John Sampson

Steering us on the Road to One Million

John Sampson. Photography by Neal Bruns.

It would be tempting for John Sampson to sit on his laurels now that his Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership has helped land an inaugural $42 million Regional Cities grant from the State of Indiana. But, as he says, now the real work begins. Find out how the team accomplished this, and what secret ambition he still has, as we play 20 Questions.

1. What went through your mind when the Regional Cities grant was announced?
That it had to be more “regional” than it was originally (planned). In the early days, one or two years ago, it was more of a regional “cities” program. But regions aren’t successful without vibrant core cities, and cities are very dependent on the health of the surrounding region.

2. Is this the time to rest on your laurels?
No! We’ve hardly arrived at our potential.

3. What’s the hardest part of striking a deal?
The hard part of the deal is building that trust. The deal (for the Regional Cities proposal) was struck when we asked 11 counties to participate. We went way out on the trust limb. We did an amazing thing. Truly remarkable.

4. What’s the easiest part?
The easy part of the deal is getting to the terms, conditions and specifics. When you’ve agreed to make the deal, getting the details is the easy part.

5. What task as partnership head has made you most nervous?
I’m deathly afraid of public speaking. The second is flying, and I’m an aerospace engineer!

6. What skills you learned as an aerospace engineer do you use today?
Being methodical, systematic and deliberate. I never had any illusion that we’d get to a point and say we’ve arrived. That’s also my downfall.

7. You were the plant manager at the Donald Cook nuclear power plant and you’re a licensed senior reactor operator. What was that job like?
It was hard work, but the people were very special. All of us shared a commitment to doing something we thought was important. Anyone and everyone shared a commitment to public safety.

8. You graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy. Do you still think in naval time?
Yes. My roommate at the Naval Academy was my best man, and he and I would converse in military time.

9. What qualities do successful entrepreneurs share?
It is about risk-taking. We have accomplished things I thought not possible. (Also) having a dogged determination despite the facts. Entrepreneurs can see past the risk to see the opportunities. They take and embrace the risk and derive the benefit.

10.  How do you define success?
I look at the “man in the arena” speech by Theodore Roosevelt. Success for me has been the opportunity to be in the fight. Winning means you fought valiantly. So, I’ve been fired twice by the same person. If I’m going to be fired, it’s going to be for the right reasons. If I was going to be fired again, it wouldn’t be because I didn’t try.

11. Why the “Road to One Million”?
Because we are a marketing organization and “one million” is a key figure. We’re a region of 780,000-790,000 (residents), and there are deals we can’t get because we’re not at 1 million. It’s the right number (for) the way this economy will work.

12. Which part of the plan makes your heart skip a beat?
If all this were going to just be in Fort Wayne, it would be easy. Fort Wayne is the national identity, but … when we invest this money, we’re going to invest it in the region.

13. What is the biggest difference the partnership has made so far?
The $42 million is only a symptom of what we’ve accomplished. It’s the regional collaboration, the trust we’ve built. Our ethics code (will) actually hold each other accountable. It’s the evidence of the strength … we’ve built. It embodies the culture of trust.

14. What difference has it made to the partnership that you are its leader?
What enabled us to build that trust is I have very little ego. What made this work was … it was not about me and what I had invested. I operate with enlightened self-interest. And because I wasn’t from Fort Wayne or Northeast Indiana it made it possible for me to be for the (whole) region. We are stronger and better together.

15. What’s your secret ambition?
To be a professional golfer. If I wasn’t doing this, I would be a coach of a major professional team, either basketball or football.

16. What makes you happy?
My family. My wife, Pam, and my two grown children, Rachel and Michael. My two grandchildren, Jack and Elizabeth. When you get a hug from a 3-year-old, it’s amazing.

17. How did you meet your wife?
We have been dating since she was 15. We met over a biology frog dissection. She was out sick, and I took it to her. I had my eyes on her knees. Hey, it was the ’60s!

18. Who is your hero?
My dad, Ray. He loved me enough to tell me things I didn’t want to hear. I did my best to flunk out of the Naval Academy, and he said “if you quit now, you’ll never know if you could have done it.” That was life-changing.

19. What’s something most people don’t know about you?
That I was fired two times.

20. If you could only do one thing for the rest of your life, what would it be?
My son and I have a dream to operate a sub sandwich shop.

First appeared in the March 2016 issue of Fort Wayne Magazine.


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