065 Hero – Jack Lawson, Board Member and former President/CEO at EECO
Welcome to EECO Asks Why. Today we have a hero conversation. I’m very excited for this. We have with us, Mr. Jack Lawson, who is currently on the board at Electrical Equipment Company. But prior to that, he was the President and CEO of EECO. So welcome Jack.
Thank you, Chris. I’m delighted to be here. Looking forward to having this conversation with you.
Absolutely. Absolutely. This has been the one I’ve been really looking forward to it. I had it circled on my calendar and excited to talk with you and just for the knowledge and wisdom that you’ve poured into my life. So I can’t imagine that you’re going to help so many people just with this conversation. And we love to get these started just by hearing a little bit about your journey through your career.
All right. Well, I started as a young fellow cutting grass and doing that fun thing. I only raise that because I’ve worked somewhere, doing something for money for as long as I remember. My parents weren’t in a position to, if I said, I need $5 for a date, they’d say, here you go, take 10.
They would say, yeah, you know, I really don’t have it. So, I think that was frankly a good start. My first real job, I guess, was in a medical research lab at Medical College of Virginia. I was going to college full-time. Paying for it out of pocket.
It was a convenient job to have because I could work there, I could go to school during the day and some at night. So that’s how I got through most of my college career, was working in a research lab. I spent quite a bit of time in commercial collections, and then eventually worked for a welding supply distributor, which was my introduction to the distribution business and, was there about five years.
And then, fortunately managed to get a job at Electrical Equipment Company as the office manager for the Richmond branch. I ended up, long story that I won’t get into today, but I ended up responsible for the company’s first computerization project. I guess that’s at least partly what got me noticed.
And I went from Office Manager in Richmond to somebody who had their fingers in everything that was going on throughout the company because of the level of engagement and involvement that the computer system had and everybody’s business. And since we’ve never had a computer of that nature before, it got me involved in what everybody was doing at every branch all the time. So, I can’t begin to describe what I learned from that.
So then in the mid nineties, I became manager of the Virginia region, and from there, became the company’s Vice President. Went on the board in the mid nineties as well. And then, became president and CEO in 2001 and retired in mid 2016.
Very good. And that’s just to kind of back us up a little bit, Jack. So you went to school at MCV?
I went to school at VCU.
Or VCU. Okay. That’s right. You said you paid for that out of pocket. So you, you did that as you went?
Oh yeah. Oh yeah. I had a year and a half at University of Virginia where I was on some scholarships and that helped with that. But, when I left there, I was just in a position where I needed to make a living and the best way to do that was to focus on working full-time.
But I wasn’t going to let college go by the wayside. So I was working a 40 hour week and got through, let’s see, two and a half, three and a half years, two and a half years of school in, in four years.
So it took me six years all together.
That’s okay. I didn’t have a student loan.
That’s right. You graduated debt free and that’s a wonderful thing to be.
Not many people can say that. So hats off, I didn’t realize that part of your story. That’s very cool. So how about when you look back through your career, some things that you can hang your hat on. You mentioned that computer system project, I’m not sure if that’s something that jumps out, but just curious. What would you be proud of? What stands out?
Well, I guess the computer project is a piece of it. Early on, in fact, I’d probably been working at EECO in a pretty low level management role for, a month, perhaps. And I remember coming home from work one day and told my wife that in few years, I’m going to be a Vice President at this place. And she obviously questioned how the office manager thought he was going to pull that off. And I said, because they’re right now so far behind, in so many ways, and they need somebody to push them to change. And I can do that.
So I was a change agent from the start. Little things. This also tells you a little bit about my age, I bought the company’s first fax machine. I bought the company’s first PC and, back in the early days, automated the inventory or at least automated the data processing side of the inventory. This was why we bought the PC.
So anyway, but it wasn’t all technology. I felt like what my entire career there, I felt like the world is changing. I didn’t realize how fast that pace was going to become between 1983 and 2006, and much less today.
But, I felt like my role was to prepare the company for a world that was ever changing. To help people that were working there, to cope with a future that was built on change. And so I think the thing that I’m most proud of is my ability to really transform, restructure the company, and prepare it to continue to grow and change into the future.
There were a lot of things to that in dealing with that change that we had to keep. But there were a lot of things we had to throw out. But there’s some really core things that defined who EECO is that we had to maintain in order to be successful. And that goes to what you guys are still doing today around the technical expertise and how you help a customer instead of basically just taking an order number and shipping it.
That consultative value that we provide a customer started in 1926 when the company was founded. To me that was the most important thing to hang on to. Another thing, and it ties into this too, that I was very proud of when we first became a Rockwell distributor in Virginia in 84, early 84. I hadn’t been there very long. I didn’t even have a full appreciation at that time for what the impact it would have on the company. But I eventually did. And, we now are Rockwell in virtually all of Virginia, except a couple of counties in the fringes. The bulk of that occurred on my leadership.
I was very pleased to, and very proud that I introduced the whole concept of managing a culture for the company. I found a great series of books that really spoke to me, not just vis-a-vis the company, but from an American culture perspective. And, in introducing that, in a somewhat formal way, but that involved every person in the company to define what that culture needed to look like and to work together to create that culture. That was a lot of fun.
It gave me a chance to, even as CEO, to spend a lot of time with individual people and, really we got feedback cards filled out at the end of each of those sessions that I taught, and I got several that indicated that people were quite surprised to discover that a CEO is willing to sit down with them and listen to them and talk to them on their level. And, that was a real source of pride for me.
Absolutely. That still exists right now that culture training. All new employees still go through it. And still part of the core of the company.
That’s great. I’m always glad to hear it. A lot of things have to change and, the way that’s presented certainly has to change too. I’m just glad that it’s still a part of the core of who the company is, because I think it’s critical.
On a whole different wavelength. One of the things that I’m proud of in retrospect is that I had the good sense to retire when I realized that my job was done and that it was time for somebody else to take what the team had built under my leadership and take it into the future. It’s easy to stay on too long, but I realized I was there to be a change agent. I was there to position the company, to recognize the need for that change and to be ready to move into a new future. But I also knew that that new future was different than what I understood, was just not something that I was the best guy to tackle.
And so I retired and we brought in leadership that was prepared to tackle it. So, that’s one of the big ones for me.
No doubt. Just how mentally taxing was that for you personally to get to that point? Where you recognized that, I need to step away in order for the better of the whole organization.
It wasn’t. Because I didn’t see it as a failing on my part, because I could have done a good job staying on. But I couldn’t have done it as well as these other guys. At this point, I’d been with the company over 33 years and it becomes a little bit of who you are. It becomes a family. It’s hard to describe. It becomes a part of you.
And, to try to do what was right for the company, as long as it wasn’t wrong for my family, to do what was right for the company, what was best for the company, came actually pretty easy for that reason.
Right. For people out there, Jack that are listening, cause you mentioned change agent and that’s a core of certain individuals. They want to be a change agent. What advice would you give someone if they wanted to be that in a career? What could you speak our life right now? They say, okay, if you want to be a change agent, this is some things you need to consider about yourself and how you go about your day to day?
Wow. The truth is I think it’s how you approached that externally. It’s very dependent on the company or in, the people you’re working with, the size of the organization you’re dealing with, how you actually approach it.
But I think, taking those risks. I had a boss one time who always said “you didn’t come with a full bucket “or “you got to come with a full bucket.” And what he meant was if you’re going to take my time up and come to see me, and you got a proposal, you better know exactly what you’re talking about. You better be able to answer my questions and you better know that it’s the right thing.
And that taught me a lot. And I think that’s an important piece of advice for somebody who’s trying to be a change agent. Don’t do it in a vacuum. Understand who it’s going to impact in the company besides you. Make sure that it’s going to help the company and the manager that you’ve got to convince, meet their goals. And then be willing to be the guy that does all the work to make it happen.
Very good. Those things sounds very easy, right? There are some, there is a lot of work. Theres a lot of work behind each one of those points, but I think the last one being willing to put in that work, but also I’m just picking up a lot of humility in what you’re saying too. You got to humble yourself enough to recognize the situation and figure out how to ultimately, how can you help an organization move forward?
Well, you know I found on occasion that when I would bring an idea, I was told it was the stupidest thing you’ve ever heard of. And, I’d come back with the same idea only fleshed out better and tweaked a little bit. And he’d say, well, I don’t think that’s going to work, but why don’t you go look into it a little bit more? And the third time he’d come to me and say, Jack, I’ve got a good idea.
All of a sudden, it clicked.
You know what that was, that was okay with me. He knew that it was my idea. And I knew it was my idea. And the fact that we were getting it done is all that matters.
Right. Right. And you were doing that, like you said, not in a vacuum, you weren’t trying to just look out for just Jack. You were trying to think about how it impacted others and…
Just great advice. Great stuff, Jack. So how about lessons learned. If you look back, any other items you’d like to point out?
Well, I do have one other career highlight that I would like to just throw out. This is in a different area, but on the night I retired, both of my daughters told me, they’re adults now. And, both of them told me that as they were kids growing up, they never ever felt that I wasn’t there.
And to have the kind of career that I had. To have a career in a role that demanded as much as mine did. To have my kids tell me that they never felt I wasn’t there is the best highlight of my career. Period.
No doubt. As a father myself, I have two daughters. I hope that I can look back and hear that one day, Jack.
Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. I know you well enough to have every confidence that you will hear that.
Well, that was a great look back on a proud moment. Thank you for that. How about, we talked mentors too. I know you and I have talked. You’ve been a mentor to me. Who has been a mentor to you? And what impact did they help you along the way?
I didn’t ever have the kind of mentor that, in retrospect, I needed. Somebody in business that could help me figure my career out, helped me, worked through some of the challenges that I had at the time. I didn’t realize how much I needed that and, and how much easier that would have made life But I had mentors all my life in, I guess, in specific ways.
My mom was certainly one. She taught me that even though we didn’t have much that we had possibilities. Get up when you fall down. My daughter, younger daughter taught me or came up with this phrase, but it’s so perfectly described how my mom taught us by showing us this.
And that’s when you’re too tired to take another step and you just can’t do it. You just do it. That’s advice that came from her example that I’ve used all my life.
My dad. Our relationship was unusual. That wasn’t one particularly great one, particularly bad, but it was unusual. I’ll leave it at that, but he taught me to be your own person. Don’t let something outside yourself, don’t let something external, control you. And again, that’s been huge for me. His father, they called him captain Jack. He showed me early on, and none of this is stuff that people told me, this is stuff people taught me by how they lived and how they presented themselves to the world. But he showed me the importance of hard work, something as simple as that. He taught me the value in being known in the community and being respected by the people around you and how important that was in your life.
My mother’s father taught me that family is the most important thing. And while other things might grab your attention here and there, that family is what you focus on.
My wife Beverly taught me what love really means. She taught me well because, she’s put up with me for 40 years so far. She truly did, and it was such a change in my life.
I talked about an old boss, “come in with a full bucket”. “To do the details, be prepared.” One example when I first truly understood what that silly phrase meant. He had told me to write up directions for the, this was long before I was on the board, write up directions for the board members to get to the hotel in Richmond and know where to go to get to the meeting.
So I went into my office and I wrote that up, brought it back to him to review. And he said, well, you haven’t had time to put this together. I said, well, yes, sir. It doesn’t take that long. I mean, I knew how to get here and all that. So it was very easy. Come with a full bucket meant. Get out of your chair, get in your car, go out and drive it.
And don’t just say you take the Boulevard exit. You say you drive X point X miles. You take a right at exit number so-and-so you. I mean, very, very specific. Don’t just do it halfway. Make sure that you’ve got the details and that you do it right.
But I was a sponge all my life. I’ve always loved to learn. I’ve tried to learn something from everybody and I’ve had a tremendous number of people do a very good job of teaching me what not to do. So I think from a mentor perspective, I think in many ways that’s some of my best learning is people giving me examples of what not to do.
On the positive side, Mark Holmes has been a mentor. Jeff Knight has been a mentor. You’ve been a mentor. The intelligent, strong, positive people that I’ve known in my life have, I have to say all taught me things that I found valuable. I think we all just have to be willing to absorb that. I know a young guy right now who’s normal career is on hold because of the pandemic.
So he’s unemployed. And he doesn’t want to get a job outside of his career because it’s a waste of time. I’ve tried to tell him I haven’t been successful so far that it doesn’t matter what you do. You’re going to learn something. When I was a commercial credit manager for prior distributor, my wife and I took on the extra role of cleaning the offices for that business.
Every Friday night and Saturday, we’d come in and dust, vacuum, cleaned the place up. Cleaned the bathrooms and whatever needed to be done. And, I learned a lot from that. I learned a lot about humility. I learned a lot about just doing what you need to do to get it done. I learned a lot about becoming efficient at what you do. So it doesn’t matter what it is. You’ve got a lot to learn from whatever experience you have, if you’re open to it.
Absolutely. Jack, thank you so much for speaking so much truth right there. For what you’re doing now, you’re having an opportunity to provide influence at EECO at the board level. So, what do you enjoy? What do you enjoy about being on the board? What brings you a lot fulfillment there?
Well, there are a lot of things. Being on a board, and I joke about this, it’s a great experience because you get to help identify the problems. You help prioritize where the focus needs to be. You get involved with the strategy, but you don’t have to do it.
So from an ex CEO, that’s the best part!
Like I said earlier, the biggest thing I love about it is continuing my association with Electrical Equipment Company. With EECO. I was there over 33 years and as I mentioned earlier, it becomes a part of you. It becomes a bit of who you are and to maintain that association on a much lower pressure and lower time commitment level, is just personally fulfilling. I love this company. To use my experience and ideas, to help and support the company, its management team, it is very personally rewarding.
Well I can’t speak for all employees. I can only speak for me, but just knowing that you’re in the room and influencing and understanding what’s happening and providing us wisdom and guidance moving forward, that’s a blessing.
And so you thank you. So hats off to you and this has been so much fun talking about work. I know you’re a very, you’re exciting guy outside of work stuff though. So let’s shift gears a little bit, so what hobbies do you have? What do you enjoy doing with your time?
Well, I still am somewhat involved with music. I got in a rock band. Started ninth grade and, I still play, not in public anymore, but I still play for fun with the three of the same guys. We have great time doing that. And in fact, in around 2010, I did, CD that, one of the guys from that band did the recording, the engineering, played most of the music. I wrote the music and the lyrics. It was somewhat autobiographical. And, we just did it as a fun project.
In 2012, which was the 45th anniversary of the 45 RPM record we had done back in the sixties, we put out a second CD. Their both available on iTunes by the way. But, anybody who gives me a call, and ask for one, I’ll send them to them till they’re all gone.
We’re going to link them in the show notes for our listeners out there. So you can go and click on the links that take you straight to iTunes and download them. Now, which one of them, Jack, I got one at one time was with you in front of a van or beside a van, which which CD…
That’s the one we did in 2012. And the guys are two of the guys on the front, were in the original 1966 band with me. And, the other guys is one of the eldest brothers. And, he played most of the bass parts on that record.
You know, music is one of the few things, that you can start as a hobby when you’re 12 or 14 years old. And when you become a mature gentlemen, such as myself, you can do it even better,
Right. Just keeps getting better.
That’s right. It’s a, it’s a great hobby for that reason. You can do it, you can do it and enjoy it all your life.
There you go.
Great friends, everybody loves music. So, you know, it’s, it’s hard to beat. The other thing I’ve always loved to read. That’s certainly a hobby. But, after I retired year and a half or so, my wife and I had the opportunity to buy her family home place, her grandparents’ home place from the estate.
And we did not really knowing what we were going to do with it. It’s in Dinwiddie County, Virginia. Fairly rural County. We didn’t do much for the first year. And we were at the Virginia museum at a shop, exhibit. And, as we were leaving, we walk in through the gift shop as museums ensure you do.
And I just happen to see an old coffee table or actually a new coffee table book, on an easel, that, caught my attention. And it was just full of pictures, beautiful pictures of old Virginia homes that were in the process of falling down. And, the property we had bought, the main house was a farm house built in 1890 and in some state of disrepair.
And, I knew that if we didn’t do something in another five, six years, it was going to look like one of those old houses in that book. And I told my wife that day, looking through that book brought tears to my eyes and I said, I simply cannot let that happen to your folks’ place.
If everything else on the property falls down, we’re going to renovate that farmhouse.
And that’s what we did. We finished that in early, let’s see 18. I guess, mid, late, 19, no, mid late 18. Sorry. Time all flows together when you’re retired. And in fact, we’re living here now. We sold our house in Richmond and we’re living here. Since we finished renovating this place, the family had a series of businesses here. Among them was an overnight camp for kids and they had two bunk houses on the property. And one by one, we’ve renovated those. And they are now Airbnb homes for rental through airbnb.com. We’ve been quite surprised to discover that they’re rented most of the time.
Wow. That is great.
Yeah. We’ve met a lot of interesting people who’ve come here. It’s been great fun, but it’s weird. The jobs that I hated the most in my life are the things I enjoyed here, I enjoy most.
Cutting the grass, picking up sticks. Painting, cleaning things up, renovating my, my most hated job as a kid was picking up sticks. And, I spent, I probably averaged 30 minutes a day picking up sticks. That’s a 75 acres here. There’s sticks all over the place. But what I realized is I’ve got the time to do it.
I like it to look good. But at the end of the day, I can see what I accomplished. In most jobs that I’ve had, you rarely have the opportunity to do that because is anything ever really finished? Because as soon as it’s done. You have to start thinking about how are you going to have to redo it, know that’s right, because change, change moves so fast.
So, so it’s been a real pleasure to be able to knock things out, whether they’re simple or hard, but I can still look back at what I’ve accomplished at the end of the day. And now I’m sitting in a room that, 18 months ago, was exposed rafters and plaster laying on the floor and no power.
It sounds like you’re in the middle of a, one of those HGTV shows, Jack, where are you at complete restoration? So
That’s right. That’s what we’ve done.
It’s been very rewarding and a lot of fun to do it.
That is so great. And you’ve mentioned a couple of times throughout the conversation about family and the importance of it. So what’d you like to share about your family?
Well, I’ve got a wife and two daughters and two sons-in-law and three grandchildren. I’m quite proud of all of them. My wife has been an amazing help to me in a million different ways for 40 years and continues to be. It’s been nice to have this little uh, Airbnb based business that we do together. It’s been fun for us to have this little project that we’re working on together.
My oldest daughter is married. Has two daughters. They are now living in Atlanta. She was a school teacher and is now focusing on uh, raising her girls and, they’ve only been there a short time. We’ve driven down once in a couple of days after Christmas, we’re going to make the Trek down to Atlanta again. And, I’m looking forward to seeing those darling little girls. My younger daughter lives in Stockholm, Sweden. She was living in New York city and met her husband, who was on a special assignment from his company. He’s a video game designer and he lives, was living in New York at the time. And they’ve been together ever since. We had a lot of fun planning a wedding in Sweden from Virginia. But we managed to do that a few years back and they’ve got a little boy who’s just, let’s say 17 months. He’s, he’s a joy, but COVID has kept us from seeing him since he was five months old. And it’s killing me.
I bet. I bet, man. Well, hopefully you get to see him soon.
I hope so. I hope this thing settles down enough that we can start to travel again. Talking hobbies, one of the things that I miss most that we’ve not been able to do is just that, travel. That’s one of our favorite things to do. And, right now, keep getting weld and pine looking good. since they can’t travel.
Well, thank you for sharing what you did about your family. I would like to play a game, so I’m just calling it the lightening round. Got some, some random things I want to ask you. No, right or wrong. I just enjoy getting to know people a little bit on a more personal level. So if you’re good with it, we’ll start that.
All right. So favorite food?
Oh God. If I have to pick one, tree ripened and peaches.
Okay. All right. So how about a favorite, what’d you call it mature gentlemen beverage?
It’s a hard pick between two. I would have to say good red wine and bourbon.
Okay. Any bourbons in particular or stand out?
At one point I had 36 bourbons in my collection. And, my favorite is one of the ones that I started with. And that’s Jefferson reserve.
Okay, well, I’ll need to come to Dinwiddie County and we’ll have to get an old fashioned and
Oh, absolutely. I make a mean fashion.
All right. Well, I, I’m in a Jack, so, all right, next question. Let’s go destination. Where would you love to go that you’ve never been?
Oh, that have never been, Russia.
When I was in college, I took a Russian history class, and actually I took three more semesters from another professor. He was easily the, his name is George Monroe. He still teaches at VCU. And shortly after I retired, I discovered that he was still teaching that same class and I contacted him and asked if I could audit it. And he welcomed me.
He was gracious enough to pretend he remembered me. And, he actually pretty much convinced me, after a while that he did. But, I, attended that class the second time. I just think it’s a fascinating place. And an amazingly good professor.
Very good. All right. Two more questions. Pets: cats, dogs?
We currently don’t have any. We’ve had dogs pretty much the entire time we’ve been married, but when our last one passed several years ago, I was on the verge of retiring and we realized that if we were going to do the kind of traveling that we wanted to do, we would wait and replace good old Murphy down the road a little bit, and we’ve not done that yet.
We have occasionally babysit our daughter’s dogs for one reason or another. And there’re two, Pablo and Gracie. Pablo is now the late Pablo. But Gracie is my older daughter’s dog and she’s just a fantastic dog. She loves coming down here and running until she can hardly walk.
That sounds great. It sounds great now, so this last one is going to help me, Jack. I really need you to help me here. You’ve been married 40 years. I hope to be there one day with my lovely wife. So if you have to go out on a date night or not have to, if you go out on a date night, which maybe you fixed the question first, right? Where are you guys going for your day? What are you doing?
Well, if it’s just a date night, we’ll probably go to , and I’ve had a little advanced planning here, we would probably do a chef’s tasting with wine pairings somewhere. That’s most likely what we would do.
Okay. Well hopefully my wife, Rebecca, won’t listen to this entire episode and I’ll be I’ll, I’ll use that one with her. So
Yeah, there you go. There you go.
This has been so much, thank you for playing the lightning round, by the way. And this has been so much fun talking to you and, and we call it EECO Asks Why. We always wrap up with the why, Jack. And that why it talks about the passion and what drives us. So, if someone would ask you what your why is, what would that be?
It’s a really hard question to answer because as I think of answers to that, my first thoughts are small things. But if I move it up to a broader statement for me, maybe it’s an old boy scout thing. I like to leave things better than I found them.
And I think that’s the thing that personally gives me the most satisfaction is to leave a positive mark on something. And whether it’s recognized or not is secondary to just the satisfaction of knowing that’s what’s happened.
Absolutely. That’s just great advice. And one thing I remember about you Jack is, you were the president when I came on with EECO, and just how open and accessible you were. You were always willing to talk to people. I remember when I ran the motor shops, every mechanic knew you and you had a personal relationship. So you, you took the time to want to know people, but like you said, always trying to make things better and just giving that leadership. So thank you for everything you did at EECO and continue to do from the board level and just really enjoyed this conversation.
Thank you. I did too. I did too. It’s been great. You’ve made it easy.
Oh, well, that’s, that’s my goal. And we’ll definitely link all your, your music stuff in the show notes for the listeners. Please go check it out if you want to hear more. So, man, this has been so much fun. Thank you so much, Jack.
Wonderful. Thank you, Chris.