McLane gives lessons on business and life

  • Businessman Drayton McLane came from humble origins in Texas. His humility, mixed with a competitive fire, have made for a storied career. — Standard-Radio Post/Ken Esten Cooke
    Businessman Drayton McLane came from humble origins in Texas. His humility, mixed with a competitive fire, have made for a storied career. — Standard-Radio Post/Ken Esten Cooke

It’s not every day here in Smalltown, USA, we get to hear from an American titan of industry. But former Houston Astros owner and McLane Ford partner Drayton McLane recently graced Fredericksburg Rotary Club with his presence, thanks to an invite from Kenny McCarty, his partner at the local Ford dealership.

McLane is the quintessential American success story. His family had a grocery store in Cameron, begun by his grandfather in 1894. A young Drayton, fresh off getting a degree from Baylor University and an MBA from Michigan State, went back to work for his father whose grocery was the largest business in their small town. 

His father started him out loading trucks on the night shift his first 18 months after joining the family business. Despite of his college pedigree, his father told him, “That [education] doesn’t qualify you for anything we do.” His father thought it was important to learn all parts of the business, and he learned how to work with people, respect people and lead people.

In 1966, McLane took a risk and moved his business and built a large distribution center. They grew their business 30 percent per year over the next 32 years. They began by delivering grocery products within a 50-mile radius of Temple, but soon branched out, taking that risk and eventually delivering grocery products all over the U.S.

He encouraged everyone to take a few risks — if nothing else, it will provide valuable lessons.

McLane also simplified his company mission statement to: “Honesty. Integrity. High Christian Principles.” And the leaders told employees to hold them accountable.

In the late 1970s, he began delivering a few products for a growing regional company named Wal-Mart. He got to know the legendary Sam Walton and enjoyed Walton’s big ideas. Walton was expanding into the grocery business, and he wanted McLane to partner with him for the distribution logistics. He was going to build 200,000 square foot stores that were open 24/7. Walton’s plan was to buy McLane Company, keep Drayton on as CEO and make Drayton a vice chairman (third in charge) of Walmart.

“No one wants to go to that big of a store or shop for groceries in the middle of the night,” McLane remembered telling him. At that time, McLane’s company was doing $14 billion a year in revenues, with about 10,000 employees. He initially turned down the offer. “He was trying to move my cheese,” he said, paraphrasing a popular business book. 

Walton had called McLane’s wife to lean on her. And six weeks later, McLane’s father, age 90, told him he thought it was a great idea. “Nothing stays the same,” his father told him. “You might be doing great today, but tomorrow it might be different.”

Walmart today, of course, is the largest corporation in the history of the world. The lesson was that we can’t get content with what we have and get stuck, McLane told us.

His purchase of the Houston Astros presented a different set of challenges. 

He wanted to be a champion and be the best. He visited with all of his players individually to find out their likes and goals, and one pitcher, Roy Oswalt, a 23rd-round draft pick, said he simply wanted to buy a bulldozer with his earnings to help with his father’s tree-clearing business. 

During Game 6 of the 2006 National League Championship Series, McLane told him if he won the game, he’d buy Oswalt a brand new bulldozer. Oswalt lit up like a light bulb, pitched seven nearly flawless innings and won the game, securing the championship for the ’Stros. 

Being able to relate to people is a big part of being a good leader.

McLane hails from Milam County. There, my hometown of Rockdale has maintained a fierce rivalry with his hometown of Cameron. When McLane figured out I was from Rockdale, his competitive fire surfaced.

“My classmate intercepted one of your dad’s passes,” he said of their rivalry. I texted my dad, knowing he would get a kick out of the world-famous McLane still remembering their high school football exploits. My dad texted back, “His friend wasn’t the first or last to intercept me.” 

McLane and McCarty met at church in Temple. They became friends before McCarty realized his new acquaintance was one of the most successful businessmen in Texas. McLane said he and Kenny talk every Saturday morning to go over business details and ideas.

Needless to say, McLane could just put everything on cruise control and live out his days in comfort. But we could tell he is still fired up by the prospect of improving his businesses. His competitiveness and those lessons of start small, take some risks and believe are huge reasons he is so successful.

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