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A Tribute to Leadership

There are weeks when I sit down to write this and I wonder what I’ll write about. This week is easy – although it will be a difficult week. This will be a longer column than usual. I’m okay with it because I have a wonderful story to tell you. Please take a few minutes and enjoy what happens to great leaders.

I’m going to write this in two parts – before the funeral and after the funeral. This may be a selfish article from my point of view. I want to share the story because I really believe it can have an impact on you as a leader.

As I write this I’m on a plane from D.C. to Chicago. That is important. I was in D.C. for my Certified Franchise Executive (CFE) board meeting. I’m past chair of the Institute of Franchise Executives – part of the International Franchise Association – a title I wear proudly. I received my CFE designation on March 9, 2005, because of the man I’m headed to honor. If it wasn’t for him I have no idea what I’d be doing today. I know I wouldn’t be president of Glass Doctor. I know I wouldn’t have met my wife.

Jerry Guse died on Sunday evening. If you are from Rockford, Ill., you know him as Coach Guse. If you were in the water softener industry – Kinetico, specifically – you would know him as the owner of LTM Water in Loves Park, Ill. Jerry has been a Kinetico franchisee since 1980.

I met Jerry when he was the sales manager of the Rainsoft franchise in Rockford in the mid-70s. I managed a finance company in Rockford and did his financing. After working for someone else for several years Jerry decided to become his own boss, an entrepreneur.  Many of you reading this know exactly what this is like – and how scary it can be. Jerry was never worried. True leaders never are. They take chances on things that really aren’t chances. They have done their homework, understand the challenges and make very calculated choices. More importantly, they seize the opportunities that stare them in the face – again, like many of you have. Plus, Jerry had great support from his wife, Barb.

Jerry invited me to go Newbury, Ohio, with him when he became a Kinetico franchisee. As a result of that trip I ended up joining Kinetico corporate while he opened LTM Water – a Kinetico franchise back in Rockford. After five years and a tough (at least I thought it was then!) divorce I came back to Rockford to be Jerry’s general manager – and a subsequent partner in one of the LTM Water offices. By doing this, I had the opportunity to learn and see things from both sides of the franchisee/franchisor relationship. This has served me well to this day.

We were best friends. We played ball together, worked together, went to church together and shared everything in life. Those friendships are hard to find, but magic. You become an extension of their family. Jerry became my kids’ favorite “uncle.”

Jerry was always a leader. You know the type – quarterback in football, point guard in basketball and shortstop in baseball. He went on to be inducted into the Judson College Hall of Fame for basketball.  Jerry had a tremendous work ethic. I still believe that becoming a great leader doesn’t come by accident or naturally. It comes from hard work, discipline and doing what others refuse to do.

LTM Water was always in the Top 10 of Kinetico’s franchisees. That didn’t happen by accident, either. It happened because of Jerry’s leadership year in and year out. Sales people would come and go but Jerry built a base that stayed with him for more than 25 years. When he started LTM he didn’t ask any of his Rainsoft sales reps who he managed to join him; 90 percent of them did anyway. People love to follow good leaders.

Jerry also loved coaching basketball. I remember his son, Tom, now 39, learning to shoot a Nerf basketball in the living room at age 2. His older sister, Laurie, wasn’t a basketball player. Mark, the baby who was named after me, played all sports, like Tom, and is now 33. Jerry named his company LTM Water after Laurie, Tom and Mark.

Jerry coached from the moment he could coach Tom. Jerry’s junior high school team, with Tom, won the Lutheran School Championship. When Tom was in high school, he too was the floor general as his team went to the elite eight in.

Eventually I moved from Rockford and went back on the franchisor side of the business. As I moved from Illinois to Wisconsin to Florida to Texas, life changed and we kept in touch only a few times a year. Every trip “home” included a lunch or dinner together.

Amazing how we remember certain things in our lives, isn’t it?

It was a Saturday night a few years ago when I got a phone call from Tom. He was just named as head basketball coach of Rockford Lutheran (RLHS) – his alma mater. His assistant was going to be his dad, Jerry. Younger brother Mark was going to coach the seventh graders. Sister Laurie would be the cheerleading coach. My wife knows how emotional I am and why tears were running down my face after my conversation with Tom that night.

In Tom’s second year RLHS went down state and finished third in the state. Tom told me that shortly after this Jerry was losing weight and didn’t know why. By July he had lost 70 pounds and the family knew something was wrong.

I talked to Tom the week before Jerry was finally diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. It was a disease I knew little about but one that took the life of another great friend of ours three years previously.  Three hours after the diagnosis there were 75 people at the house, including former players, former employees and a boatload of friends and family.

The prognosis was terrible. What the disease and doctors didn’t know is that Jerry was a fighter – great leaders are always this way because leaders understand they have to make things happen and not just watch things happen.

Last Friday I talked with Tom and learned that the end was near. This damned disease was going to win. Last Sunday night, May 19, I got the call. Jerry’s war with cancer was over. He made it, unbelievably through the entire basketball season, to his 66th birthday and to his 45th wedding anniversary with his great mate, Barb.

Tomorrow night is the visitation. It is in the gym at Rockford Lutheran – Jerry’s second home. The funeral is Friday in the small town where Jerry grew up. Somehow I know this is going to be a celebration of a great man and great leader. It doesn’t make it any easier.

More after those awful days are finished . . .

Friday morning – the day of the funeral

I can’t sleep.  My mind races back to last night.

Picture a high school gym with a line of people waiting an hour and a half to hug the family. It’s a solid line, snaking outside most of the day, from 3:30 p.m. until 8:20 p.m. nonstop. The funeral director estimated 800+ people. Tables full of memorabilia lined the route. In the background was rock-and-roll music; Jerry loved to dance. It was important for the family to have this as a celebration of his life rather than a sad event with a lot of tears.

This is the only way Jerry would have wanted it.

I saw people I worked with 30 years ago, guys I played ball with 35 years ago, one of the friends who was with me the night my dad died in 1967—that was 45 years ago.

There were hundreds of ex-ball players. Throughout Lutheran High School there are banners for the accomplishments of the basketball team. Jerry had a hand with every one of those teams coaching them at the fifth grade level at one point, up to the high school level at another point.

This is what got me more than anything – all of the former employees. One of those guys, who I personally fired in the late 80s flew all the way from Denver. I can’t imagine that. Jerry was the best I ever met at creating a family at work. Some leaders think this isn’t good. I, being part of this one, wouldn’t have it any other way. I want all of my employees, as well as franchisees, to feel we are a family, all working together.

The funeral was in a small town where Jerry grew up about 30 miles from Rockford. When Jerry and Barb got married and announced to his parents that they were moving to Rockford, his dad, who I knew as Grandpa Guse, told them, “If you do that you won’t know anyone and no one will come to your funeral.” Imagine that.

Friday night/Saturday morning, 1:35 a.m.

It is over or maybe I should say it is just beginning.

I experienced, tonight, the effects that a great leader can have on people. And this is a very different kind of leader.

I don’t think he ever learned how to e-mail, text or answer a cell phone. He did, however, understand how to connect. Connecting is much different than communicating.

Tonight, I sat with the 38-year-old “kids” who played on that award-winning basketball team 20 years ago. One is a veterinarian. Another owns his own home-inspection company. The third is the superintendent of the second-largest school system in Illinois and has earned two doctoral degrees. The fourth is a Lutheran school teacher. The fifth, Jerry’s son, Tom, is head coach of Rockford Lutheran High School.

They told stories, wonderful stories, of Jerry’s leadership and how he changed their lives.

The pall bearers for his funeral were classmates from his high school class in 1965 – guys who kept in touch for nearly 50 years because of Jerry’s leadership.

So what is just beginning as far as leadership is concerned? It comes from son Tom’s tribute to his father at the funeral. He gave everyone a challenge, a challenge he had learned from his father when he was just a high school kid. Tom challenged everyone there to make a connection with someone new, help somebody who needed help, connect with someone and be a major influence in their life.

That’s what leaders do . . . without really thinking about it. Seems so simple, doesn’t it?

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2 comments on “A Tribute to Leadership

  • Steve Hartenberger

    May 29, 2013 at 1:48 pm

    Hi Mark,

    Dad forwarded your article to me. Outstanding! Touching, moving, and hopefully to many, a clear challenge to touch lives!
    I still remember when we moved to Rockford in 1967 how nice you & your Mom were to me and our family. See, you too have touched people’s lives even that many years ago, when you didn’t even know you were doing so!

    Peace,
    Steve

  • Mark
    Just found this today and to this day it still makes emotional. You painted a perfect picture of Jerry and the memories that I have of those days when Lutheran was struggling and the leadership and confidence that Jerry had that we would be where we are today.
    After being away from Lutheran and yes feeling strange even to this day, I am proud to have had both of you involved in my life after my college years.

    Thanks
    Dave Eisenbeisz