not to work on furniture, but in the end, you know, he invented the Action Office, which completely changed the company and the company grew out of that.
SCARPINO: I’m going to ask you about that in a minute, but Stumpf once said—and I’ll just read this quote to you. And now that you mentioned the Marine Corps, I understand this a little bit better. He said, “I work best when I’m pushed to the edge. When I’m at the point where my pride is subdued, where I’m innocent again. Herman Miller knows how to push me that way, mainly because the company still believes—years after D.J. De Pree first told me that—good design isn’t just good business, it’s a moral obligation. Now that’s pressure.”
DE PREE: Isn’t that something?
SCARPINO: Yes. So, do you see the same connection or a similar connection between design, business and moral obligation?
DE PREE: Yeah.
SCARPINO: Can you explain how that works for you?
DE PREE: Yes. I think—one of the engines of modern design was the way people have to live. The great majority of the population in the Western world does not live in big mansions. They live in small apartments, and they have no business in these big Lazy Boy chairs and great big buffets and dressers, you know, and all of this large stuff. For one reason, it takes up room that they don’t have. For another reason, it goes against Gilbert Rohde’s dictum—is the most important thing in the room is not the furniture; it’s the people. And the other thing is that it nails you down. It’s very hard for you to take all that big stuff and be mobile, and society requires you to be mobile. So to me, it is a moral thing. You ought to have products that meet your needs; not that meet the needs of some interior decorator. You know, you go today at a hotel, where are you going to put eight pillows?
SCARPINO: On the floor.
DE PREE: That’s right. See, the decorators think there have to be eight pillows, and the room isn’t big enough. You don’t know where to put the pillows. And to me, that’s kind of immoral. It’s certainly dishonest, if it’s not… So, the other thing about it, Phil, is that the inside of our homes is probably the only place in Western society where we don’t gravitate to new and good design. Look how the world is leaving behind landlines.
DE PREE: We’re ready to go. And look at our cars and refrigerators, and everything else is modern. But so that’s…
DE PREE: Stumpf, yeah…
SCARPINO: The Aeron chair?
DE PREE: Yeah.
SCARPINO: What did that mean to the company?
DE PREE: We think that was the harbinger of a lot of very well-designed, very functional office chairs which were the product of new research in how people work and how they sit and how their bodies work. Now, you know, many competitors now make good chairs like that, too, but we were kind of the first with the ergonomic chair that Bill designed. And then, you know, the outcome of that is his Aeron chair.
SCARPINO: A-E-R-O-N, for the transcriber.
DE PREE: Yeah, A-E-R-O-N, which I can say is probably the last product I worked on while I was at Herman Miller. And that chair is so good and so research-oriented that it is routinely part of a prescription from doctors if you’ve got back trouble. Hundreds of people buy that chair on a prescription.
SCARPINO: To support their backs?
DE PREE: Yeah.
SCARPINO: Aqua chair?
DE PREE: Yeah, that was in that whole progression of chairs by Bill Stumpf, yeah.
SCARPINO: So, let me see if I can remember this correctly. When Honda began to sell Accords in the United States 30 years ago, I don’t know, 25 years ago, they used to claim that they—that the Japanese products were superior because they were based on the science of ergonomics, that is they were supposed to fit the person.
DE PREE: That’s right.
SCARPINO: You were doing this well before Japanese companies.
DE PREE: Yeah, we were.
SCARPINO: Was Herman Miller a leader in this area?
DE PREE: I would say yes. Yes. And some automobile companies made strong efforts to work with us on developing new seating for cars, but we never could work together because we’re just a different—we’re just different animals. They have to know to the penny what it’s going to be and—and that’s a tough business.
SCARPINO: Tougher than furniture?
DE PREE: Yeah.
SCARPINO: On the list of architects and designers, A. Quincy Jones?
DE PREE: Yeah.
SCARPINO: How did you meet him?
DE PREE: At our main site in Zeeland, the first two or three buildings had been designed by George Nelson and Gordon Chadwick, who was in Nelson’s office, the architecture office. And I don’t remember what happened, but they were no longer available to us. So I called Charles Eames and told him about this need; that we needed to build more buildings on our main site and could he please recommend an architect.
SCARPINO: And he recommended…
DE PREE: And he recommended Quincy.
SCARPINO: What kind of relationship did you have with Quincy Jones?
DE PREE: Oh, a very warm relationship. Yeah, and then—and he did a magnificent long-range plan for that site. It was recently reviewed by one of the professors at Harvard and he said, you know, “There’s nothing wrong with this plan.”
SCARPINO: Still good after all those years.
DE PREE: Yeah, still good after all these years. And I think the first building was started in 1958, something like that. Quincy and I were close friends. Quincy rehabbed an old cottage that we built on Lake Michigan and turned it into a really lovely, lovely home, even though it’s an—it was an old dump to start with. And there’s an interesting point here: When Charles Eames designed our house in Zeeland, we loved it but we were intimidated. We didn’t dare change anything, and Charles made the decisions pretty much. When we were rehabbing that old cottage on the lake, Quincy established a relationship with my wife, in which he really said, you know, “We can skin the cat any way you like. You tell me what you want and I’ll give it to you in good taste.” That was kind of the message.
SCARPINO: A very different kind of…
DE PREE: …Very different. And we never felt inhibited by it. And years later, I remember being in a room when somebody said to our oldest daughter, “How do you compare the Eames house with this house that Quincy Jones did?” And she thought a minute and she said, “Well, I prefer this one because this house bends.”
SCARPINO: That’s good.
DE PREE: Yeah.
SCARPINO: Nicholas Grimshaw.
DE PREE: Oh yeah, Nick. You really did your research. Nick was a very young architect in London.
SCARPINO: British architect on the make or on the rise?
DE PREE: Wasn’t yet on the rise; just young and working hard and we were—I had been given the job of moving to Europe and restructuring our business over there because we were basically in business with a bunch of competitors. One of the things that we worked out was to get rid of all that stuff and to establish our own company in England. We knew we had to—we had to have our own company there.
SCARPINO: In Bath?
DE PREE: Yeah. Have you ever been to Bath?
SCARPINO: I have been to England; I have not been to Bath.
DE PREE: Bath is one of the most lovely cities in England.
SCARPINO: In fact, I’m headed to Newcastle later in July for work.
DE PREE: Well, if you get a chance to go to Bath, you would—it’s a wonderful city. In fact, we went there because our problem was we were prevented by English—by the City of London development rules, we couldn’t be in London so we had to be somewhere where we could move people to. People didn’t want to leave London, but when we said we’ll build in Bath, they came.
DE PREE: So, Nick—we boiled this project down to three architects, two of them very famous. One of them is Norman Foster, who has since become a Sir Norman Foster. And he was angry with me because I didn’t give him the job and Nick was younger and so on. But we just felt Nick was the guy for us.
SCARPINO: And the other architect was?
DE PREE: Um…a very famous architect.
DE PREE: What?
DE PREE: No. No, Gensler was—no, he was English as well, and he did a lot of glass buildings. He was famous and an older person. See, just like I can’t remember…
SCARPINO: I should know this, too.
DE PREE: …the name of the architect in France, but so—but Nick…
SCARPINO: Le Corbusier?
DE PREE: Pardon me?
DE PREE: Yeah. Yeah.
SCARPINO: The French one.
DE PREE: Yeah. He did—yeah, he did the building on the campus of the University of Paris at the Sorbonne that I like, yeah. Well, and we told Nick that, you know, we were trying to get this company off the ground, we weren’t going to get much help from America, that we needed an innovative building and it had to be very flexible. And I said, “One of the things I have to tell you is we have to have a building that will get us a lot of free publicity because we can’t afford to advertise yet.” And you know, he produced a building; it’s plastic. And he produced a building which won all the design awards in Europe that year, and that was worth much more than any advertising we could buy. It was on the cover of endless magazines and won the—won the award in the UK of the best building of the year.
SCARPINO: You wanted a building that would make a statement about the company.
DE PREE: Yes.
SCARPINO: And you got it.
DE PREE: We got it.
SCARPINO: What was the statement?
DE PREE: Well, it was just very innovative, very flexible and fit into an historic city. That was the thing that was very important. In England, the City Council governs what you can do. They approve or disapprove, and they’re happy to disapprove.
SCARPINO: I bet they were.
DE PREE: Yeah.
SCARPINO: Bill McDonough?
DE PREE: Yeah.
SCARPINO: M-C-D-O-N-O-U-G-H, for the transcriber. I read that he became quite involved with Herman Miller’s environment committee in 1991.
DE PREE: Yes.
SCARPINO: Now, you were not CEO then, but you were I think Chairman of the Board.
DE PREE: I was Chairman of the Board, yeah. See, that—to come back to Brian Walker’s comment about who I was. See, I wasn’t just CEO for eight years; I was CEO and Chairman of the Board, and then after that seven years, I was still Chairman of the Board, for better or for worse there. I’m still there.
SCARPINO: So, while you were CEO, you were Chair of the Board?
DE PREE: Yes.
SCARPINO: And then you retained the title of Chairman of the Board?
DE PREE: Yeah. Okay, what was the question?
SCARPINO: There are a couple of questions, but he—McDonough had built what was then called a green office building for the Environmental Defense Fund in New York City. So, this is not exactly a republican business that he was working for, let’s put it that way.
DE PREE: No, that’s right.
SCARPINO: And he was kind of a rising star in green architecture, so—and you’re Chairman of the Board, so I assume you had some say in who they hired. Why did you go for this man?
DE PREE: At that time we had a CEO named Kerm Campbell, who of course reported to me and the Board. And Kerm took the lead in identifying Bill McDonough as an architect who could approach this from the environmental point of view because that was becoming important, and the whole issue of how do you develop an energy-free building and how do you do a building that’s really good for the people who work there and so on. And so I give Kerm the credit for finding Bill, and Bill did a good job. That building over on 16th Street is a really wonderful building, works well, meets the criteria.
SCARPINO: Why was the company interested in the environment, so to speak?
DE PREE: Oh well, that’s another moral issue, huh?
DE PREE: I think—I think we had been interested in the environment for many, many years. That wasn’t a new thought, but certainly at that time it was an important thought for us. To give you an example, in the early ‘60s, we had a farm on our site where the company, you know, staked out the farm, staked out all the land and plowed it and disked it and so on and prepared it. And then employees could sign up and have their own garden out there.
DE PREE: Yeah, we did that kind of thing. When we built our first buildings in Zeeland starting in 1958, we included in the program three large ponds which controlled the water flow in and out of the acreage. We had I think 140 acres. And also that’s where we used to hold the company picnic, was on that site with those nice ponds and all the plantings. And—but also, that water was available in case of a fire. We had sprinklers, of course, but if you needed more water it was already on the site. So we thought environmentally in those days, too.
SCARPINO: But at the same time, if you can have a building that uses energy efficiently, that’s good for profit.
DE PREE: It is, always. Sure, that’s—sure, you have to succeed. See, that—one of the—in the free market system, one of the—one of the rules of the game for leaders is the company has to survive.
DE PREE: Yeah.
SCARPINO: The last designer that I’m going to ask you about—I was going to ask you how you knew Buckminster Fuller, but you told me that Bucky came to dinner at your house, so I gather you were on a first-name basis. How did you meet him, and what kind of an impact did he have on you?
DE PREE: Well he—we were introduced to him by George Nelson, but he was also a good friend of Charles Eames. And Buckminster Fuller came to our house that Eames designed to look at it and to report back to Eames if it was okay.
DE PREE: Because Eames would always say what guided him in his work was: What would Bucky say? And Bucky came to visit, yeah. But he was in my dad’s home, and we had Bucky Fuller for management and development programs. We sponsored him for a series of lectures in Grand Rapids, and, yeah.
SCARPINO: What would you say that your long association with, I guess, cutting-edge designers and architects—what did that add up to for you? What did you learn? How did you develop? What did it mean to you to know those people and their work?
DE PREE: I think that one thing that came out of working with people like that is I think that’s when I really learned how to think. I had this strange college experience, never any liberal arts or literature or history or anything; all science. And I don’t think I really knew how to think about problems and issues. And no matter what people say today, issues and problems are not the same word.
SCARPINO: No, they’re not.
DE PREE: I think I learned how to think from people like Nelson and Eames, Fuller and Grisham. And yeah, I also learned an aesthetic ability from being with them. I think I also learned how to be a good planner. I think in some ways, planning and strategy came naturally to me, but to work with people like that who are working all over the world, you know, and they were all writers. And yeah, I think…
SCARPINO: I’m going to switch topics here. I mean, we could talk about this forever, but I’m going to just say for the record that in 1961 your brother, Hugh, took over as CEO.
DE PREE: Yeah.
SCARPINO: And Herman Miller became a public company in 1970, which we’ve already talked about.
DE PREE: Yeah.
SCARPINO: So, the current CEO of Herman Miller told me that your brother turned Herman Miller into a big business. And then you and I talked about that a little bit. You obviously played a role as well, but…
DE PREE: Oh yeah, sure, because we were both running the company.
SCARPINO: Right. While he was CEO, what changes did he bring about, sort of the big picture? What did he start with and what did he leave behind when he stepped down?
DE PREE: I think he gets credit especially for establishing the research corporation with Bob Propst, which changed the company, you know, put us really into the office furniture business in a different way. We were doing offices for executives; now we were doing offices for everybody. And this tied in with Peter Drucker’s prediction at the time that the country was going to change from a blue collar country to a white collar country. So, that gave us the nerve to pursue the Action Office thing.
SCARPINO: 1964, right?
DE PREE: Yeah, something like that. Well, and it didn’t work at first, you know. It didn’t work until about ’68.
SCARPINO: I didn’t know that.
DE PREE: Yeah, a second version worked. And Hugh played a key role in nurturing Charles Eames. He had a very good relationship with Eames. Then, Hugh and I together did something with Bill Stumpf. He had been working for Bill—for Bob Propst in Ann Arbor, and they had no personal chemistry. But we needed to keep Bill because of his design ability. Propst wasn’t a really good designer. He was the inventor. But Bill Stumpf had—you know, we really needed his design gifts, and he said he couldn’t work with Propst anymore. We said, “Well, what does it take to keep you?” And he said, “Well,” he said, “I’d like to establish my own office in Wisconsin because that’s where I’m from.” And he said, “I would need a monthly stipend to survive until I can get something done.” And we said, “Okay, whatever that is, we’ll do that. We’ll—we want you, too. You want to be with us. We want—we want you to be with us. We will support you until—until you get product on the line.” And that was key. I mean, Bill produced all of these ergonomic chairs.
SCARPINO: So the monthly stipend that you gave him and the permission, I guess, to move to Wisconsin, that was like priming the pump, wasn’t it?
DE PREE: It was. That’s what it was, sure.
SCARPINO: Do you remember pouring the water in the old pumps?
DE PREE: Yeah, oh yeah, that’s right. That’s exactly what—yeah, that’s what it was. And then as things developed and Hugh retired and then I think the key senior relationship with Bill Stumpf was me and Bill, Bill and me. And then, of course, he died prematurely. He was a very good friend.
SCARPINO: The company had a plant in California.
DE PREE: Yeah.
SCARPINO: When did that expansion begin to take place, approximately?
DE PREE: Early ‘70s. I remember when I was working in Europe, one of the things I did was develop some strategic thinking for the company. And then when I moved back, my brother and I had to decide how we were going to, you know, share the work. So, that’s how I got into overseeing all those buildings that we put up around the country. We had started with the main site, of course, in ’58 and in the ’60s, but I think a lot of that—it’s in Clark Malcolm’s book; I’m sure I can find the dates.
SCARPINO: But it was part of a general expansion as you expanded your product lines and the Action Office System.
DE PREE: Yeah, that’s right. See, and the other thing we did is we stated a concept which was that the stuff we built had to be of indeterminate use because we had already seen the company change two or three times, and we didn’t know what it was going to be like. We also wanted to site the buildings within a certain number of semi-truck hours from a service point of view. So we didn’t want everything here in Michigan as compared to our brothers—our competitors at Steelcase. They put everything on one site. Well, when the downturn came, we had several sites that we could sell for different uses. In fact, we sold a site near Sacramento, California, to a university. It was designed by Frank Gehry. And it was adaptable because we told Frank Gehry in the beginning it’s got to be indeterminate use. So now there’s a university there. And the building we built in Rossville, Georgia, recently I read it’s got its third owner. I think now UPS owns it. So we were able to—one of the ways we survived that downturn was by selling off real estate.
SCARPINO: This was the downturn in the ’80s?
DE PREE: Yeah. Well, no, more recently.
SCARPINO: More recently?
DE PREE: More recently even, yeah.
SCARPINO: So while your brother was CEO, were you—was one of your responsibilities to develop the Board?
DE PREE: Yes.
SCARPINO: Can you generally say what you started with and what you ended up with? What were you doing in Board development?
DE PREE: Yeah, well, first we wrote a problem statement, kind of the way architects do. You know, if you hire an architect, you give them a problem statement of who you are and what you intend to be. So we designed a Board based on various competencies. We needed somebody from the medical field because we were getting into healthcare. We wanted somebody who was a scientist. We wanted an architect. We needed somebody from the financial world. That’s the way we designed it. And then after we went public, then I had that assignment, to build the Board. I would check with Hugh and we would agree on who we were going to look at, but I did most of that work. I would go to visit these people to invite them on the Board, yeah.
SCARPINO: What did you learn from that kind of activity, Board building?
DE PREE: Well, one of my lessons came with Bill Caudill, the architect. He was in Houston, and I went to Houston to invite him to be on the Board. And he asked me why. And I had all my reasons and he said, “Well, I don’t usually do this, but I’ll think about it.” After a short time went by, he called up, he said, “I’d like to come to Zeeland to give you my answer.” And I said, “You can’t give it to me on the phone?” “No,” he said, “I haven’t finished my, you know, my work.” But we made a date for when he would come to my office, and it was afternoon, and when he got there, he said, “Yes,” he said, “I would like to come on your Board.” I said, “Well, how did you decide that, Bill?” And he said, “Well this morning,” he said, “I went to Bosch’s restaurant in downtown Zeeland and I sat at the round table where all the guys gather.” He said, “You know, every town has these people.” And he said, “I told them who I was and I told them I’d been invited on your Board and what did they think?” And he said, then from there he said, “I drove over to your cemetery,” and he said, “I had to see if you permit plastic flowers on your cemetery,” and he said, “you don’t.” So he said, “I figured this must be a pretty good town, pretty good company.” Now how about that?
SCARPINO: Well, he certainly made a decision based on some values, didn’t he?
DE PREE: Didn’t he? Yeah.
SCARPINO: So your brother stepped down as CEO in 1980. You replaced him. As you pointed out, you were also Chair of the Board.
DE PREE: Yeah.
SCARPINO: You developed a plan in which the employees were allowed to become shareholders, which we talked about some. In 1984, Robert Levering and Milton Moskowitz included Herman Miller in “The 100 Best Companies to Work for in America,” and there are lots of other accolades.
DE PREE: Yeah.
SCARPINO: You stepped down as CEO in ’87 but remained as Chairman of the Board until 1995?
DE PREE: Yes.
SCARPINO: So that’s just for the record. When you took over in 1980, what kind of condition was the company in? Or I could ask it a different way: What did you think you needed to do in order to effectively manage the company? What did it need? You invited Peter Drucker to come and lend a hand, right?
DE PREE: Yeah.
SCARPINO: So you must have felt you needed something.
DE PREE: We’re on touchy ground because it has to do with some people.
SCARPINO: Okay, I’m not asking for proprietary; I’m just sort of asking for, you know, “personnel management” would be an answer or, you know…
DE PREE: …Okay, let’s say we had to rebuild the leadership team.
DE PREE: That was crucial.
SCARPINO: And did you contact Peter Drucker before you became CEO or …
DE PREE: Oh yeah. Yeah. I had known Peter for a number of years before that, but when it became clear to me that the Board was going to pick me—that wasn’t a given at the time because these were all the outside members, you know, I thought it but they were outside people. But when it looked clear to me that the Board was going to pick me, I made a special trip out to see Peter. We had been talking about it and I told him what I was doing, that I was pretty sure I was going to be the CEO. I remember one of the things that he did, he said, “You know, you’ve got one guy on the team there,” he said, “I think you ought to have him report to somebody else, not to you.” He said, “I picked up that he’s not one of your favorites, and that’s not a good thing.” He said, “If you don’t care for him, he shouldn’t report to you.” And I thought, man alive, this is like talking to Jesus Christ, you know; how’d he know that? Boy, he—he told me one time—when I arrived out there in the early relationship, I had mailed him a bunch of stuff and when I got there he started asking me questions about the company and zeroing in on some things. And I said, “Dr. Rucker, how do you know all this stuff, huh? How do you get at this stuff?” He said, “Balance sheets speak to me.” Isn’t that something? I mean something was speaking to him.
SCARPINO: Knowing how to read a balance sheet is a real gift, isn’t it?
DE PREE: Yeah, yeah.
SCARPINO: You mentioned Michele Hunt and she was the one person who you suggested I talk to but I wasn’t able to get a hold of. So I dug out some things that she read. She worked—she was a vice president at Herman Miller in the mid ‘80s.
DE PREE: Yeah.
SCARPINO: And years later, like in 2009, she wrote about her experiences and she’s now writing about the mid ‘80s. She said, “After decades of success we were becoming irrelevant. We learned the hard way that nothing fails like success.” Was that accurate? Were things kind of shaky in the mid ‘80s?
DE PREE: Yeah. She—I’ve heard that before. I think she—I think the main thing she was talking about was the need for renewal of the Scanlon Plan. I believe that, yeah. Well, one of the interesting things about an organization like Herman Miller—and I’ve had senior people who have retired and told me that what Herman Miller was, was Camelot. They said, “You know, you’ll never find it again somewhere.” And Michele has said that, too. But when you open up a company and everybody has a right to have their opinions and the license to say whatever they believe, you live with what they say.
SCARPINO: That’s true, isn’t it?
DE PREE: Yeah. And not everybody, including the CEO, knows everything. That’s it. You’ve got—that’s a risk a lot of people don’t want to take, you know, you’re exposed to what everybody thinks.
SCARPINO: While you were CEO, did Carl Frost continue to play a role?
DE PREE: He did.
SCARPINO: And that was with the refinement and rejuvenation of the Scanlon Plan?
DE PREE: Yes, but after Dick Ruch resigned…
SCARPINO: …who was the person who replaced you as CEO?
DE PREE: Yeah, that’s right. See, then came Kerm Campbell, who had a tough time. He was a mistake. And then the guy who replaced him, Mike Volkema, gave up on the Scanlon Plan. And so after that—and he told Carl Frost, “I don’t want you to ever come back.” But Mike Volkema doesn’t—doesn’t ever show himself in factories. So until Frost died, he was at home in the factory. He knew Volkema wasn’t going to find him there.
DE PREE: And Frost had friends, you know, and he kept coming until he died.
SCARPINO: So I mean you had Carl Frost and Peter Drucker on the team, so to speak, at the same time?
DE PREE: We did, yeah.
SCARPINO: Buckminster Fuller paid a visit.
DE PREE: Yeah.
SCARPINO: You had all these creative design people.
DE PREE: Yeah.
SCARPINO: What was it like? Well, I’m going to ask it a different way. Did you intentionally seek out smart and creative people to surround yourself with?
DE PREE: Yeah. Yes. Sure. I think that’s one of the secrets of leadership. Yeah. Leadership requires real breadth rather than a specialization, and you get your breadth from a variety of people. You know, Clark Malcolm knows me well, and one of the things that we talk about is the interesting array of people that I just seem to have been in touch with. I served on an interesting committee with Senator Bill Bradley years ago.
SCARPINO: Former pro basketball player?
DE PREE: Yeah.
SCARPINO: Senator from New Jersey?
DE PREE: Yeah. And, you know, he was trying to change the tax system, and I was on his committee. Do you remember the guy who wrote—Schumacher, the guy who wrote Small Is Beautiful?
DE PREE: He and I were good friends.
SCARPINO: How did you meet him?
DE PREE: I don’t remember. He stayed at my home here. And I’ve been at his home in England. I don’t know how that happened. Did you ever—have you ever heard of Malcolm Muggeridge?
SCARPINO: No, but I have read Small Is Beautiful.
DE PREE: Yeah, okay.
SCARPINO: Tell me about Malcolm Muggeridge.
DE PREE: Well, he was a great journalist in England for years, worked for Punch Magazine. He was a journalist in Moscow, one of the few journalists who saw Stalin for who he was and wrote a lot of wonderful stuff. But yeah, you know, I don’t know—I just think that leadership requires that breadth. And I don’t know how I made these connects; I don’t remember that.
SCARPINO: So, you had Dr. Frost as a mentor and a teacher, Peter Drucker as a mentor and a teacher and a friend, George Nelson.
DE PREE: Yeah.
SCARPINO: Who else gets on that list? That’s a pretty amazing group.
DE PREE: Yeah, well, David Hubbard, the president of Fuller Seminary.
SCARPINO: Who is younger than you are?
DE PREE: Yes. He’s dead now. He died early. Yeah, he was an unusual person and he was the quality of these other people. And in fact, I introduced him to Peter Drucker and they became friends. And Peter Drucker became a consultant at Fuller Seminary through that. Yeah, you’ve got these—I mean, I’ve just been blessed.
SCARPINO: When I talked to Walter Wright, he said that I should ask you what Peter Drucker told you about how to treat your spouse in relation to Fuller Seminary and Herman Miller Company. Is that enough of a hint?
DE PREE: Yeah, that came up in the preparation to be CEO. He said—Peter said, he said, “I know that what you’ve been doing is you take Esther along out here to Pasadena and you let her sit in a hotel room.” And he said, “I know she’s involved a bit at Fuller, but,” he said, “then you go to meetings,” and he said, “I want you to stop that.” He said, “When you’re CEO, I want you to take your vacations and take them with Esther.” He knew her, too. And he said, “You can’t treat your wife that way.” He was—he was very fatherly about that—and fatherly to me, too. He said, “You’re going to find the pressure is great; take your vacations.”
SCARPINO: Did you listen to him?
DE PREE: I did. Yeah, I did.
SCARPINO: I’m going to read you one more quote from Michele Hunt, and then we’re going to talk about Fuller. I found an article—because I couldn’t talk to her—I found an article that she wrote in Leader to Leader, Frances Hesselbein’s…
DE PREE: Yeah.
SCARPINO: …winter 2010… she said, “I feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity to learn from three of the greatest minds and hearts of our time: Peter Drucker, Max De Pree and Frances Hesselbein.”
DE PREE: Oh yeah, and Frances, yeah.
SCARPINO: Frances Hesselbein. She said, “These special people are inextricably connected in the web of events and circumstances that have helped shape my work and my life. Through their mentorship, I was exposed to innovative, enlightened leadership and management philosophies and practices.” So, what I want to ask you about is mentorship. You talked about people who had mentored you, but do you consider yourself to be a mentor?
DE PREE: Yeah. Yes. I did a lot of that after I retired, yes. Michele was I think the only one who reported to me that I formally mentored. But she initiated that relationship in an interesting way. First of all, you know, I said I don’t pick leaders—or don’t pick people well. I did with her. I didn’t hire her; I spotted her at a quarterly meeting. Here was this—here was this beautiful black woman up in front of that group giving a report who really showed great quality and class. And I thought, I have to keep my eye on her.” Well, then a day came when I was looking for a person who would report to me who would handle our government relationships, traveling frequently to Washington. She applied for the job, and she was pregnant. And then one day, she called and she was my best candidate, I have to say, she called me, she said, “I’m in the hospital.” She said, “I have to withdraw my application.” And I said, “Why are you there?” She said, “I’m having the baby.” She said, “It’s a little premature, but I’m having a baby.” And I said to her, “Well, are you in pain?” “No, not yet,” she said. And I said, “Well, can we talk now on the phone?” And she said, “Well, sure, if you want to,” and so we did. And so based on that, I said, “Well, you’re the one.” I said, “You’re the best candidate I have, so I’m inviting you to take the job.” Well, she has reported this to hundreds of people, this whole story, you know, that she got hired—she got promoted while she was waiting for the baby to be born. But she and I, I must say, in a way fell in love. On Father’s Day, she calls me, you know. But she was a terrific person. And we lost her because when Bill Clinton was elected president, she went to Washington and worked for him. And that’s how we lost her.
SCARPINO: Do you think that leaders have an obligation to be mentors?
DE PREE: No. I think mentoring takes some special skills. Mentoring is different from teaching. A good mentor helps people find their way. It doesn’t tell them what their way is. And in my experience, you do this mostly through questions. They bring the agenda and they’re responsible for themselves. You’re never responsible for them. No, I think mentoring is kind of a special skill. And yeah, I’ve done a lot of it. I love doing it.
SCARPINO: In 1987, you stepped down as CEO. You were still Chairman of the Board. You published Leadership is an Art. The book was originally published in hardcover by Michigan State University Press. Then it was reprinted by Doubleday. Then it was reprinted as a trade paperback in 1990.
DE PREE: Yeah.
SCARPINO: I read that it sold more than 800,000 copies, and that’s probably low because I probably found an old figure. It’s my understanding that that book partially grew out of the classes that you taught at Aquinas College.
DE PREE: It did.
SCARPINO: We talked about that last time. It helped you pull your ideas together.
DE PREE: Yes. Yeah, helped me to organize and helped me really to clarify them, you know, and make them useful.
SCARPINO: Nothing like teaching to clarify your thinking.
DE PREE: Isn’t that right? Yeah, you know that. Sure, you do, yeah. Well, you know, I just read—see that big paper there in the corner, that big green thing?
DE PREE: There’s a statement in there that says that that book has now sold a million copies.
SCARPINO: This paper is called Living Office, as long as we—maybe mention it. I believe it. I know that the figure I got was a few years old. That’s a lot. Were you surprised?
DE PREE: Yes.
SCARPINO: I mean, when you wrote the last word or—did you think: there’s a million-seller.
DE PREE: I had no idea about that, no idea.
SCARPINO: Did becoming an author of a million-seller book change your life at all?
DE PREE: Yeah. Yeah, it has.
SCARPINO: I mean, you’ve written lots of other things and I’m not diminishing that, but that was first.
DE PREE: That’s first yeah.
SCARPINO: Your first child.
DE PREE: That’s right. That’s right. See, and it got me started on all that. Well, you know, the thing that shocked me was, you know, Doubleday paid a nice advance and then after a few months, you know, I’d been on NPR and so on, Doubleday knows what they’re doing with that stuff. Then a woman called me and said, “I’m so and so. I’m vice president at Doubleday. I’d like to come and see you, and I have a friend I want to take along.” I said, “Well, fine.” I didn’t know what it was about. And it was another woman vice president. Clark and I sat down for lunch with them and we had a nice talk. She said, “Well, the reason we’re here is we want to ask you to do another book.” And Clark and I laugh about this to this day. I said to her, “Well, you know, I’m really too busy.” I said, “I’ve got a job that demands my time and Clark has got a job. We can’t just take him off the Herman Miller payroll for this, and so we don’t think we want to do that.” She said, “Well, aren’t you going to give me a chance to tell you what the advance would be?” And I said, “Well, sure.” She said, “We’d like to pay you half a million dollars for a second book.” Well, Clark and I weren’t nearly as busy after that offer.
SCARPINO: That must’ve brought you up a little short.
DE PREE: Talk about a change in your life, yeah.
SCARPINO: Yeah. You said—and I’ve read about two-thirds of it. I mean I’ll be honest, I haven’t read the whole thing, but I had a certain amount of prep time.
DE PREE: Yep.
SCARPINO: One of the things you said in Leadership is an Art is that, “In the end, it’s important to remember that we cannot become what we need to be by remaining what we are.”
DE PREE: Yeah.
SCARPINO: What do you mean by that?
DE PREE: If we as a person or if we as a group are unwilling to change, then you’re not going to get anywhere. You can’t become what you need to be in this world by just being what you are today. You’ve got to learn something, you’ve got to do something, you’ve got to interact with somebody. Something has to happen to you in order for you to help change this world or this company or your family, whatever it is.
SCARPINO: That’s kind of the story of Herman Miller and Max De Pree, isn’t it?
DE PREE: It is, yeah. But not only me, you know; lots of people in the company.
SCARPINO: When I asked you the other day about what Peter Drucker said: “Could you put it on a T-shirt?” That could be the T-shirt.
DE PREE: Well, yeah. It was. Did you know?
SCARPINO: No, I was kidding.
DE PREE: Oh, here. (GETS SOMETHING FROM A BOX)
SCARPINO: Oh my goodness. Just for the record, Max is holding up a T-shirt that says: “We cannot become what we need to be by remaining what we are. -Max De Pree.” I had no idea. I honestly didn’t know that, that you had one.
DE PREE: Yeah, I’ll give you one.
SCARPINO: Thank you.
DE PREE: The company put that out about a year ago. I didn’t know they were doing that.
SCARPINO: I walked into that one, didn’t I?
DE PREE: Yeah.
SCARPINO: Well, it fits.
DE PREE: Yeah, it fits.
SCARPINO: You also said in Leadership is an Art that “Leadership is more of an art, a belief, a condition of the heart than a set of things to do. The visible signs of artful leadership are expressed ultimately in its practice.”
DE PREE: Yeah.
SCARPINO: So if leadership is a condition of the heart and not just a set of things that we do, how do we teach leadership?
DE PREE: One way is by mentoring because it’s there, you have to draw it out. I mean, you can’t say to somebody, “Look, this is the truth; you’ve got to believe it.” So that’s one of the best ways to do it. With people that you supervise, you can deal with—you can deal in that way with that. And there’s a big need for it. I learned again recently why that book has sold so much. My daughter, Jody, who is in the investment business, she works for Grand Angels that, you know, that puts out money for young entrepreneurs who have inventions. She was at a meeting and woman who spoke there and then met her afterwards, and she said, “Are you related to Max De Pree?” And Jody said, “Yeah, he’s my dad.” This woman said, “You know, I worked in the automotive industry for years after I got my MBA,” and she said, “and I thought I was completely out of place.” She said, “I just was uncomfortable until somebody gave me your dad’s book.” She said, “Then I discovered that there’s another way to live.” Well, that’s about the best thing you could say about that book.
SCARPINO: That was the point of it all, wasn’t it?
DE PREE: Yeah, it was.
SCARPINO: I want to ask you about Fuller Theological Seminary, but before I—well, I think I’m going to do that because I don’t want to run out of time and I want to respect the fact that we said we’d be done by 11:30.
DE PREE: Okay, well, I don’t have to be today. Yesterday I had a date, but I don’t today.
SCARPINO: At some point a little after that I have to go save my wife from the hotel.
DE PREE: Okay.
SCARPINO: So, if I have a chance I’ll come back to one more question about “Leadership is an Art,” but you had a long involvement with Fuller Theological Seminary and it’s not exactly around the corner from Zeeland.
DE PREE: No.
SCARPINO: I don’t mean this to sound flip at all, but I mean there are lots of seminaries closer than Fuller. So, how did you become involved with Fuller Theological Seminary?
DE PREE: Okay, I had been—one of the things Esther and I discovered kind of early in life is that I needed something more than just—than family and work. And so I’ve been involved in a number of things in our own church and then in our denomination.
SCARPINO: Can I ask you for the record what that is?
DE PREE: Yeah, well, for instance, I was President of the Board of World Missions of the Reformed Church in America, which was another volunteer thing. And you know, one of the reasons I wrote that book, Leadership Without Power, is because I was involved in all these voluntary things. And the thing I discovered there is that you have to learn how to lead without power because you don’t really have a lot of power. You think you have.
SCARPINO: You can’t order the volunteers around, can you?
DE PREE: No, you can’t. And so then my term on that was up and Esther and I talked about it and she said, “You know, you have to do something.” And so we just said in kind of an easygoing way, we said, “Well, let’s both pray about it.” And some weeks went by and one day I got a phone call from a guy, he said, “My name is Don Weber. I’m a fundraiser for Fuller Seminary, and I’m here in Wheaton, Illinois, talking to so and so and I’m trying to raise some money to furnish a room in honor of a Board member who died.” He said, “This man I’m talking to says I should not try to raise money.” He said, “He told me to call you and just ask you to give the furniture.” He said, “If I come and see you, will you think about that?” I said, “Sure.” Because we did that; we gave a lot of furniture away. And so he came up that day. He drove up from Wheaton and we spent a couple of hours together in the afternoon. And they only wanted a few chairs and couple of tables. It wasn’t a big deal. And so we said, “Yes, we’ll give it.” Then we began to talk and we had a lot of—we had a lot of points of interest. One of them was that when I was a kid, my dad would not let me listen to the Detroit Tigers on Sunday afternoon on the radio until after I listened to Dr. Fuller preach on the radio.
SCARPINO: The Fuller of Fuller Theological Seminary?
DE PREE: Yeah, that was the guy. And he was a great radio evangelist. So, this guy, you know, we had this nice visit and he left and what he did is he went back home to Pasadena and he told the president, he said, “I got the furniture,” he said, “I really think I also found a replacement Board member.” So that resulted in a series of meetings between me and the president, and then he invited me on the Board.
SCARPINO: And the president was?
DE PREE: Yeah, David Hubbard. He was brand new. He was there only about a year.
SCARPINO: A relatively young man at that time?
DE PREE: Yeah, I think like 37 or something. And I was young. I was—1964, I was 40 years old.
SCARPINO: Did the fact that the seminary was started by the radio evangelist that you listened to as a young man have any bearing on your decision to get involved with them?
DE PREE: I think so, sure, since I knew about it. And it was attractive to me because it was in California, I think.
SCARPINO: It’s not Zeeland, is it?
DE PREE: No.
SCARPINO: I was just in Pasadena interviewing—doing an interview. He started Fuller Theological in 1947, I believe?
DE PREE: Yes.
SCARPINO: So it was not an organization with deep traditional roots?
DE PREE: No, that’s right. It was not denominational in any way, you know.
SCARPINO: So you agreed to serve on the Board?
DE PREE: I did.
SCARPINO: Do you remember when that was approximately?
DE PREE: Yeah, 1964.
SCARPINO: Okay, and you stayed with them for years in various capacities.
DE PREE: Forty years.
SCARPINO: Why? What was the attraction? What held you there, other than palm trees and nice weather?
DE PREE: Well, I have to say that when I look back over my life, the most important element in my life has been my family. The second most important is Fuller Seminary.
DE PREE: Yeah, that’s hard to say. I mean, I found it challenging. You know, it was on a growth track all along. It’s the largest seminary in the world of its type. Today, it has seven campuses. When I joined the Board, it had about 300 students on one small campus. It was almost starving to death, not that I did that. But the intellectual attraction in the field of theology I think just turned me on. Working with the quality of those people, you know, I mean these are people writing books read all over the world, you know. This was a really exciting environment.
SCARPINO: Another group of smart and creative people.
DE PREE: It was very similar to Herman Miller. Yeah, you know, I’d be introduced to some guy and later they’d say, “Well, you know, he’s the foremost scholar in such and such, you know, in the world.”
SCARPINO: So you were Chairman of the Board there for a while.
DE PREE: I was, yeah.
SCARPINO: You did some Board development.
DE PREE: Yes.
SCARPINO: What’s the difference between developing a nonprofit Board and a corporate Board, or the similarities?
DE PREE: A nonprofit Board is riskier. It’s harder to get them off when they don’t perform.
SCARPINO: I’ve been on a few.
DE PREE: Yeah, yeah. You know, they—and one of the reasons on the nonprofit Board is you want some at least who will give money. And on the corporate Board, that isn’t what you want them for. You’re going to give them money.
SCARPINO: Different purpose then?
DE PREE: Yeah. So there is a wider range of ability in a voluntary Board than there is in a good corporate Board. But I must say, we had an unusual Board at both places, and I think that also was very important to me, to be a part of that kind of people. I mean, one of the people on the Fuller Board had been assistant secretary of defense, I mean, of the Air Force. Another man was a consultant to the joint chiefs of staff. Another man was the largest cotton broker in the world. Another was Dave Weyerhaeuser, which is a name everybody knows.
SCARPINO: The lumber…?
DE PREE: Yeah.
SCARPINO: I was going to ask you how you knew him, so…
DE PREE: Yeah, and see, and there were people on the Board that nobody ever hears about, but we had this really strong and I must say powerful Board.
SCARPINO: And you helped create that?
DE PREE: Yeah.
SCARPINO: And the Board has, what, put policy signposts on the horizon and hires the president, among other things.
DE PREE: Yes. Well yeah, and approves all the major promotions. You know, the president may think he’s hiring a dean, but only with the consent of the Board. You know how all that goes.
SCARPINO: I do. Would it be fair to say that part of your association with Fuller was a modest and quiet philanthropist? I did a little searching and I only found one thing with your name on it, and I understand that you didn’t start that.
DE PREE: No.
SCARPINO: Somebody did it on your behalf, and that’s the leadership…
DE PREE: …Yeah, over our objections.
SCARPINO: Because you didn’t want your name on it, or because you felt uncomfortable with them teaching leadership?
DE PREE: No, I didn’t want my name on it. I think philanthropy is at its best when it’s anonymous. And I don’t want to have to defend that because I don’t want to—I don’t want to criticize people who see it differently. But yeah, Fuller, by the nature of it for Esther and me, that was the major part of our stewardship strategy.
SCARPINO: Yeah. So when you started your affiliation with them, they were relatively new and relatively small and relatively…
DE PREE: …Poor.
SCARPINO: Modestly funded.
DE PREE: Yeah, right.
SCARPINO: By the time you had felt it was time to step away, it had become one of the largest seminaries of that type in the world.
DE PREE: Yeah.
SCARPINO: Was part of their development the result of your vision? I mean, did you help put the points on the horizon that they were marching toward?
DE PREE: Well, I would—I would give the credit for that to David Hubbard. David Hubbard and I hit—in a mysterious way, we became like brothers. He’s the best friend I ever had. And his daughter tells me that’s what he said, too, that I was his best friend he ever had. And became each other’s mentors, and that was very interesting, too. I sought his advice in the business and he sought my advice in his business.
SCARPINO: So, would it be fair to say that you encouraged him?
DE PREE: I encouraged him?
DE PREE: Yes.
SCARPINO: When he had to make leaps that required courage, you were there for him?
DE PREE: I was—I was always on his side, but he was the leader, yeah, at the seminary. He gets—he gets the credit for what happened at Fuller, yeah. But like any good organization, there’s a lot of people involved, you know.
SCARPINO: But you’re the one I’m interviewing now. So let me ask the question a different way. If you had never become associated with Fuller, how do you think it would be different today? Suppose you would have picked another seminary and put all your passion and time and everything into that, all your commitment? Did you make a difference?
DE PREE: Yeah, I did. And the people there tell me I did.
SCARPINO: They told me that, too.
DE PREE: Yeah, well, and you know they put our name on the reading room in the library. They didn’t even tell us about it because they knew how we felt. But sure—but you have to count on other people’s word on that. I can’t—I can’t really say that.
SCARPINO: So what is it that they did or do that you believed in so much that you were willing to give them 40 years of the only life we get?
DE PREE: Yeah. Well, for one thing, I identified with their evangelical position, and that doesn’t—for instance from what I know about the Princeton Board of Trustees, I would have been a misfit. But I identified with their mission and who they intended to be, and I—you know, in the beginning I identified strongly with David Hubbard. That’s—I just have to say I believe—Esther and I had prayed about that, I think, okay, that’s my answer. I think the Lord put me there.
SCARPINO: And it was—it just was a good fit.
DE PREE: Yeah, we just clicked.
SCARPINO: On all kinds of levels.
DE PREE: Yeah, all kinds of levels.
SCARPINO: Maybe if David Hubbard hadn’t been there, you may not have stayed as long.
DE PREE: That’s right. That’s quite possibly true, sure. Yeah. But, you know, at the same time, Fuller contributed to my life in really unusual ways—and to my family. And you know, after I—when I told them I was going to leave the Board, they put my daughter on the Board. So for two years we were both on that Board, but she’s been on that Board now about 10 years. So the family connection continues, so that’s wonderful. They’ve done that with a couple of others; put children of previous Board members on. It’s kind of a nice continuum that they’ve done.
SCARPINO: I’m going to ask you a couple of sort of bigger questions to kind of tie this together. The one I want to ask you now is related to something you and I talked about when I came in this morning and before we turned the recorders on. I pointed out to you that you had written quite a bit, which you obviously know, but that there was one of your writings that is different than the others, and that’s your letters to Zoe.
DE PREE: Yeah.
SCARPINO: What prompted you to do that? What were you trying to accomplish with that book?
DE PREE: I think I was trying to find a way to heal myself from what was happening.
SCARPINO: Her premature…
DE PREE: Yeah, her birth—see, her birth father left the family just before she was born. I had to go through the trauma of managing that divorce for my daughter. I had to go out to the west coast where they were living and pick her up. For a father to have to do that is—you know, and in a way, I had to tell him to keep his hands off, don’t ever show up again. But then this baby is born prematurely partly because he continued to be a negative thing in her life, and I think he triggered this early arrival, I think. And she was—she was marginal. You know, when she was born 25 years ago, you didn’t expect a baby that weighed 1 lb 7 oz to survive. And you know, the doctor who cared for her is a very good personal friend. And there’s a wing of that hospital in his name because of it. But I needed healing because I was the father and—and I had just retired as CEO and I was going to that hospital in Grand Rapids every day. And so after a time, when I would sit here—and my office was upstairs in the upper one—and I’d look out over the lake and talk to myself: What am I going to do? And finally I decided I’d better just write her a letter every day because I’ve got to get this off my chest. And so I did that, and I had this all on yellow paper, handwritten and stuck them in a file and did nothing with them for years. And then when she turned five, it occurred to me that she was going to make it. You know, we went through these awful times when we thought she was going to be blind. And then I thought: I wonder if I could put this together. And so I did. I went over it all and kind of rewrote some of it, but most of it came out just the way it is in the book. I took it to Clark because he always—he goes over everything; you know, he cleans it up. I write it all myself, but he cleans it up. And we agreed that there’s no need to publish it, but it ought to be done for the family. So we did a hundred copies. And I was obliged by my contract to send my agent a copy, too. And she started immediately to push to have it published and—but we wouldn’t do that. But then finally the pressure got on us and so we consulted with some people, a psychologist and—or psychiatrist, and some other people about what happens to her when she’s 20 and there’s a book, you know? And the answer was, “If you’re going to do it, don’t wait any longer.” So I did it as a sixth birthday present to her. And who was it? Doubleday, I guess, published it, or Harper & Row. Somebody did. You probably…
SCARPINO: …Well, I was going to say…
DE PREE: …Your researcher really put that together.
SCARPINO: I didn’t write that down, but you gave me a copy and I’ll check. So, just a couple more questions.
DE PREE: Okay.
SCARPINO: When you think about leadership in the United States today, what makes you smile? What are you pleased with?
DE PREE: Well, I think it would be wonderful if we had some people like Senator Moynihan and Senator Bradley back in government. Oh, I think one thing that makes me smile is that there’s a large number of small Christian colleges in the United States that are absolutely thriving. I think that’s a great sign for America. You know, I think of America as a really beautiful country. I’ve been to different parts of the world, and the world mostly is beautiful; different but mostly is beautiful. We’re very fortunate the way we’ve been insulated for all these years by the oceans, but that’s—you know, technology is taking that away from us. I think—you know, when Eisenhower retired, he warned us about the military industrial complex.
SCARPINO: He did that, didn’t he?
DE PREE: Yeah. And I think now we should be warned about—about the sports complex that’s taking over our country and the entertainment world, and about the demise of men.
SCARPINO: What do you mean by the demise of men?
DE PREE: And I’m not against women, but I think—I think a lot of what I see in society and what I read about is that men are abandoning their role. And I don’t mean that they have to be head of the house; I’m happy with a good family with a woman head of the house. That’s okay with me. I just think men ought to marry and they ought to supervise the growth of their children in a good way. I think—I don’t think men have the right to make babies and not—and not be linked. I think that’s bad for our country. So I guess I feel badly about the traditional marriage and that—and I’m not making a pitch against gay marriage; that’s not the problem I’m talking about. I just think that men are abandoning their children and their families, and we’re going—I think the sports thing, the entertainment thing, the role of men, what’s happening to the family. I don’t have an answer to what to do about federal government, but I do think that there’s a possible form of salvation in a number of the states, where states are adopting their federalist rights and are getting things done. I think we see some of it in Michigan. We’re seeing it in some other states, both republican and democrat. There are governors who are making a difference. And maybe that’s going to be the salvation of us politically.
SCARPINO: By figuring out how to get something done? Is that what you’re talking about?
DE PREE: Yes. Yes, get people employed, get taxes paid, get the roads rebuilt in this country, you know.
SCARPINO: Well, I’m going to follow up on that and then I’ve got one more question.
DE PREE: Okay.
SCARPINO: If you look at the federal government today, and I think no matter what a person’s politics, they could see that it’s having a hard time getting much of anything done.
DE PREE: Yeah.
SCARPINO: Does that represent a failure of leadership? Because you mentioned a few people you wish would come back, and part of what those people had was the ability to compromise…
DE PREE: ….Yeah…
SCARPINO: ….not give away the store but compromise.
DE PREE: Sure, yeah, which a CEO does, too. He’s got to work out the budgets with a bunch of competitors. You know, that happens. Yes, I think—and I don’t mean to zero in on just Obama—I think America lacks a level of leadership that’s really demanded, both locally in terms of our country and internationally. Yeah, I think, sure—but, you know, I think Europe lacks leadership, too. It isn’t just us.
SCARPINO: I just came back from Germany.
DE PREE: Oh did you? Okay.
SCARPINO: One more question. Is there anything that I should’ve asked you that I didn’t have the insight to ask? Or anything you’d like to say that I didn’t give you a chance to say?
DE PREE: Well, I guess—I guess one thing that occurs to me is that leadership, talking about the role of one person or some persons in relation to other persons, leadership like that is a gift. And if you’re going to indulge in the use of that gift, you know, the least you can do is to prepare responsibly to be good at it. I think there are a lot of people who want to be leaders, but they don’t want to pay the price. They don’t want to work how hard it takes to be a leader, you know.
SCARPINO: So all the time you spent cleaning out the boiler and sewing upholstery and all those other things were sort of a way of paying dues.
DE PREE: It is. You bet. It is. I have a brother-in-law who pitched in the Major Leagues for 25 years.
SCARPINO: My goodness.
DE PREE: And he said—he told me one time, he said he got an offer when he was just a young kid to skip the Minor Leagues and go directly to the Washington Senators. And his dad, who had been a great baseball fan for many years and a blue collar guy, said to him, “No, don’t take the bonus, don’t go to the Senators. Go to the best Minor League manager you can find because you’ve got to become a baseball player.” And my brother-in-law sticks to that formula to this day. He’s been an announcer for the Yankees and he works for MLB now. He’s in his 70s and he still says to this day that one of the problems in Major League Baseball is there are too many young guys who didn’t work in the Majors for a good manager and learn the game. And you see—and I see a lot of that in leadership, and I can see that in the federal government where you get people who are good politicians; they know how to get elected. They don’t know anything about leadership.
SCARPINO: They’re not the same, are they?
DE PREE: No, they’re not the same.
SCARPINO: What’s your brother-in-law’s name?
DE PREE: Jim Kaat.
DE PREE: He pitched mostly for the Minnesota Twins.
SCARPINO: Thank you very, very much for taking the time to sit with me and talk to me about your ideas and feelings about leadership and a number of other things. So while I’ve still got the recorder on, on behalf of myself and the Tobias Center and the International Leadership Association, we really appreciate your time.
DE PREE: Well, you’re very welcome. I’ve enjoyed it. I think you’re good at what you do and we’ve certainly meandered around the subject of leadership.
SCARPINO: Thank you. I’m going to go ahead and turn these off.