Thursday, May 20, 2010
“Honesty and integrity and hard work…that’s…boy, that’s at the roots!” says Dick Leuthold as I interview him in his magnificent house located in Bucyrus, Ohio. When asked what qualities a good American citizen should have, Dick replies, “He should be honest, hardworking and God-fearing.” These characteristics are evident in Dick’s life, showing up time after time in many different ways.
Leuthold is 76 years old. He is a gentle-spoken, retired businessman who’s been involved with the insulation business since the late seventies.
Dick grew up on a farm. “I always had a handle in my hands. It was either a shovel handle or a hoe handle or a rake handle or a basket handle or a sledge handle, a axe handle, saw handle, always had a handle in my hand.” Dick learned the work ethic early in life, by following his dad around on the farm without being taught verbally. Church was very important to the family as they attended church every Sunday and Dick learned there was a right and wrong very early in life. At the age of 16, Dick lost his mother and with his father on the road selling silos, he was thrown into the role of being a mother and a father to his younger brother and sister. It was these kinds of qualities that led Dick to the successes he has had and even is still being seen today.
Dick got started in the insulation business in the late 1970’s. He saw an ad in the Wall Street Journal and answered it and found that the salesmen were selling insulation equipment. This gave Dick his idea of starting a cellulose insulation operation in Bucyrus, Ohio. He had no previous background in the industry, but he understood machinery. The company of Fiber Chem was established in October 1977. At one point in time, the business nearly failed. Dick says, “It was a bad experience, but it was a good experience and it was a very profitable experience for moving forward.”
In its simplest form, insulation dates back to when the cavemen shielded themselves from the elements. It took thousands of years before the idea of adding material to buildings came into play. The first architect to use cellulose insulation was Thomas Jefferson in the design of Monticello. From this, the use of cellulose insulation took off. Insulation is the most effective way to improve the energy efficiency of a home. Insulation helps keep heat in during the winter and lets heat out during the summer to improve comfort and save energy.
Faith and religion are very important to Dick in life which can be witnessed in his business experiences and in his life in general. His family never turned their back on God and never missed a tithe. “When the going really got tough, I started on my knees,” Dick states. Dick believes that one cannot be successful unless you work to please God.
According to Dick, there are a lot of important factors in running a successful business. One of the biggest things is to treat the customer like you would like to be treated. “Business is people, numbers is the language,” Dick explains. “And so you got to know your numbers and you got to have good people. That’s all there is to it.” Today, as Dick sees it, it is getting more difficult for businesses, because the laws of society give a lot of slack to the people who don’t want to be honest and work hard. Even though the owner ultimately makes the final decision with any aspect in their business, it is important to seek the opinions and ideas of the workers. Dick goes on to say, “You got to be very transparent with people and if you’ve been wrong, you need to tell them you’ve been wrong.” This carries a lot of weight when it comes to customer relations.
When asked about some of his best memories in business, Dick was quick to give answers. One was when they were able to obtain their underwriters’ laboratory certification for their product which was like good housekeeping badge recognition. Another good memory was when they were able to sell Fiber Chem and this was valuable because they were able to partner with another person in the development of a patented method of manufacturing which was innovative in the whole industry and placed value in the company. This was the obtaining of the fiberizer.
The fiberizer is the finish mill that makes the cellulose insulation. This would also be used in the new company of Advanced Fiber Technology which was started after the selling of Fiber Chem.
Advanced Fiber Technology’s manufacturing line includes cellulose insulation and industrial grade fibers. Their model of, converting today’s wastepaper into tomorrow’s products conveys the whole purpose of Advanced Fiber Technology.
Dick’s oldest son Doug introduced Dick one time, as the visionary of Advanced Fiber Technology. This sort of shocked Dick to be described in this way. Dick mentions though, “You know, you have to have visionary characteristics to see opportunities, and I think a visionary is a person who never has a good, solid feeling how things is going to end up.” Dick had the vision of the founding of the industrial center where Advanced Fiber Technology and several other companies are located today in Bucyrus. It was on New Year’s Eve night when Doug was a senior in high school and Doug was hosting a party for some of his friends at his house. Dick says to his wife Joyce, “These guys are going to go off to college and hither and yon and we should have something in the community to retain them.” Joyce suggests Dick should do something about it, so being the go getter Dick is, acted upon his vision. He took the ground he farmed at the edge of town and developed it into an industrial center. So, Dick had the vision for that and saw that his vision was fulfilled.
Dick also had the vision to see 1000 jobs in the center someday. This vision was nearly reached by creating a little over 900 jobs at one point in time.
When Dick received the patented machine, the fiberizer he saw the vision that this was something that could be licensed all over the world and was throughout the United States, Germany, Japan, Czech Republic, Finland and licensed about 80% of the production in Canada.
A neat experience happened in 1995 or 1996 when Dick had licensed technology in Japan and in Germany and had installed complete manufacturing plants. Dick tells of a moment he had. “One day I got to thinking, you know, 50 years ago, we were at war with these two countries. Fifty years later were doing business with them.”
Family is another important aspect in Dick’s life and something he leans upon for support and leverage. His father was a very important person to him, although he was pretty aggressive. When describing his father, Dick replies with, “If he’d been a military man, he’d been a rival to General George Patton. But I never doubted that my father loved me.”He talks about the partnership with his two sons in the founding of Advanced Fiber Technology. He says they were a good three man team. “We had a very, I think unusual family experience from the standpoint of how well we worked together, just the three of us,” Dick says. Each fellow brought a different strength to the party and contributed to the success of the business. Dick tells of a story when his boys and daughter were younger and says that he and his wife would take the time to follow what they were doing. Dick can remember a time when he shut the tractor off around 4 o’clock in the afternoon, so he could go to one of his kids’ ballgame that he had helped coach the team. Dick recalls coming home and working till three in the morning to get caught up with the time he had missed. Dick says, “It was the best thing I’d ever done. I never regretted that.”
When Dick mentions his wife, Joyce, who he lost in February, one can tell how much she meant to him. She was a true helpmeet to him and a very supportive person. Dick sums it all up when he relates, “I’m a blessed man because of the wife that I had.” She was most helpful to him along the way as Dick says [with a laugh] his wife was smarter than he was. She was never as vocal as Dick was but she was very, very intelligent. He says he learns an awful lot from his three children day in and day out. Doug, not even intending to try to teach his dad but just from his father observing him, learns a lot as well as from his daughter and his younger son. He says he has to give them a lot of credit. He has learned so much from them.
After talking to Dick, I can see why the man has been so successful in his life and why he is such a respected man.
“I’m a blessed man because of the family we have. You know when this life’s all over with, I think a man and a woman… what they acquired monetarily isn’t that important, it’s the life they’ve lived and the fruit of their life is their children and that’s…to me… I know a lot of people that have a lot of money…I come to meet a lot of very wealthy people, a lot of them have heartache because they chased their work too hard and didn’t spend enough time with their family…and you only got one chance to do that!”