Seeding Success: Sonny Beck Named 2016 Business Leader of the Year

Stroll through the expansive Beck’s Hybrids operation in northern Hamilton County and one will find no shortage of inspirational messages. Speak to CEO Sonny Beck for any
period of time and many of those same sayings seamlessly flow into the conversation.

In other words, the “words” are much more than terms or expressions that are placed on paper and forgotten. They are the driving force behind the largest family-owned seed company in the country – one that has experienced tremendous growth over the past quarter century.

Sonny Beck was born three years after his father and grandfather founded the company in 1937. That was a result of Purdue University offering three acres worth of this “great new invention,” hybrid seed, to anyone who wanted it. Sonny earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Purdue, returned to the family operation a short time later and has led – or maybe more appropriately been behind the wheel of – one of Indiana and the nation’s leading business success stories…

Read the full story in BizVoice.


Words of Wisdom From the Latest Sachem Honoree

The fact that Ian Rolland received the Sachem Award from Gov. Mitch Daniels at a Wednesday ceremony at the Statehouse was no surprise. You can read, listen and see more about the honor and the recipient courtsey of the governor’s office.

When such events take place, it reminds me how fortunate I am to have the opportunity to meet and speak with so many of these distinguished Hoosiers. Rolland was the 1998 winner of the Indiana Chamber’s Business Leader of the Year award.

On the unfortunate side, I had only been with the Chamber a few months at the time and, quite honestly, had not figured out these annual awards and exactly how we should communicate about them. My time with Rolland for an interview at the Fort Wayne offices of Lincoln National, where he had just retired as CEO, was limited. I’ve learned since to invest more time to do a better job of telling such interesting award winner stories.

But in looking back, there are a couple of nuggets that Rolland shared that day that do epitomize his role as not only a business but community leader who is still making a difference in Fort Wayne and beyond. From the November/December 1998 BizVoice magazine (the third issue of the publication; our 84th issue will debut at next week’s Best Places to Work in Indiana awards event):

Rolland: "I’ve come to believe very strongly in community involvement. It’s a responsibility of citizenship — whether individual or corporate. I think it’s really in the best interest of the organization, too. If we can help make those communities better, it’s a better place for our employees and a better place to market our products."

Rolland had a 42-year association with Lincoln National, becoming president in 1975 and CEO two years later. Assets grew from $6 billion to $88 billion under his leadership.

In his understated way that day 14 years ago, he said, "The business has to be successful, growing and profitable before you can do anything else. Once that was accomplished, I think I was able to help make this community a better place."

Indeed. Congratulations, Ian Rolland.

Bill Cook: Recollections of an Indiana Icon

In mid-year 1999 (with about 15 months under my belt at the Indiana Chamber), I learned that Bill Cook had been selected as the organization’s Business Leader of the Year. Despite 15 prior years of newspaper and other interviewing experience, I was one nervous guy heading to the office of the Bloomington entrepreneur and community stalwart.

You see, Cook was not especially fond of doing interviews. He was a little reluctant this time also, but agreed with the coaxing of longtime friend and business partner Steve Ferguson — a true Indiana Chamber champion for many years. Before getting down to the business of discussing business, we talked about some of his passions. These included the drum and bugle corps championships (Cook used to drive the bus for the Star of Indiana group that he founded), flying planes, owning a basketball team in Manchester, England and more. I think the casual conversation relaxed me more than him.

The news of Cook’s passing last night was a shocker. I pulled out that November 1999 article. You can read from many sources about Cook’s long list of accomplishments, but some of the words he shared with me a dozen years ago still resonate. Asked what it takes to build a business or restore a historic building, he said:

"It’s a matter of risk taking and being prepared to make decisions and make them quickly. Our approach to business over the years has been that we believe in trying almost everything if it involves medicine. We found out you can’t second guess whether any product is going to be essential."

As for the decision-making, Cook added, "I found you can’t do that with a committee; it has to be done personally. My personal belief is that many people use committees as a cop-out. I just never believed seeking a consensus was the best way to go. You have to have enough of an ego to believe you’re right some of the time. I don’t think I’m different than anyone else. I do like to take risks and the potential benefit that means."

At the time, Cook was in the process of making twice-a-week or so trips from Bloomington to oversee renovation of the historic West Baden Springs Hotel. That, of course, eventually became part of the French Lick Resort complex that attracts visitors from near and far for golf, gaming and more.

In 1999, Cook called the project "fun" but admitted he had questioned what he had gotten himself into.

"It was a labor of love. It was also an ego trip. The scope of this thing was so big it challenged my comprehension … I didn’t really think I wouldn’t complete the building though."

The late Myles Brand, former Indiana University president, described a familiar scene at board of trustees meetings that involved Cook.

"Bill would sit back, listen, think, scribble things on his pad and then come up with an idea no one else thought of. Bill goes right to the heart of the matter. When he speaks, we all listen."

They listened for a long time and the legacy of Bill Cook will carry on for many years to come.

Sagamore for Swisher: No Shock Here

Although John Swisher, the founder of Sheridan’s JBS United was reportedly surprised to receive the state’s Sagamore of the Wabash award last week, put me in the category of "duh, it’s about time."

You see, Swisher was the Chamber’s 2009 Business Leader of the Year. I had the pleasure of helping to tell his story — from the small shed that served as an office and borrowed money from family in 1956 to the company being one of the national leaders in animal nutrition today with partnerships that span the globe.

But to truly understand the Swisher story, read the BizVoice magazine story and watch his video. In addition, the then 80-year-old Swisher wowed the Annual Dinner crowd with a stirring acceptance speech.

The 2010 Annual Awards Dinner, with Tom Brokaw (featured in this current BizVoice article) the keynote speaker. You’ll have to show up on November 9 to find out about this year’s winners.

Thanks Niel; You’ve Earned a Happy Retirement

Working in communications at the Indiana Chamber and as editor of our BizVoice magazine offers the opportunity to meet, interview, get to know and sometimes just be around some pretty amazing leaders. One of those people is Niel Ellerbrook, whose upcoming retirement as CEO of Evansville-based Vectren Corp. was announced Wednesday.

Niel was the Chamber’s 2007 Business Leader of the Year; you can read his story in BizVoice. A few of the highlights: born in Rensselaer, grew up in Franklin and earned an accounting degree from Ball State University. His career was divided into equal segments — 10 years with Arthur Andersen, 20 with Indiana Energy and another 10 with Vectren, the product of a major utility company merger. All stops were marked by organization and individual success.

Service to the Chamber for Niel included, among other roles, heading the tax and fiscal policy committee and active involvement on the board of directors and executive committee (including time as treasurer). His community involvements have been significant in both the volume of activities and the prominence of his accomplishments. Several are featured in the BizVoice article.

The Vectren press release has more on the company transition.