Sam Allen always thought the game of golf would play into his career plans.
Golf provided him with a job as a teenager growing up in Kokomo, Ind., where he was a caddie for three years at the country club. That job led to other duties at the course — and, more importantly, helped him win scholarships to Purdue University, where he earned a degree in industrial management and played collegiate golf.
Today, rather than making his living on the green, Allen is at the helm of Deere & Co., the Moline-based manufacturer known around the globe for its green — and yellow — machines.
Deere’s chairman and chief executive officer has seen golf and his professional life intersect many times. This past week, the eyes of the golf world have been on the equipment maker as it hosts — and continues to be the title sponsor of — the John Deere Classic.
The 57-year-old Allen is only the ninth CEO in Deere’s 173-year history. He is credited with helping to advance the relationship between the company and the PGA Tour, which owns TPC Deere Run and other Tournament Players Club courses.
In one of his first assignments as a senior officer, he became the primary liaison to the golf tournament, joining the JDC’s executive board. It was a position he relished, but had to relinquish as he assumed his new job.
“Without a doubt, the most gratifying experience of my time on the executive board of the John Deere Classic was the opportunity to serve with excellent people,” Allen said of the JDC’s directors.
It was during his tenure on the board that Deere assisted in turning the Silvis, Ill., golf course into a more lucrative entity. In the process, the company forged a deal for Deere to be the exclusive equipment supplier not only to TPC Deere Run but to all TPC courses.
But, Allen is quick to stress, “this was not a one-person show.”
Climb to the top
As the top boss of 51,200 Deere employees around the world, including 7,200 in the Quad-Cities, Allen admits it is not a position he ever expected to find himself in.
“I had aspirations to be an executive — not this job,” the 35-year company veteran said in an interview last week at Deere’s World Headquarters in Moline. “(I aspired) to be on this floor, yes. This office? No.”
From his conservatively furnished office, Allen has an expansive view of the manicured front lawn of the headquarters. Front and center on his desk are two JDC tee markers, one a replica of a crawler dozer, the other a utility tractor. Also on his desk is a bronze sculpture by José LaLanda of Madrid, Spain. Called “The Plow,” the sculpture of a pioneer farmer behind a team of horses and an original John Deere steel plow was commissioned for the company’s 150th anniversary. It was handed down from former CEOs Hans Becherer to Robert Lane to Allen.
The former industrial engineer recounted how Lane told him of the board of directors’ succession plan during his midyear review in 2009.
“I shook my head and laughed. I said I was humbled and honored. But I can honestly say I was not expecting it. I, like many others, thought Bob would work a few more years,” he said.
The decision to accept the job was not one Allen made on the spot or without serious discussion with Marsha, his wife and high school sweetheart. “My wife just happened to be out of town that day,” he said, recalling how he went home to an empty house with news that he could not share with anyone else.
“I remember sitting in my basement with the lights off, and here I was about to be only the ninth CEO at Deere … and I didn’t have anyone to talk to.”
A member of Deere’s executive team since 2001, Allen was president of the construction and forestry division —
a job he “loved and was content with” — when he was tapped to become Lane’s successor.
“I wasn’t sure I wanted all the fishbowl aspect of all this,” he said of the highly visible role of a Fortune 500 CEO.
But when his wife returned the next day, “We agreed together we’d take this on.”
Allen said that early in his career he clearly knew he wanted to move ahead. In fact, he found himself always looking to what his next job would be — until a mentor offered some advice. “I had to turn it around and (think) what can I do in this job to make the most meaningful impact.”
‘One of the guys’
Despite Allen’s newfound stature in the business world, many of his colleagues are quick to describe him as unassuming, down-to-earth and respectful.
“One of the great things about knowing Sam is he is very approachable. There is no ego there,’’ said Todd Raufeisen, a Quad-City developer who serves on the JDC board and will be the 2012 tournament chairman. “In business, you always look for someone you can look up to and learn from, and Sam is one of those guys. He’s fun to watch and fun to learn from. He’s a talented man and a natural leader in a subtle way.”
“He’s so unassuming, you would never in your wildest dreams think he is who he is,” said Decker Ploehn, the Bettendorf city administrator and a JDC director, who has known Allen for a decade.
Clair Peterson, the JDC tournament director, said Allen is held in high regard by the PGA Tour. In addition to his personality, “you really have to respect his intelligence, too,” he said.
“He’s so down-to-earth. We’d go on these executive retreats where we conduct business, and he’d be the guy who grabs the luggage and sits in the back of the car. He wanted no special treatment,” Peterson added.
Current tournament chair Steve McCann remembered how Allen would say, “He was just one of the guys and that’s how he wanted to be treated.”
“Our time with him is becoming less now that he is CEO, but deep down Sam still has a special place for the tournament,” he added.
Striving to be humble
Asked to describe his personal leadership style, Allen said, “I’d say once you get to know me (you’ll see) I like to listen to the organization, think about what the people say.”
“I also like to experience it, not read it,” he said, pointing to his extensive travels in recent months to Russia, where Deere sees great growth potential for its agricultural business. “I could do Russia from here,” he said, referring to his office.
Allen hopes those around him also find him to be humble. “My dad’s adage always was treat people how you’d like to be treated. I think people would say (about me): ‘He cares about people. He’s been there. He’s all about the job.’ They’d probably say, ‘Don’t try to fool him.’ ”
One of Allen’s first initiatives has been a Leaders Teaching Leaders program to help develop Deere’s next generation through personal teaching. “Younger managers can go see a bunch of PowerPoints on management … but it’s a lot different when the managers sit in small groups with me and other presidents and discuss leadership.”
Allen said he can be intense when necessary, adding that he is not very outgoing. “I’m more a one-on-one person. I prefer being in small groups.”
That trait is one reason he still appreciates the game of golf, even though he finds little time for it.
“I really enjoy not only golf from the standpoint of playing but from the camaraderie involved in spending a few hours with friends.”
A long golf weekend, he said “gets me out of the skin of the job.”
In his new role, Allen has remained focused on not changing “the how” Deere does business.
“Part of the way you make a mark … (is deciding) is something really broken and do you have to fix it? Or is everything going right and how do you elevate it? That clearly is where I see it,” he said of Deere’s performance.
He became CEO in the midst of the global economic recession when Deere was forced to institute deep layoffs at its Midwestern factories.
“I’ve had people say: ‘This is a tough time (to take over). You’re coming off a really high period and we’re in a global recession.’ Others said, ‘This is tough because of who you’re replacing,’ ” he said of Lane.
But Allen contends “it’s absolutely never been a better time” to be at the helm, given how Deere weathered the storm — remaining profitable against severe sales declines in its equipment markets — and all the opportunity for growth that exists around the globe.
“This company is always going to have its up-and-down years. The great news is in the down period the company emerged as healthy as it has been in the last 50 years.”
It was against that same challenging economic backdrop that Deere decided in November to extend its sponsorship of the John Deere Classic until 2016. But, as JDC leaders will attest, the extension was not assured, even with an ally at the top.
“We always ask the question first — does this add value to the enterprise?” Allen said.
“Part of the value of this is what it does to the Quad-Cities,” he said of the tournament that generates an estimated $25 million in annual economic impact. “It’s a major event that adds to the quality of life here, which we need to help in retaining people. But there is also the charitable side … that hits a sweet spot for us.”
The JDC is in the top five of PGA events in terms of money raised for charity and No. 1 on a per-capita basis. Last year, it gave $4.5 million to local charities through its Birdies for Charity program.
Peterson said the John Deere brand is seen in 150 countries through its TPC relationship. “There is no other exposure vehicle like this. What would you do if you didn’t have this JDC exposure?”
Bart Baker, a JDC director and the 2013 volunteer tournament chairman, agreed. “Sam wanted a business case made as to why it made sense. I don’t think he does anything frivolously. If it didn’t make sense to do something he wouldn’t do it, no matter how much he enjoyed it himself.”
Baker is part of the ownership group of Frontier Hospitality Group in Clinton, Iowa, which owns the Steeplegate Inn in Davenport.
“When you look at so many major metros in the U.S. that do not have PGA events, we are so blessed to be able to have this and that it’s something John Deere wants to sponsor,” said Baker, who also is a neighbor of Allen.
According to Baker, Allen is the type of person who is at ease with and respectful of everyone. “I think you can be the president of the United States or the guy sorting nuts and bolts on the assembly line and Sam Allen will treat them both the same,” he said.
The charity component weighed heavy in Deere’s decision to support the JDC. Another major factor was how the tournament complements the corporate business model.
“From a business standpoint, we have the opportunity to have nothing but John Deere equipment at all the TPC courses,” Allen said. “It’s an opportunity to not only transfer that message to other golf courses, but to all who mow their land.”
The tournament also provides a key venue for entertaining customers, dealers and others. “It’s an opportunity to spend time with the customers,” he added. ‘You don’t win business by this, but if you don’t have the relationship, it can prohibit you from getting the business … especially with the big customers. … They want to know the people they are doing business with.”