The secret of my success

If secret it is

From left: Don Wood, Chuck Surack (standing), Win Moses (seated), Steve Corona (seated), Kevin Donley (standing) and Tom Smith. Not pictured are Karen Gibbons-Brown, Marilyn Moran-Townsend and Michelle Gladieux. photography by Neal Bruns

Editor’s Note: Right now, Fort Wayne and Northeast Indiana are focused on success, focused on building for success in the future, focused on creating successful companies, successful people, a successful workforce – success of all kinds. Fort Wayne wants to be a successful city at the heart of a successful region. The time therefore is right to ask some of our most successful people to share what they know about this thing we call success.

One of the most honest appraisals of how to either achieve or define success comes from the beginning of an academic paper where the writer wryly notes that in his research he found that his subjects shared one attribute: they all comb, or have at some point, combed their hair.

The idea of success isn’t easy. We all have different ideas about how it is achieved – hard work, commitment, a lot of faith, a little luck. There is one attribute, though, that is as obvious as it is pulse-raising: taking the first step. It is the guts to move forward into an uncertain future, to risk one’s reputation with an idea, to step back in to recover a reputation.

Of all the people interviewed, this boldness is the one kernel that appeared to tie together a group of individuals ranging from corporate giants to a lithe ballet master – whose tender Southern lilt masks her toughness.

If success is something earned, is the person who achieves it born with some innate talent or drive or some combination?

Don Wood is the owner of 80/20, a multimillion-dollar company that builds and sells aluminum framing components known as “The Industrial Erector Set.” He started with six employees in Fort Wayne and now has more than 400 and a 135,000-square-foot plant in Columbia City. Wood began his sales career at 7, when he sold seeds door-to-door for Victory Garden drives during World War II. At 14, he was selling vacuums; at 16 he was selling insurance. He ascended to the vice presidency of sales at PHP before he started 80/20 on Jan. 1, 1990 at the age of 58, at a time when his friends were looking at retirement. Wood sums up success in one word: attitude. It’s the one thing a person can control.

Fort Wayne Ballet executive and artistic director Karen Gibbons-Brown was told that she was so upset that she didn’t make “The Nutcracker” at 12 that she started ballet over again with the 6-year-olds. Four years later she was accepted to the American Ballet Theater, not because she was the most gifted, but because she was passionate. Being accepted to the prestigious ballet company was great, but she had to convince her parents to let her move from comfortable Columbia, S.C., to New York City at 16. They let her go. In 1998, she moved to Fort Wayne and became the first woman to direct the ballet – yet one more moment where her passion would drive her.

Marilyn Moran-Townsend laughs when she recalls having her mother question her daughter’s sanity for leaving a well-paying, high-profile job at Channel 33 to start a business communications business. In 1981. With a six-month-old at home. At the height of a recession in Fort Wayne when International Harvester closed. Thirty-five years later, with a gold list of clients and a bevy of awards, it’s safe to say Marilyn Moran-Townsend and her husband, Bill, made the right call in starting CVC Communications.

Are successful people born with talent or under the right set of stars or kissed by fate or God or gods?

“This is a debate that’s been waged in the field of organizational psychology for decades,” said Michelle Gladieux, owner and founder of Gladieux Consulting. For the past 18 years, Gladieux has guided corporate leaders and boards toward building a foundation for growth and success.

“Authority figures used to adhere more strongly to the belief that one is either a born leader or born follower,” she said. “These days the prevailing wisdom from statistically significant field research recognizes that with effective instruction, practice and determination, skills (for example, supervising a team) can be learned. We use personality assessment as a prerequisite for executive coaching programs to allow clients a written and graphical depiction of how they’re gifted, how they’re vulnerable and how they’re genetically predisposed to behave. From that starting point – knowing the hand you’ve been dealt, you might say – I’ve seen impressive professional and personal growth in every level of leader in dozens of industries, in government teams and at nonprofits around the nation.  It is truly inspiring.”

What did not seem to inspire these people are the material trappings of success. While wealth is obviously quantifiable, it isn’t a good indicator of anything other than one has a great deal of money.

Maybe it is not surprising in the City of Churches, but spirituality is something that was independently brought up by almost all those interviewed for this story: That spirituality, or core belief system, they say, drives their success, as well as philanthropy.

Moran-Townsend’s prayer life fuses the personal and the professional, asking for her Creator’s grace for good health, blessing and to remain true to her mission of doing things with integrity. Philanthropy and civic volunteerism are an outgrowth of that faith.

Fort Wayne City Councilman Tom Smith cites his Catholicism as a touchstone no matter his place in life. And it’s not just traditional religious practices and teachings. Wood, a devout Episcopalian from Iowa, discovered transcendental meditation 40 years ago, and he sees it as a key to his success and has become an advocate of it in the workplace.

Another example is Steve Corona, the longest-serving board member for Fort Wayne Community Schools, who was recently honored with the Father Tom Light of Christ award. According to the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, the award is presented to a person of faith “whose life and work reflect the values of Father (Tom) O’Connor, who served as pastor of St. Mary’s from 1970 until his death on St. Patrick’s Day, 2004.”

Corona, an Indiana University graduate who moved to Fort Wayne in 1972 from Gary, Ind., said his life’s success is not what he has earned, but what he has given back to Fort Wayne as a trustee of the University of Saint Francis and a member of the city’s redevelopment commission, as well as through his work with Community Harvest Food Bank.

Working with the young is also important. A year after he retired in 2012 as president and CEO of JobWorks, Corona created Latinos Count, a nonprofit group that works with South Side High School’s Latino students to prepare them for the global workforce.

“As a minority, I think it’s important to share your story with the young,” Corona said. “You were that person – that kid who was trying to figure out what to do with his life.”

Success, he said, is predicated on the notion of hope and aspiration but grounded in sacrifice and hard work.

“It’s not about how much do you want to make, but how hard are you willing to work,” Corona said.

Gibbons-Brown sees it as either being mission-driven or profit-driven: Is it to effect change or make money to give to effect change?

Sweetwater Sound’s Chuck Surack is probably an example of being both. His company is an industry powerhouse, and his philanthropy is epic.

“I have never, ever – and it’s funny how things have turned out – been focused on money,” Surack said.

From a four-track studio in a VW bus to working on sound design for Stevie Wonder and other hit makers to Sweetwater’s retail business and environmentally friendly headquarters and worker-friendly amenities, Surack counted both the Boy Scout motto and the Golden Rule as the key to his personal and professional success.

“My idea of success is hopefully I leave this place better than I found it,” he said, “that I was able to influence and encourage others. That means much more to me than material goods do. I’m not going to be able to take it with me. I love that I can be an inspiration, particularly to the young people that I mentor and take to.”

One thing Surack was adamant about was that failure is never an option.

“Yes, you can learn from failure, which is a question I get asked in interviews, and there aren’t many things that I’ve failed at, but from a business point of view there is always a way to make good out of something.”

What choices do successful people make at the “what if” points of their lives?

One would believe that Surack embodies that Shakespearean dictum that “It is not in the stars to hold our destiny but in ourselves.” Yes, but that doesn’t always mean we get to pick and choose the path. Kevin Donley knows that all too well. In 17 years as the one and only coach of the University of Saint Francis football team, he has amassed a record of 100 wins and 19 losses in conference play and 12 conference championships, and he has graduated numerous All-Conference, All-American scholar-athletes.

And what if he hadn’t left an ultra-successful Georgetown (Ky.) University team to coach at NCAA Division II California (Penn.) University? What if he hadn’t been dismissed from California? What if his friend, Terry Hoeppner, hadn’t played matchmaker for a coach who wanted to build a team from the bottom up and a school who needed someone who was in it for the long haul?

In his first season, he guided his team to a 2-8 record. The next year, they won their first conference championship with an 8-2 season.

Yes, it was a success for the soft-spoken coach. But what made that team special, and what keeps him coming back, is watching his players start off as 18-year-old boys and watching them become men. But not just big guys who know their Xs and Os, he said.

“Our mission, the mission of the university, is to help young people to discover what it takes to be successful in life,” he said.

There is a symbiotic relationship between their achievement on the field and in life and his success as a coach. It is something, he said, that permeates throughout his staff – building relationships beyond the field and locker room.

Ballet is, to be honest, the same approach. Gibbons-Brown doesn’t think of herself as “successful,” despite being world-renowned for her ballet pedagogy. She has placed students in programs and companies around the globe; she draws students and teachers to Fort Wayne for its intense, highly selective summer program. She demands that the students not just know toe positions, but also their historical and social development and the history of the art form.

What actually made her voice crack, when asked about what success means, was thinking about a note she received from a former student who recently graduated from medical school. The young woman was not the best student but wrote to Gibbons-Brown that the commitment she learned in ballet is something she carried through high school, undergrad and the rigors of medical school.

“I’ve known what I’ve wanted to do since I was 12 years old,” Gibbons-Brown said, remembering a time when her dad, a professor of chemical engineering at the University of South Carolina, asked why she didn’t become an engineer like him.

“I have never thought of doing anything else,” she continued. “There has never been a moment that I regret doing this.”

Moran-Townsend echoed the idea that success and love of vocation are important in balancing the professional and personal life.

“I tell young people that if you’re going to spend a lot of time doing something, you’ve got to love it,” she said. “Our only rule here is do it with integrity. If you do that, then you don’t have to have any more rules.

“I only need four or five hours a sleep a night,” she added. “I don’t want to spend time worrying if I didn’t treat someone right.”

For politicians, the election hustle is replaced by governance, which is a dance that requires the ability to move to one’s own beat, but quickly find a partner to get things done. It doesn’t always mean your idea wins, but, for Tom Smith, using his office as bully pulpit is the best way to get people to start thinking. A politician cannot just be a gadfly; he or she needs to be a person who brings smart ideas and intelligent people to the table. Case in point, and something that he calls his biggest success, was saving Parkview from closing the hospital on Easte State Boulevard by bringing together constituents with Parkview’s corporate leaders, including CEO Mike Packnett.

That sentiment was echoed by Winfield Moses. Elected in 1980, Moses’s first term as mayor was hit with the city’s largest employer moving out, a collapsing economy and the wrath of Mother Nature.

Moses said his biggest success was bringing in General Motors after International Harvester left. In recent years he worked with GM to expand its operation in Fort Wayne just a few years removed from the possibility of the truck plant closing during the Great Recession as the car company scrambled for survival.

With the glow comes the darkness of public failures – being on the losing side of legislation, losing an election, and – in Moses’s case – the legal wrangling and public pillorying of his campaign fund problems. He not only managed to bounce back; he was elected to the state legislature, thus bucking the idea that there are no second chances.

While failure in pursuit of success can be painful, pursuing a dream is nobler than living through the paralysis of being too afraid to fail. Not succumbing to the latter ties these people together.

Consider if Corona and Moran-Townsend had stayed in television and, possibly, moved somewhere else. Tom Smith was already a successful art dealer who could’ve said no to public office. It is not hard to believe that Win Moses could have moved into a quietish private life after serving as mayor.

In another universe, an alternative Chuck Surack is an innovative soundman; Don Wood is retired in Florida. The rest have taken detours, stayed at home, remained in the background.

We know they didn’t, but consider this: Where would Fort Wayne be without them?

First appeared in the August 2015 issue of Fort Wayne Magazine.


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