Photography by David Vernon
Growing up in Elmwood, Illinois, Gerry Shaheen worked alongside his brother and sister in their parents’ neighborhood grocery store. It was here that he learned lessons of customer service which he would apply throughout his career into his retirement years. The small-town atmosphere offered opportunities to be involved in a diverse range of activities, and through hard work and preparation, he was able to rise up the ranks of executive leadership at Caterpillar, Inc., where he spent his entire 41-year career.
As group president, he was responsible for the firm’s large construction and mining equipment, U.S. operations, marketing and sales operations in North America, its components business, and the research and development division. Over the years, he held numerous marketing and management positions in the U.S. and in Europe, and once had responsibility for Caterpillar’s business in Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and the former Soviet Union.
Shaheen graduated from Bradley University in 1966 and received his MBA from Bradley in 1968. Years later, it was time to give back to his alma mater. He served as president of the Alumni Association and chairman of the Board of Trustees, helping to spearhead the Campaign for a Bradley Renaissance, a highly successful renovation and expansion of campus facilities. In 1993, he was inducted into the Centurion Society and recognized as a Distinguished Alumnus, and he completed the Tuck Executive Program at Dartmouth College in 1988.
Active in his retirement, Shaheen is a past chairman and current board member of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. He chairs the Illinois Neurological Institute Advisory Board and currently serves on the board of directors of AGCO Corporation, The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, and of course, Bradley University. He was instrumental in the development of Peoria NEXT, helped guide Ford Motor Company through the “Great Recession,” chaired the Metropolitan Airport Authority of Peoria for two terms, and was a leader with the local chapter of the MS Society, among other organizations. He and his wife, Pam, have five children and 11 grandchildren.
Paint a picture of your childhood and your family background.
My parents were both first-generation, born from immigrant families. My father's family settled here in the late 1800s from Lebanon. My mother’s family settled here, a little later, from Poland, so my grandparents were from totally different cultures.
I was raised in Elmwood with my parents as a good support system. They had a daughter, my sister Carol, who still lives in Elmwood, and my twin brother George. We were a hard-working family—we had a grocery store and everybody worked in it.
Elmwood was, and is, a great community to raise a family. The school system is good, the values are good, even in today's complex world. The city fathers have kept the city vibrant. They've experienced a couple tornadoes in my lifetime. The last one in 2010 destroyed the downtown area… but it gave them a chance to rehab the downtown and re-establish itself as a very nice community to live in.
How did your parents meet, and how did they end up in Elmwood?
They met in Sterling, Illinois. I think they were fixed up on a blind date. My father was working for a manufacturing company, and my mother had started nursing school in Chicago. She incurred an illness and came back to convalesce, and they met and got married.
My dad's father felt it was very important to be in business for yourself—and he thought a small town was a better play. He helped all [his children] start businesses in small towns. My parents spent months, maybe a year, driving around looking for small towns that had the environment they wanted. And they chose Elmwood.
Tell us about the lessons you learned working in the family grocery store.
The grocery store taught me three things: You had to work to be successful. You learned to anticipate—because you want to keep your customers. You knew what they liked and what they were looking for, and you helped them. And it taught me how to meet people. It was fun waiting on people and helping them get what they want. I don’t care how far you go in life—those are good values to have in any business.
Then the grocery business changed. Supermarkets started opening… and those small, neighborhood grocery stores reduced in number. So my father bought a bowling alley, but by that time I was out of the house. He ran the bowling alley for 10 or 12 years.
Tell me about your hobbies as a kid. I understand you were involved in all kinds of activities…
There were 49 graduates in my high school class—roughly 200 people in the school—but we had the full complement of sports: basketball, baseball, football, track. We had theater. We had band. In a big school today, you work with your child to pick one event to get involved in. In a small town back then, we had to do it all. We played in all the sports. We played in the band. We were in the plays. You got exposed to everything. Very few of us were world-class at it, but we participated. In a small town, kids have more of an opportunity to be involved and engaged, and that's the beauty of an Elmwood.
What was it like having an identical twin brother?
I get that question a lot, and I'll give my standard answer: How do I know? It’s the only experience I've ever had—I don't know what it's like not to be. (Laughs) And as an aside, my wife's an identical twin as well. The answer is, it's a unique experience—significantly more advantageous than disadvantageous. It does bring competition early in life… but it’s a very positive experience because you have someone to measure yourself against.
Tell us about your experience attending Bradley University.
My parents felt it was very important to get a college education. That was something we agreed with—and we pursued it. It's interesting how [my brother and I] got to Bradley. In high school in those days, referees from Peoria would come out to referee games, and one of them was Orville Nothdurft. He was dean of admissions at Bradley University—one of the kindest men I ever met. During our senior year, we were in the locker room after a game and the coach said, “Hey, one of the referees wants to talk to you both.”
It was Orville Nothdurft. He said, “Boys, what would it take to get you to come to Bradley and try out for our basketball team?” I had never thought about going to Bradley—I thought it was too expensive. He said, “Tell you what. If you two come try out for the freshman basketball team, we’ll give you one scholarship for both of you—each a half.”
That made Bradley presentable to us financially. And Bradley at that time was a major basketball power, so to be asked to try out for the team was unbelievable for us. We made the team and played that season as reserves. But we learned very quickly that Division 1 sports is a full-time job, and unless you're really going to make it… We decided that wasn't likely to happen, so we should concentrate on our studies. Luckily, they kept giving us our scholarship. The rest is history: went to Bradley, loved it, got involved in fraternity life, met people, and my brother got involved in [student government]. We stayed and got our master’s [degrees]… wrote our theses and rode off into the sunset.
What were you looking for when it came time to find a job?
In that era, if you had a college degree and applied for a job, you were going to get an offer. I had a fistful of offers—from General Motors, Ford, U.S. Steel… and Caterpillar. I wanted a company whose product and way of doing business I never had to be embarrassed by—one where I could have a career and grow from within. I set all my offers in front of me and chose Caterpillar… and it was what I thought it was. I got from it more than I ever thought I would get.
What did you know about Caterpillar growing up as a kid?
In Elmwood, a substantial number of men worked in the factory. A bus would pick them up every morning in the central park and bring them back when they got off work. Those were our customers in the store—they were all union guys and they spoke lovingly of the company. They worked hard. I could see they had a nice lifestyle—with a lot less worries than my parents had. I knew it was a good company.
So tell us about those early years working at Caterpillar.
I was an early MBA—people didn't really know what that meant. Business kind of did, because what we were introduced to at that time was the emerging field of quantitative analysis. Before you made business decisions based on facts and what was in your gut, the MBA was trained to be more specific about making decisions based on strategy, vision, quantitative analysis, etc.
Caterpillar wanted to hire some MBAs to bring that into the company. I was one of three hired into the product support/service warranty area. Our job was to use quantitative analysis to help anticipate product failures. They wanted the ability to understand that problem quantitatively so they could anticipate how big it was going to be and reduce the amount of time it took to fix it. In order to do that, we had to develop software to record incidents. So we built a system. Every time a work order was opened by a dealer, it came into the system. We knew the date it was opened. We knew the date the machine was sold. We knew exactly was wrong, as they fixed it. And that became a service warranty data system, which grew very large. I had the opportunity to work for a lot of people. The beauty of that is, you learn from the less effective manager as much as you learn from the effective manager, what to do and not to do. And I took that as a learning experience.
How did you work your way into management?
I went from that data analytics work into the replacement parts business. And they came to me one day and said they wanted to make me an assistant manager in the service department. I may be a lot of things, but one thing I'm not is a technical person. I said, “Are you sure you got the right guy?”
They laughed and said, “We want you to be an assistant service manager for a guy who is technically off the charts—but a lot of our problems today involve getting the customer calmed down, getting the customer to accept our help, etc. He doesn't have that strength in his skillset, so we'd like to pair you with him.”
I went away saying maybe I ought to leave this company—we're not on the same page. Then I thought more about it. You know, life is about multiple experiences. If you only stay with your strengths, you will not be all you can be. If you accept challenges, if you are willing to learn, go for it. If I had not done that, I don't know where I would have ended up.
But I did take that job. He and I were a good team. In the process, I learned about the engineering and technical side of the business—enough to appreciate and understand it. And in the future, I managed people with that skillset. It taught me that you can learn and be effective if you give yourself a chance to try something different. That's what brought me into management.
Tell us about your experience during the strike in the early 1990s, when management replaced the workers on the line.
I had nothing to do with the decisions made by top management—that was way over my head. But I watched it play out. That experience, and the reorganization of the company by George Schaefer and eventually Don Fites, were two significant events that helped shape a lot of people at Caterpillar at that time. The strike portion proved that if the company asked you to do something totally different—like go out in the factory and work, which you never thought you'd ever do—that can turn out well.
I was in management in Peoria, and we all went to the factory. I’ll never forget it. I was boring holes in D6 track links at the East Peoria plant. The unrecognized significance of that experience was that it's easy to sit in an office somewhere and design a piece of equipment or a process, and flip it to the plant to execute… But when we put our engineers and design people out in the factory to build the stuff they designed, they would come back after hours and change drawings. They would improve things, because for the first time, they had to build what they designed. And the company really benefited from that.
What have you been most proud of over the course of your career?
When Caterpillar sent me back to Europe in the late ‘90s, we had a business problem of performance, of culture. And we got a lot done. We improved the culture. It needed a kickstart and we needed to put performance pressure on our dealers to do better. I felt good about that. I didn't do it myself—I did it with a team of people—and we were able to convince them that we could be more successful than we were.
The second experience I had was out at Mossville. We already had a good engine business; I think we built a great engine business. The development of the global mining business also stands out in my mind.
Now, if you were to ask what is the most satisfying experience you've had in business? It's the time I spent helping Ford Motor Company survive the 2007-‘08 recession. [Shaheen served on Ford’s board of directors during that time.]
You've met presidents and many other high-level government officials. Do any particular memories stand out?
We were invited by President George and Laura Bush to the state dinner for Queen Elizabeth. That was a very special night neither Pam nor I will ever forget. It's kind of interesting. You can take the most important people in the world and put them in similar dress, like a black-tie outfit, and somehow everybody becomes equal… It started with a long cocktail hour. I think there were 230 people, 115 couples, and we met most of them. You met very important people, and you met people you never heard of. I'm sure we were in the latter (laughs). But it was a fun evening.
Back in the ‘90s, I got to know the fellow in Washington who ran the association for the trucking industry, because a lot of truckers bought our engines. After a few years, he became president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and asked me to go on his board. So I've been around Washington since then. I was chairman of the Chamber. I've represented the Chamber at many significant events and continue to do so.
What was it like to chair a national organization?
First of all, you get a lot of invitations to give speeches, and I got tremendous support from Caterpillar to do that. If I had to give a speech in Seattle, I could take the company plane. So I was able to really increase my reach. I went to Europe a couple times and talked to European leaders, particularly when they were bringing the EU… into Brussels. I was involved in all of that.
The Chamber is a tremendous organization. A lot of organizations claim to speak for business; I'll submit to you that the one that speaks for business best is the Chamber. Some of these organizations of business leaders talk a lot, but nobody wants to take the risk of hurting their own image. We don't have that problem. I'm still on the board and highly involved.
After you retired from Caterpillar, did you miss the work?
First of all, I missed—and still miss—the people. I don't miss the day-to-day meetings and the drudgery of consensus building, etc., as big companies have to do, but I miss the people. I worked with a lot of good people—not only good in business, but just good people.
I tell people: don't retire until you are ready to retire, and don't retire from something, retire to something. I was ready to go to the next chapter of my life. I was consumed by my board work, which at the time was National City Bank, Ford Motor Company, AGCO Corporation, the U.S. Chamber and Bradley University.
What has driven your dedication to Bradley?
That's easy—I went to Bradley to get an education so I could have a good career, and Bradley delivered. I came out of Bradley much wiser and more experienced than when I went in. I was exposed to a bigger environment than what I came from.
At some point, Caterpillar offered me the opportunity to go to an extended summer business school. I could have gone to Harvard or Duke or Northwestern… any of the Ivy League schools, but I chose the Tuck School of Business, which is part of Dartmouth [College] in New Hampshire. A lot of schools that offer these summer executive programs import faculty from around the country. At Dartmouth, you got the same instructors that teach their MBA students at Tuck. That's what I wanted.
There were maybe 50 in our class, and a lot of them had MBAs from other significant schools. I found that I was fully competitive—my Bradley MBA was as good as anybody else's.
So as I got older and Bradley asked me to get involved, I got involved and stayed involved. I had two tours as [board] chairman, and the biggest event from that time was the Renaissance campaign. We raised $170 million or thereabouts for our facilities, which were out of date, and we brought Bradley into the current times with modern facilities that will serve us a long time. If we hadn't done that, Bradley wouldn't be what she is today.
Tell us about your community involvement outside of Bradley.
When I first started at Caterpillar, I was a member of the downtown Kiwanis Club—that's how I got introduced to people as I started to create Peoria as my home. I must have been part of the Kiwanis Club for eight or 10 years, then I moved on.
Don Fites did a lot of great things as chairman of Caterpillar—one of them I'll never forget. When I was made a vice president, he called to congratulate me. And he said, “I want all my vice presidents involved in the community. I'm not going to tell you what to choose—you and your wife will choose the things you want to sponsor. And we will more than match your contributions.”
Pam and I recognized that Peoria has some great philanthropic organizations, probably second to none: Easterseals, Children's Home, United Way, Red Cross, you can go on and on. But we felt they already had a particularly strong involvement of people… and we wanted to make a bigger impact. Pam elected to get significantly involved with the Center for Prevention of Abuse, and I elected to get involved in the Multiple Sclerosis Society… They didn't have a strong support base. So that's where we put our emphasis.
Larry Walden was a significant manager at Caterpillar… and when he retired, he was diagnosed with MS. He said, “Gerry, I’m not going to take this lying down. The least I can do is put my good assets and my energy to work.” Larry's tenacious—he focuses on something and gets it done. MS is not going away quickly or easily, but we are much better equipped to help the citizenry now because of Larry Walden and a small group of us around him. Pam and I are very proud of the small part we played in that.
MS is what led me to the Illinois Neurological Institute (INI). Larry called me once and said, “Hey, I'm getting treated at OSF for my MS. It's all in the neurological department and they want to create a business out of it. We need business leaders to help us build a business plan. Would you join me on the board?” And I said yes. They elected me chairman, and I'm still chairman.
The world's best neurological center is in Phoenix, Arizona—the Barrow Institute. It's the Mayo Clinic of neurology, and we want to build a similar practice here. Peoria is lucky to have the INI—you can get most of the services you need for neurological problems right here. That, and the development of the MS Center, which is part of the INI, are things we feel pretty good about.
You’ve kept very busy in your retirement years with your board service. How do you unwind or relax?
Pam and I are travelers. We get a lot of opportunities to spontaneously travel. We take at least one major trip to Europe every year, and we have a home in Arizona. I didn't retire to read books and play golf. I do read books and I do play golf, but we didn't retire for that. So we play golf together. Neither one of us consider ourselves all that good at it, but we do like to play together.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
I believe hard work creates opportunity, and opportunity leads to success. I hope we don't ever walk away from that… I want people to be encouraged by a guy who’s been through the system and can tell you there's still opportunity for people who work hard and prepare themselves—not to lose sight of that and not to give up. iBi