The Elbert Files: Thanks, John III
John Ruan III, who died earlier this month at the age of 78, was a talented businessman who managed, along with his wife, Janis, to dramatically improve the quality of life in Des Moines.
They did that despite living all but two decades in the shadow of John III’s larger-than-life father, also named John, a self-made man.
The elder Ruan’s father, Dr. John Ruan, had died in 1931 as the Great Depression was beginning to smother the country, leaving his 17-year-old budding entrepreneur son with little means.
Dr. Ruan’s son dropped out of college and with a single dump truck launched a business that was such a success by the 1960s that Des Moines’ legendary Hubbell family asked him to take over Bankers Trust and iron out problems, which he did.
John Ruan went on to help launch a downtown renaissance, erecting three major buildings — the Ruan Center, Ruan II and the Downtown Marriott Hotel — and to launch the downtown skywalk system. He also wanted to erect a 100-story building that would signify Des Moines’ position as the agricultural capital of the world; when that proved undoable, he took command of the fledgling World Food Prize and brought it to Des Moines.
John III, unlike his entrepreneurial father, was not comfortable being the center of attention.
“John III has his father’s drive and brains, but not his bluster,” media and baseball executive Michael Gartner once said.
He also had a talent that was beyond his father’s many abilities. John III was the best judge of talent of any Iowa executive I have known in 45 years of writing about Iowa businesses.
As it turned out, John III’s abilities were of even more value to the Des Moines community than his father’s many accomplishments. It was John III, starting in the late 1990s, who not only kept all of his father’s balls in the air but significantly advanced each.
John III was, according to Des Moines lawyer Steven Zumbach, a rare business commodity. He was a second-generation success.
“Most of the time the second and third generations of successful people just want to spend the money they inherit and live very comfortable lives,” said Zumbach, who spent much of his own career advising the Ruans and others on how to successfully pass family businesses from one generation to the next.
None of Zumbach’s clients have done that better than the Ruans, the lawyer said.
“John III was extremely proud of what his father built and worked hard to continue his father’s legacy by defeating tough challenges over the years through absolute determination and innovation in a changing marketplace,” said Steve Chapman, a seasoned travel executive who John III installed to smooth out the family’s transportation businesses before handing them over to son-in-law Ben McClean a few years ago.
He performed an even greater transformation at Bankers Trust, helping find a bank president, J. Michael Earley, who ended years of regulatory oversight. And following that up with an outside-the-box successor, accountant Suku Radia in 2008, who took the bank to new levels of profitability, before turning it over in 2018 to another unusual find, banker Don Coffin, who had grown up in a blue-collar family in Waterloo.
John III performed similar behind-the-scenes magic in 1999 when he persuaded Iowa native and retiring U.S. Ambassador Kenneth Quinn to take over leadership of the World Food Prize.
Greater Des Moines Chamber of Commerce President Michael Reagen had suggested Quinn, who had worked with Reagen as a top aide to Gov. Robert Ray. But after Quinn interviewed with John III’s father, he was prepared to turn down the job because the position seemed to lack vision and structure.
Then John III spoke with Quinn and gave him a better idea of the opportunity, along with assurances of the support he would need to turn the World Food Prize into the premier educational and philanthropic foundation it is today.
Although John III is the only Iowan to have chaired the powerful U.S. Chamber of Commerce (2011-12), he was “often misunderstood by his peers as being somewhat distant or difficult to talk to,” said Chapman, who described John III as “extremely humble and shy.”
But not without humor.
“John III had a very quick wit,” Chapman said, noting that he had once asked his boss to stop using a red pen because “nothing good in business is written in red.” A few days later, Chapman noticed John III was using a green pen. “He looked at me and said, ‘Steve, green is the color of money, and I thought you would be OK with that.’”
In fact, John III was an unfinished work, a person who evolved throughout a life that included two notable failures.
The first was the collapse of Carriers Insurance, a truck insurance business his father had created in the 1950s and placed him in charge of in the mid-1980s at a time when the insurer was being squeezed by industry pricing pressures.
He was also, for a time, the public face of Access Air, a startup airline in the late 1990s that was designed to bring more competitive pricing for flights into and out of Des Moines and both coasts. The airline received vocal support from many Des Moines businesses, but crumbled when those same businesses failed to provide the passenger support needed for success.
Despite the failures, John III continued to believe in and want the best for his hometown.
Janis Ruan was a big part of her husband’s motivation, Zumbach said.
“They both grew up here and raised their family here. As corny as it sounds, they both want the best for their hometown, the best educational system and the best cultural amenities,” Zumbach said.
The former Janis Arnold was a Roosevelt High School homecoming queen and a fashion coordinator at Younkers when she met 25-year-old John III in 1968, shortly after he was discharged from the Navy. They married two years later.
Her lifelong interest in gardening is obvious in the gardens at the World Food Prize Hall of Laureates and the Des Moines Botanical Garden, as well as streetscapes throughout downtown, along Ingersoll Avenue and on Fleur Drive.
When Quinn began transforming the former riverfront Public Library of Des Moines into the World Food Prize Hall of Laureates, he explained the need for a truly distinguished facility, noting that nations often build monuments to leaders and generals who win wars.
But Iowa is different, Quinn said. Iowa’s heroes didn’t fight wars or conquer territory. They were people who quietly worked to improve the human race, people like George Washington Carver, 4-H leader Jessie Schambaugh, Henry Wallace and Norman Borlaug.
Iowans are caring, successful, modest people, Quinn said.
As was John Ruan III.