The Picture of Success: John Brown
John Brown always had big shoulders. Brown, the incomparable former head of Stryker Corporation, had responsibility placed on him from the time he could hold a garden hoe. The eldest of five children born during the Great Depression, Brown was raised in West Tennessee. “My father worked for a subsidiary of General Motors and lost his job in 1929. He and his brother began farming, with the kids doing our share. Because I was the eldest, I was treated like an adult from about the age of two.”
A Lean Adolescence
John Brown, who would one day lead a major corporation to 20% earnings—and keep it there—was in his early years consumed simply with procuring food, clothes, and shelter. “Our lives became especially difficult when my mom contracted tuberculosis. She was treated in a sanitarium for approximately four years, during which time some of my siblings were sent to live with other relatives, while others, including me, remained with my dad. All the while we were farming for a living, something I swore I would get away from. The work was 24/7 and you just never got caught up.”
As for how growing up in such an unyielding environment affected him, Brown states, “These early experiences were so heavily laden with thoughts of ‘getting by’ that I have always strongly believed in preserving assets. As I gained responsibility in the business world, I was acutely aware that if I managed things incorrectly, people’s lives might be drastically affected. When I think of frugality, I think of my dad, who carried a silver dollar to town on Saturdays hoping that he wouldn’t have to spend it.”
Graduating high school in 1953, John Brown attended a nearby junior college and then transferred to Auburn University. “I met my future wife at the junior college, and, along with several friends, all transferred to Auburn. Why there? One of our ‘gang’ was from Alabama…and had a car.”
Business Boot Camp
True to his word, John Brown moved away from farming. Instead of turnips, however, this time he was exposed to the world of aluminum. “I got a degree in chemical engineering and my wife earned a degree in chemistry. We got married the year we graduated and I went to work for Ormet Corporation, an aluminum company. The metals business in the ‘40s and ‘50s was a rough and tumble world. The majority of people I worked with were former miners from West Virginia, a proud, headstrong bunch. These years taught me how to get along with people who lacked a formal education, but were smart and held strong opinions.”
Learning how to get along with these guys and appreciate their life goals made me a better man and a better manager. I have observed a lot of CEOs over the years, and the smart ones realize that the best way to achieve success is to be a servant of the organization.
Convinced that there were greener pastures elsewhere, in 1962 John Brown left Ormet. “I went to work for Thiokol Chemical Company at the Longhorn Army Ammunition Plant in Texas, an enterprise focused on solid rocket propellant development and manufacture. It was a great place for an engineer; however, after three years and surviving a couple of layoffs, I decided to look for a new job.”
The next five years turned into a business boot camp. John Brown explains, “I went to work for Squibb in 1965 and learned the logistics of taking a product from the pilot stage to production to the marketplace. My mentor was an interesting man who felt that if you are a good manager then you can manage anything. For five years he ran me through several jobs, including, new product coordinator, ‘shut down/relocation person, ’ project manager for a new administration and research headquarters in Princeton, personnel manager, manufacturing manager, and finally, his assistant. In this last role I attended meetings with him, and he would go through the assignments with everyone. After everyone left the room he would turn to me and say, ‘It’s your job to make sure everything gets done.’”
This mentor saw a talented manager in John Brown. “During my tenure at Squibb, the company acquired ‘Edward Weck & Company’, a prominent manual surgical instrument manufacturer. My boss interviewed several people to run this new enterprise, with no success. In exasperation one day, he exclaimed, ‘Would you like to do it?’ I took up the challenge and became intimately familiar with all of the operations of Squibb.”
In 1976 Brown got a call from a recruiter, who was helping Stryker after the loss of its President and CEO. “Lee Stryker, the son of the founder, was killed in a tragic plane crash. The company needed a new leader, but I had my doubts initially. Lee had close friends on the Board, and I didn’t want them to think I was trying to replace him—I knew that wasn’t possible. But one of the directors was assigned the task, ‘Get John Brown.’ He sent my wife flowers, wrote me notes, and finally said, ‘What would it take to get you to come to Stryker?’”
To which John Brown replied, “A little more equity.” Brown says, “After awhile I called him back, gave him a number, and said, ‘If you can assure me that the board is unanimous, then I will accept.’ In 15 minutes he called me back and said, ‘I took a poll. It’s unanimous.’ In reflecting on why they were so motivated to have me as President and CEO, I saw that while they were talking to a number of talented people, the unique thing in my case was that I had run an entire company.”
The town had found its new sheriff. And to ensure that everyone understood the status of the company, its projects, and budgets, Brown set some new things in motion. “We began weekly staff meetings, events where we didn’t set out to solve problems, just identify them. We distributed assignments for the week and month, and focused on giving people a snapshot of where we were. Then we began monthly and quarterly financial reviews, something that was very unique for Stryker.”
“While the staff was enthused, a few grew tired; the pace and long hours of the ‘new’ company were too much” states Brown. “We continually raised expectations and set high goals, and I had an agreement with the company that I would take it public. In the spring of 1979 the market opened up, and the venture capitalists on the board recommended that we take the leap. One of the investment bankers asked, ‘Where are you taking this company?’ I replied, ‘We’re going to be a growth company.’ He then explained that to do this I would have to grow earnings at a rate of 20%. We parted with my saying, ‘OK’ and him looking skeptical.”
With 20% seared in his brain, Brown returned to Stryker headquarters and set the stage for the remaining 26 years of his tenure.
This became our mantra, and probably had more to do with defining Stryker than anything else. Each year everyone knew the goal. And we did it without violating any rules. Ours was a simple code of ethics—no lying, stealing, or cheating.
A humble John Brown notes, “In the first five years it became obvious that the biggest problem in the company was me. I embarked on a decentralization plan, but it was hard to let go at first. The process was that we would grow a business, and once it was a certain size, then we would spin it off. We had a monthly ranking of divisions by sales growth, operating growth, cash flow, etc., something which engendered a healthy sense of competition.”
Advice from a Life-Long Leader
And what does John Brown think about after all these years in the orthopedic industry? “I’m concerned about the political atmosphere and what it means for medical technology, healthcare providers, and, of course, patients. I don’t want our policymakers to lose sight of what we have in this country, namely the world’s best medical technology. I hope that in their effort to provide more care for people, they don’t destroy what we have. The most damaging thing would be to create a slowdown in innovation. If regulatory and reimbursement issues thwart that, then American medical technology will be like that found in the rest of world, and will involve competition based on price instead of innovation. What we need is a balance—there is no such thing as a product without risk, but in turn, life itself is not without risk. The idea is to minimize the chance of problems and side effects—you will never eliminate it.”
Dispatching advice to those who go forward in the field, Brown notes,
It is crucial to continue to strive for quality, meaning, in part, that we need an increased focus on training and improved manufacturing techniques. Additionally, we must drive costs down. As we go forward, the industry will have to focus on three things: quality, cost and innovation. I am pleased to say that I don’t think industry has dropped the ball on any of those three points.
Competition is healthy, says Brown, but don’t give the U.S. orthopedic industry away on a silver plate. “The regulatory side of the business is out of balance, with restrictions from the Sarbanes-Oxley Act and boards now taking over more responsibility than they should have. There are boards of public companies that no longer strategize about how they can be competitive. Ultimately, though, my worry is not company against company, but country against country. The regulatory processes in India and China are not as stringent as those in the U.S., and I worry that our political leaders don’t realize how that affects our industry. If the goal is to create more jobs, then we should think about how to make the U.S. more competitive rather than strangling it. Foreign manufacturers will fill the gap if we do not.”
Now that he has more time to consider what might be beyond the realm of orthopedics, John Brown spends a good part of his time helping people in other ways. Sometimes, he can be found back in the board room. “I serve on the board of St. Jude Medical, a global cardiovascular device company, as well as the board of Gen-Probe, a San Diego based company that focuses on nucleic acid testing. Both companies are progressive, and are coming up with many new ideas and products.”
“I am so thankful for all of the opportunities I have been given, as well as my many friends in the orthopedic community, ” says Brown. “To ‘give back, ’ Rosemary and I have established a foundation focused on education, known as The John and Rosemary Brown Family Foundation. Our goal is to assist not only in the attainment of knowledge, but also in the application of knowledge.”
The disciplined John Brown, along with Rosemary, raised two daughters to appreciate the value of a dollar. “We always tried to set a positive example for them, which included not wasting money; I am proud that they are both very responsible adults. Our firstborn attended Indiana University and Emory University and now works for Coca-Cola. Our other daughter is a graduate of the University of Michigan and the Duke Law School and works for Alston & Bird.”
And if he had the microphone at AAOS?
I would tell the orthopedic community not to lose faith. The American public will always demand top products and service, as well as improved medical technology. And the best of the best will be there to meet those needs.
John Brown…growth for all seasons.