Jim Vann’s résumé could beat up your résumé.
But don’t expect the 85-year-old to brag about it. The North Carolina native is too much of a Southern gentleman for that.
So Vann won’t mention that he once served in the Army Corps of Engineers, taught at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and managed Alcoa’s operation in Perth, Western Australia.
The chairman and majority owner of Rea Magnet Wire Co. is also low-key about helping design the aluminum exteriors of the vehicle assembly building in Cape Canaveral, Fla.; the John Hancock and Sears towers in Chicago; and the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center.
Despite doing his humble best, however, Vann can’t stop his highlight reel from running in the wake of his latest professional honor. He received the 2013 Copper Man of the Year Ankh Award from The Copper Club. One recipient is selected each year from the U.S. and another from the rest of the world.
During the ceremony, which was held in the Plaza Hotel’s Grand Ballroom in New York City in June, Vann described the award as the highlight of his 63-year career.
But, the truth is, selecting one highlight in his exceptional career is like asking an astronomer to choose his favorite star.
In an interview with The Journal Gazette, Vann pointed to another event as the pinnacle of his professional achievements: the March 1986 leveraged buyout of Rea Magnet Wire.
On another day, under different circumstances, the local leader might have mentioned his appointment to co-chair the Fort Wayne Legacy Task Force as his most significant honor.
In 2011, Mayor Tom Henry asked Vann and IPFW associate professor Quinton Dixie to lead the group that made recommendations for spending $75 million from the lease and sale of the city’s old electric utility.
Jim Marcuccilli, president and CEO of Star Bank, has seen the effect Vann has during meetings for other organizations.
When he was talking, people were listening, you could tell that, Marcuccilli said. Vann’s comments, he added, were visionary.
Those skills were needed for the task force, whose goal was to recommend investment in projects that help retain and attract talented workers and make Fort Wayne a better place to live.
A company town
Vann’s sense of community was formed in Badin, N.C.
He and his younger sister, Jane, grew up in the town of about 3,000. Neighbors kept kids in line by calling their parents to report misbehavior.
Even so, Vann said, he got away with stealing apples, cherries, pears and watermelons at night.
Badin was a company town that boasted a lake and a golf course for employees’ enjoyment. Families’ schedules were dictated by the factory whistle.
Rather than feeling as if he couldn’t get away from prying eyes, Vann considered it a blessing that he and Sis were free to do whatever they wanted between mealtimes.
Their father, a World War I veteran, worked in the Alcoa factory. Their mother taught fifth grade in the school built to educate workers’ children. She instilled a love of books in her own children, often reading to them at home.
The Vann family left Badin and moved to Hot Springs, Ark., in 1942, when the father was offered a job as personnel manager in another Alcoa plant. Jim Vann, who was 14 at the time, graduated from high school in Arkansas but returned to North Carolina to earn a business degree at Davidson College.
Leading a buyout
Vann began his business career as a sales engineer with Alcoa in Atlanta. After a two-year stint in the military, he returned to the company.
Over the years, Vann advanced in Alcoa, holding management positions in Pittsburgh; Atlanta; Vancouver, Wash.; and Australia. Rather than follow a strategic plan, Vann kept his head down and worked hard. As a result, he said, unexpected promotions put him in positions he didn’t always feel fully prepared for.
In June 1982, Vann was named president of Rea Magnet Wire Co. Inc. in Fort Wayne.
The manufacturer’s potential was enormous. Rea makes magnet wire insulated with copper, aluminum and brass. Every item with a motor contains magnet wire. Household examples include refrigerators, washers, dryers, dishwashers, vacuums, hair dryers, microwaves, air conditioners and TVs. Cars, trucks and myriad industrial items also contain motors.
When Alcoa bought Rea in 1960, company leaders believed the industry was destined to be dominated by aluminum magnet wire.
They were right, but they were 50 years early, Vann said about a trend that finally took hold in 2010.
Not long into Vann’s leadership at Rea, Alcoa decided to sell the subsidiary. Vann and other Rea executives were asked to help market the operation to potential buyers.
They knew the asking price of $35 million was a relative bargain for the well-run business. But buying the company was a significant personal risk for Vann and minority partners Bill Gorman, Ron Foster and Bill Wyatt.
Vann sought out Dick Doermer, the late chairman and CEO of Summit Bank, at a cocktail party and floated the idea of a loan.
He didn’t laugh. And I thought, Well, that’s a good start,’ Vann said.
Vann didn’t know it at the time, but Doermer’s lending limit was $6 million. The community-minded banker made the deal by finding five other banks willing to participate.
It’s kind of a story of Americana, Vann said about approaching Doermer at a social event. The things we did you couldn’t do today.
The business partners still had to bring more than experience and optimism to the table. They offered up their own cash and the company’s assets – which included buildings, equipment and inventory – as collateral. They also secured order commitments from major customers.
Based on this, Vann said, we signed our loans that were the biggest IOU’s any of us had ever seen.
Saving local jobs
Before the deal closed, Rea’s most profitable plant was flooded with 12 to 15 feet of water. The damage was so devastating that the partners thought they’d have to call off the deal.
But Alcoa’s president, a friend of Vann’s, offered to use Alcoa’s resources to rebuild the self-insured plant or move the equipment to another factory.
With that, the sale was back on. Vann became Rea’s chairman, president and CEO in March 1986.
The partners, nearing retirement age, were relieved but not desperate for the deal. They could have retired from Alcoa with good pensions.
They were driven by the belief that if an outside company bought the business, the work would be moved out of the country and hundreds of U.S. jobs would be lost, Vann said.
The partners grew the business, which thrived on their watch.
When Vann joined Rea, 17 magnet wire companies operated in the U.S. Now the number is two: Rea and Superior Essex.
Rea contributed to the industry’s consolidation with its February 2006 acquisition of Phelps Dodge Magnet Wire Co. The $125 million cash deal, which doubled the size of the company, made Rea the largest manufacturer of wire for electric motors and transformers in North America.
Each company was worth about $500 million at the time of the acquisition, Vann said. Although the local workforces and production operations were combined, fewer than 20 workers weren’t offered jobs, the company said last week. Vann said anyone who wanted to return to the company has been called back from layoff.
Rea’s annual revenue was $98 million in 1986, the time of the leveraged buyout. As of 2012, annual revenue had grown tenfold to more than $1 billion.
Making a difference
As the company has grown, so has its need for copper.
The Copper Club, which represents the International Copper Industry, named Vann its 2013 Copper Man of the Year for excellence in leadership and extraordinary contribution to the industry.
Another factor in the selection, Vann said, is the amount of copper purchased. He thinks it’s unusual for the 50-year-old award to go to someone representing a company the size of Rea Magnet Wire – a fact confirmed by Kristen Swan Kurtz, Copper Club spokeswoman.
Copper Club membership is open to all sectors of the global copper industry: Producers, fabricators and manufacturers. The group was formed to work with the U.S. government during World War II. It continued afterward to promote the industry’s interests.
The annual conference serves as a planning meeting, allowing copper producers to gauge demand and ramp up expansions, as needed.
The award itself is a 2-foot-tall statue of The Thinker made of bronze, which is a copper alloy. It weighs about 40 pounds.
As much as he appreciates the honor, Vann doesn’t define himself solely based on work. With the wealth that came from owning Rea, the Vanns are able to support causes they believe in.
In 1997, Vann and his wife, Lee, created the Vann Family Foundation to provide financial support to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.; Davidson College in Davidson, N.C.; and many charitable causes in Fort Wayne, including Aboite New Trails.
The University of Saint Francis renamed its library for Lee and Jim Vann in 2005 after the couple made a significant donation.
Vann has found numerous ways to contribute to the community over the years.
In 2006, he and retired businessman Don Wolf approached other members of Sycamore Hills Golf Club about buying the local gem from the estate of local entrepreneur and philanthropist Jim Kelley.
Tom Kelley, Jim’s son and the president of Kelley Automotive Group, said a California firm had already made an offer for the Jack Nicklaus-designed course. The younger Kelley said he couldn’t afford to buy the club from the estate.
(Vann) was an absolute key element in keeping Sycamore Hills locally owned, Kelley said. And now we’re bringing national tournaments to Fort Wayne. Who knows? None of that might have happened if it wasn’t still locally owned.
This summer marks a significant transition for the Vanns. Although they have great affection for Fort Wayne, the couple have been lured South by the warmer weather.
The Vanns are selling their local home and already sold a minority interest in Sycamore Hills Golf Club. When they visit for Rea’s monthly board meetings, they stay with their daughter, Sherry Connolly, who also attends the meetings. She’s her father’s designated successor on the board.
The Vanns now split time between Charlotte, N.C., and a family vacation home on South Carolina’s coast. The regular drives between Fort Wayne and the Carolinas were becoming too much.
But don’t assume Vann, who admits being a bit of a perfectionist, is scaling back his interest in the world around him.
Over a glass of wine a few years ago, the Vanns were talking about business-related scandals in the news, including Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi-style scheme that cheated investors out of millions.
Vann told his wife, It just galls me that these people are giving business such a terrible reputation.
Lee Vann challenged her husband, a one-time Boy Scout, to do something about it.
So he did.
The Vanns founded the Vann Center for Ethics at Davidson College in 2009. The center invites students, faculty and the public to attend ethics forums and ask for guidance in navigating complex ethical issues.
Davidson, a liberal arts college with a student body of about 1,700, has an honor code that dates back to when Vann was a student there. Today, more than 30 courses there focus primarily on ethics and two dozen more include ethics as a significant part of the discussion.
The couple also underwrite two fellowships that allow Davidson students to do biomedical ethics research at the Mayo Clinic during the summer. The focus, he said, is on end-of-life issues.
Vann’s career highlight might be open for debate, but the ethics center could be his legacy.
Keith Busse, chairman of Steel Dynamics Inc. and Tower Financial Corp., said Vann stands for ethics.
He’s a quality guy, a man of great integrity and honor, Busse said. He has my utmost respect.