The following interview was locked into Dave Wright’s home computer in December 1996.
On January 7, 1997, he checked into the University of Iowa Medical Center for a bone marrow transplant, hoping for a complete cure for his leukemia.
We were overwhelmed with support from friends in central Illinois. Not only were you there with your emotional support, but you were there with practical help like meals, transportation by car and air, financial and business support, and many visits, phone calls, cards and letters.
Dave was dismissed from the hospital on February 12. After four weeks at home, however, he began the first of many admittances to both Methodist Medical Center and back to the University of Iowa Medical Center. Graft vs. Host Disease (a rejection of the donated marrow), viral and bacterial infections, needed transfusions and other complications finally took their toll. He was rushed one last time to the emergency room at Methodist on May 28. He died at the medical center at 7:05 a.m. June 4.
Those of you who knew Dave personally will recall his no-nonsense realistic approach to life’s complexities.
Over the years, readers, colleagues and friends had asked Dave how he began the publications. Reflecting over the past few years before going into the hospital, Dave felt the need to write his personal story. He asked me to share it with Inter-Business Issues readers should he not make it back to work.
Jan Benson Wright
What was your background like? What did you do prior to getting into the writing and publishing field?
I was a protestant clergyman for about twelve years. (Many people find that very hard to believe, incidentally). My formal training was in philosophy and theology (I taught philosophy part time at Illinois Central College a few years ago). My father was a minister, as were a bother, uncle and a couple of cousins, so it was kind of a family thing. I tell people I’m really quite bright – it only took me a dozen years to figure out I was in the wrong line of work!
I know it’s hard to imagine, but I was a real “liberal” in college, kind of a rebel. I attended a pretty conservative (to say the least) religious college, and I was always kind of a misfit. I guess I enjoyed religion and philosophy because of the intellectual challenges they posed.
You certainly wouldn’t be accused of being a “liberal” today. What happened?
Well, I am certainly an economic and political conservative, and while I am not aligned with the religious right per se, I believe in the importance of what Vice President Dan Quayle espoused early on as “family values.” And I truly believe in the work ethic. Economic entitlements have done much more harm than good in our nation.
How did Central Illinois Business Publishers get started?
In 1989, my wife Jan and I decided on a career change. I’ll admit we had some encouragement from a couple of quarters. We had lived in Morton off and on since 1978. Not really knowing where to go or what to do, we moved to Canton, where I began working as a marketing director for a small business, Wesley & Company, which, believe it or not, was the nation’s largest wholesaler of specialty batteries (hearing aid, watch batteries, etc.). My boss there was my old college roommate, Tom Drake. He really hired me to develop some new ventures for the company, but before I signed on he said, “Dave, I have to tell you something: there’s about a 2 percent change the owner is going to sell the business.” (Anything Tom thought probably wouldn’t happen he gave a “2 percent chance.”) “But,” he said, “I don’t want you to worry about it. It’s not going to happen.”
A month after I arrived on the job in March 1989, the business was sold. The company formed a new name, Heinze Business Services, and I was told my salary and expenses would be paid until January. If by that time I had developed a profitable enterprise, I might be able to stay on. (My guaranteed salary at that time was the grand sum of $300 a week.)
Heinze Business Services offered a variety of services to businesses, from packaging to warehousing to distribution. I did a little bit of everything. I even got involved in some manufacturing work, with the management of a nail-packaging operation for Keystone Steel & Wire.
I knew if the company was going to survive and I was going to have a job, we had to grow and grow fast, so I began soliciting Peoria businesses for outsource, contract work. My first move was to design and produce a direct mail piece. Halfway through the design it occurred to me what I did with most of the direct mail pieces that came across my desk. So I thought, “I have to do something different to make a business manager want to read this thing.” That’s when I got the idea of producing an eight-page business newsletter, filled with short, easily readable business updates, and a nice ad promoting Heinze Business Services. I would call it Inter-Business Issues. Then I thought, “Why not sell some business-card size ads to help pay for the cost of production and mailing?” So I hit the street with a rough draft of what the first newsletter would look like.
So the first Inter-Business Issues was only eight pages in length?
Yes, the first eight-page issues was mailed to a thousand businesses in August 1989. I sold five business card-size ads at $100 each (much more expensive than our current advertising rates). I can still remember who those five original paid advertisers were: Madison Park Bank, Computer Age, Sonitrol, Holiday Inn Brandywine, and Peoria Insurance Services.
Did you have any experiences in design or production?
Absolutely none. I actually went out and bought an Exacto knife, some graph paper and a bottle of rubber cement! I had never heard of “desktop publishing.” When I went to the printer, he was kind and didn’t laugh at me. He gave me some pointers and told me what supplies I would need to do things right. For me, it was trial and error, hit and miss. But there is no school like the school of experience. You can learn techniques. You can learn technology. What you really can’t learn is raw ability and drive.
What kind of connections did you have in the local business community at the time you launched Inter-Business Issues?
I really had none. My insurance agent worked in Peoria and I, of course, knew a few Peoria business people casually. Almost nobody in Peoria knew me in 1989; I certainly had no favors to call in. But I thought I had a good idea, and I decided to act like I knew what I was doing. So when I would conclude a successful advertising sale and the client would ask if I needed the ad copy “camera-ready” or “on film,” I would just say “Either one would be fine.” Then I would go ask the printer what the heck those terms meant! I spent weeks walking the streets and office buildings of Peoria selling people on a business publication.
Were most people encouraging?
They really were. Every once in awhile I hear people talk about what a closed community Peoria is. I never found it that way at all. I found the business community very open.
You’ve always featured an interview with a business or community leader. How did you decide who you would approach to interview when you first started and no one knew you or the publication?
We decided to approach very visible people to try to establish some credibility. After numerous phone calls, we were able to get Mayor Maloof to agree to give us a few minutes for an interview for the first issue; Peoria had just won the All-America City award. When we got to the mayor’s office, he had second thoughts about doing the interview and almost kicked us out. Just as we were about ready to give up and leave the office, I asked him, “Mayor, just how was Peoria able to win this All-America City award?” and turned on my tape recorder. He talked for an hour.
Over the next few months we did interviews with Bruce Saurs, Nick Owens and Ray Becker, all of whom were prominent in the news at the time. I remember there was no way I could get through to Ray Becker on the phone to ask for an interview, so I started going to his office every few days and asking the receptionist if he was in. Usually he wasn’t in or was busy. Once as I was sitting there in the reception area, he came walking down the hall. I stood up, introduced myself, and told him what I wanted. He pulled his datebook out of his coat pocket and set an appointment for later that week. I remember later sitting in his plush office, while he spat little bits of the cigar he was chewing into a spittoon, thinking, “I don’t really belong here but here I am!”
What other interesting experiences did you have early on?
During the Bruce Saurs interview, Bruce made the statement that the quality of the Ford automobile was great, but was still second to Honda at the time. Joe Messmore at Honda World got hold of a copy of that Inter-Business Issues, and started running television ads quoting Saurs as saying, “They (Ford) are admitting that Honda is the best quality car that you money can buy. I don’t think that’s any secret,” citing Inter-Business Issues and concluding the commercial by saying, “Thanks Bruce!” It was so funny to see and I don’t know how much Honda World benefited from it, but Inter-Business Issues sure did. Of course then I went to see Joe Messmore and told him I though he owed us some advertising – which he agreed to.
In the beginning days, I was out of the office the biggest majority of the time – doing “cold call” advertising sales, gathering news and personally distributing copies of Inter-Business Issues all over town, putting them in racks and in offices. I even collected accounts receivable personally. Talk about staying in personal contact with your customer!
Inter-Business Issues quickly developed into a magazine, evolving from the newsletter format. Were you surprised?
It was apparent to me after about four months that this little journalistic endeavor had the potential to grow rapidly and become a meaningful source of income. That’s what we decided to concentrate on its growth. At the same time we decided to begin The Peoria Woman magazine, I brought my wife Jan (kicking and screaming, I might add) into the business as editor.
The story of The Peoria Woman mirrors that of Inter-Business Issues. In a nutshell, we didn’t know what we were doing and we had no business connections. Someone once told me that you can do about anything and go about anywhere if you act like you know what you’re doing. So we pretended we knew what we were doing, for a while…now we know a little more.
In retrospect we did begin publishing at a great time for business in the Peoria area, as the economy was booming after the mid-1980s recession, and we had identified some great niches in which to work. It was a case of being at the right place at the right time, and being willing to work hard on what you did know and bluff your way through the rest. When you stop to think about it, we were lucky. By all odds, somebody should have already had our niche markets nailed down with specialty publications.
You’ve developed a good relationship with Caterpillar Inc. over the years, interviewing Chairman and CEO Donald V. Fites on three different occasions. How did that develop?
Let me preface my answer by admitting I was a true fan of Caterpillar long before I moved to the Peoria area. I grew up near Aurora and one of my earliest memories was touring the Cat plant there as a child, amazed at the monstrous yellow machines.
In recent years a relationship of trust gradually developed between myself and Caterpillar leaders. I never made any apologies for being pro-business, so when the United Auto Workers dispute erupted, Inter-Business Issues took a firm, pro-company stance. We were way out front of the business community at large on the issue. Many business leaders were unwilling to go on record in support of Caterpillar, including the CEO of the Chamber of Commerce at the time.
While many of the media in central Illinois were talking about the woes of the striking UAW workers and the “unfair labor practices” of the company, I was talking about a revitalized Fortune 50 company leader the manufacturing world into the 21st century, despite an antiquated union utilizing criminal tactics. I was talking about a company’s right to manage, drumming up support for the area’s largest employer. Many people thought what I was doing was bold and controversial. I thought it was just common sense.
I would have to say the interviews I’ve done with Don Fites have been highlights of my career. He is the business leader I most admire, bar none; and I feel privileged to have had the chance to know him. Aside from what I consider to be his technical and management brilliance on a global level, he is a true “working CEO.” Every time I’ve been in his office his desk is full of papers, open books and, of course, a functioning personal computer. You can tell he really works. I’ve been in the offices of CEOs running a business of ten employees and their offices look like a museum – glistening desks with a carefully arranged pen set, clock and coffee cup.
Sometimes I think this community takes Caterpillar for granted today, although it shouldn’t after everything that has happened over the past two decades. We are very fortunate to have this company headquartered here. Frankly, we are very fortunate they made the moves they did or they wouldn’t be so well positioned for the future. Their management team is outstanding, both from a global and community leadership perspective.
In your commentaries on Caterpillar, however, you did develop a reputation of being anti-union. Is it fair to say you don’t have a lot of use for unions?
No, that’s not fair. I never blasted unions at large, but I did call it like I saw it with the UAW, a union whose power base was centralized in Detroit and which was long overdue for a wake-up call. Unfortunately it got generalized. I have nothing but the greatest respect for the way local trade unions (for example) have worked with central Illinois businesses to help this economy prosper over the past few years – good people like Don Noe, Mark Ayers and others; and good labor-management organizations like TRICON and NECA/IBEW.
When unions operate from a base of corruption, disingenuity, and just plain laziness, I have no use for them. I know a little bit about unions firsthand having been a Teamster in my early work years during and after college. That was in the bad old days of the early 1970s when it was pretty much understood that the mob ran things. I can remember being scared to death walking into the union hall in Kankakee, Illinois, to vote for a contract that union leadership didn’t want approved – standing there surrounded by thugs in black topcoats, hats and sunglasses. These were the same guys who had been sent down from Chicago to burn crosses in people’s lawns, shoot out truck tires and firebomb cars.
When I began to speak out against the UAW and its tactics (Caterpillar had reprinted several of my articles for distribution to their world-wide work force), I became an object of the union’s derision. In addition, I received several death threats.
Unions have historically done some good things. There was probably a time in history when they were needed more than today; these days government regulations and mandates cover about everything imaginable in the workplace.
When unions exist to protect the union bureaucracy/power base and encourage the slackard of non-competitive employee – as is the case far too often today, particularly in the public sector – then they have forfeited their case.
What were some of your other most memorable or enjoyable interviews?
Speaker of the U.S. House Tom Foley and Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole came to Peoria a couple of years back for the annual Creve Coeur Club Washington Day Banquet. It was quite an event, a tribute to retiring House Minority Leader Bob Michel. Arrangements had been made for me to interview both Foley and Dole. The catch was I would have just twenty minutes, and I would have to do it riding with them in the car from the Peoria airport to the Hotel Pere Marquette.
Senator Dole was first off the jet. He climbed into the back seat of the car and I got in the front. Since Foley hadn’t yet stepped our of the plane, I started talking to Dole, introducing myself and reminding him of the interview his staff had approved. He just growled, scowled, and basically refused to say anything. I mist say I have seldom been treated more rudely!
Moments later Speaker Foley climbed in the back seat next to Dole. I introduced myself and he smiled broadly in recognition. He began talking very warmly like we had been friends for years. Dole sheepishly began joining in and, on the way into Peoria, I conducted the interview on my knees, leaning over the front seat of the car with my tape recorder in hand. Seldom do I have an appreciation for a liberal Democrat, but Foley was one welcome sight that afternoon!
What has been the most embarrassing thing that has happened to you since you’ve been in publishing?
We did a short interview in early 1990 with (then) Caterpillar Chairman George Schaefer. It was to appear in the first “magazine” edition of Inter-Business Issues (expanded from the eight-page newsletter format). It was a major accomplishment to get the interview, and the Caterpillar public relations staff was understandably concerned that everything be done right.
The interview went off without a hitch and I carefully proofed everything when the magazine was ready to go to press. The only thing that remained to be done was the magazine cover which was to read “An interview with Caterpillar Chairman George Schaefer.” The final cover work was done by someone else; I was out of the office and didn’t have a chance to proof it. It was only after the magazine had been mailed that I learned there was a typo on the cover. Caterpillar had been spelled C-a-t-e-r-p-i-l-l-e-r!
It’s hard to describe how terrible I felt. It’s one of those things that, when you think about it a year later, you still cringe! To top it off, an associate got hold of some Caterpillar stationery and mailed me a mock letter from the Caterpillar chairman, very sarcastic in tone, in which he offered to change the spelling of the company name due to the widespread influence of Inter-Business Issues in the corporate world!
You’ve had somewhat of a running feud through the years with the management of the Peoria Journal Star, and you’ve never been bashful about “taking them on” in your editorial capacity. What has been the basis for that?
I was warned early on to “never get in an argument with someone who buys their ink by the barrel,” but I guess I haven’t done that good of a job heeding that advice.
During the first couple of years, the Journal Star did several articles about our company and magazines; they thought we were a very enterprising young company! Then I guess we started to get too successful and became viewed as a competitor, which is kind of silly when you stop to think that they were a multimillion dollar company with hundreds of employees and we were a start-up publishing company with three employees.
What they saw was that we were beginning to command the attention and respect of the “movers and shakers” in town. The truth is we took a very conservative, pro-business stance and made no bones about it. Their editorial board was, in comparison, quite liberal (and still is, though for how much longer we don’t know with the buyout by the more conservative Copley) and did a lot of business-bashing, really. We purposely did things to promote business and the community at large.
Members of the Journal Star editorial board have accused me of everything from “stealing their news” to “shaming the journalistic profession.” I have filed a few of their letters away for future use and as reminders that I must be doing some things right.
I never had anything against the Journal Star personally. Heck, I put its publisher, John McConnell, on the cover of Inter-Business Issues. We put the editorial page editor, Barb Drake, on the cover of The Peoria Woman. I’m certainly not threatened by them. But, with my own conservative bias, I won’t back off pointing out to this community what I believe is their liberal editorial bias. Newspapers have a right to their editorial viewpoints, but they often won’t openly admit their bias; it gets blended in with their news coverage as if it were the “objective” truth. No wonder Thomas Jefferson once sad, “The most truthful part of a newspaper is the advertisements” – one of my favorite lines. Here’s another one courtesy of George Ade: “He had been kicked in the head by a mule when young, and believe everything he read in the Sunday papers.”
What is your philosophy of doing business?
In today’s competitive business world, you either find your market niche or you pack it up. That doesn’t mean you can’t be versatile; it does mean you have to know what you do well and what you don’t.
Business is all about relationships. There are a myriad of products and services out there. People still buy because of people, whether it’s a good salesperson or a friend referring a product.
My philosophy of doing business (and philosophy of sales) has four points: Be professional, be personal be persistent, and be proactive. Professionalism includes a quality product or service, integrity, and a passion to do everything first class. Being personal involves establishing a serious and mutually rewarding relationship with a client, not just “making a sale.” Persistence is the real key to success in business. The good salesperson knows that sales successes are directly proportional to sales attempts. Being proactive means anticipating your clients’ needs and beginning to develop solutions to problems they are only starting to define.
Dave’s philosophy of life:
Life does not guarantee luxury;
Liberty does not entail license;
And the pursuit of happiness acknowledges the possibility of failure.