Leaving a lasting legacy

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By Dan Wyant

At this year’s Mackinac Policy Conference, I attended a session honoring three great Michigan businessmen and philanthropists who died last year: Art Van Elslander, John Barfield and Richard DeVos. During the session, sons David Van Eslander, David Barfield and Dan DeVos discussed their legacies and lessons learned, such as if you’re lucky enough to be successful, you have an obligation to give back. As I listened, I was struck by the similarities in their fathers’ stories and Ed Lowe’s own entrepreneurial journey.

Humble beginnings

No wealthy scion, Ed was born in 1920 and grew up during the Great Depression when his family struggled to make ends meet. Even as a boy, Ed was always looking for economic opportunities. He collected popsicle sticks that littered the local park after music concerts, redeeming them for prizes. He shoveled snow, mowed yards, searched alleys for items to salvage and sell, and trapped small nuisance animals for 10 cents per captive.

After serving in the Navy, Ed joined his father’s business, which sold industrial absorbents and other commodities. A turning point in Ed’s life came in 1947 when one of his neighbors asked for some sand to use in her cat’s litter box. Instead of sand, Ed followed a hunch and gave her a package of fuller’s earth granules, a new absorbent he had been trying to sell to poultry farmers as a nesting material. After rave reviews from the woman and other neighbors, Ed began marketing the absorbent as “Kitty Litter” in pet shops and at cat shows. In 1949 he left his father’s business and devoted himself to building demand for Kitty Litter. By the time he sold Edward Lowe Industries (ELI) in 1990, the company had grown to about 600 employees and $165 million in annual sales.

Like DeVos, Barfield and Van Eslander, Ed believed in giving back. He was devoted to his hometown and supported the Cassopolis community not only with his pocketbook, but also his time. For example, he launched a county planning commission, was a director at the First National Bank, a board member of the local hospital and Cassopolis’s mayor for two terms. He was also active in his industry, serving as an officer of numerous trade associations. Yet of all his extracurricular activities, Ed was most passionate about supporting entrepreneurship.

Championing the entrepreneurial spirit

Ed believed that entrepreneurs were a special breed of individuals, much like the mountaineers who pioneered our western states before the arrival of cowboys or settlers. Feeling that he had succeeded in spite of the odds, Ed believed more resources should be available to business owners, especially opportunities to connect with like-minded peers. One of his dreams was to transform Big Rock Valley, a large tract of property he owned near Cassopolis, into a haven for entrepreneurs.

Acting on this goal, Ed and his wife, Darlene, launched the Edward Lowe Foundation in 1985 to accelerate support and recognition for entrepreneurs, and Big Rock Valley became the foundation’s headquarters.

Although the foundation began as a grant-making institution, within a few years it restructured as an operating foundation that could run its own programs. In the late 1990s we began to focus on second-stage entrepreneurs (those who have moved past startup but have the aptitude and appetite for continued growth). Today key programs include CEO roundtables, leadership development retreats and the System for Integrated Growth, which provides just-in-time expertise to help second-stage companies solve critical business challenges.

A sense of place

Many people don’t realize that Darlene Lowe is an entrepreneur in her own right. Founder of Haymarket Designs, she ran this interior design business out of her Dowagiac farmhouse for many years, juggling a dozen clients at a time while raising three children, 100 hogs and 3,000 chickens.

After meeting Ed in the early 1970s, Darlene began to work on ELI projects. She became ELI’s vice president of design and facilities in 1981, while also expanding Haymarket with a retail location that sold antiques. During her lifetime, Darlene has worked on more than 100 design projects, ranging from the renovation of guest houses at Big Rock Valley to brand new facilities, such as our Tower of Tomorrow conference center and a new headquarters building.

And though the foundation is named after Ed, Darlene has been a full partner in its creation. After Ed’s death in 1995, she became chairman and CEO, and our work with second-stage companies has intensified under her leadership. It’s also important to note that Darlene’s aesthetical stamp can be seen throughout Big Rock Valley — extending from the quality of our buildings and landscaping to superior guest service. Visitors to the property are always remarking on our high standards and give us rave reviews.

Another piece of our legacy is land stewardship as Ed and Darlene shared a great love for conservation and historic preservation. Big Rock Valley began with a 160-acre parcel that Ed purchased in the 1960s (his favorite site for mushroom hunting). Over the years, Ed continued to buy adjacent land and today Big Rock Valley comprises 2,000 acres. The property is an unusual mix of woodland, farmland, wetland and prairies, and in addition to making it available to academic researchers, we carefully manage the land to preserve its biodiversity.

The power of heritage

For any organization, there’s a great deal of value in knowing where you come from. For starters, understanding your founders’ history and intent helps you build upon previous successes — and avoid repeating mistakes. Heritage impacts people inside and outside your organization, from current employees, customers and partners to future generations.

When it comes to legacy, leaders have three options from my perspective: Be forgotten as soon as they leave an organization, be remembered in a negative light — or have a lasting, positive influence. If you’re aiming for the third one, it’s time to start working on your legacy today.

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Dan Wyant
President of Edward Lowe Foundation
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“To me, leadership is about building a team, trying to get the best out of others, and helping them be successful,” says Dan Wyant, president and chief operating officer of the Edward Lowe Foundation.

“If done right, the impact should be lasting.” In this series of articles, Wyant shares insights about leadership gleaned from more than three decades of managing entrepreneurial and conservation organizations in the private, public and nonprofit sectors.