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A personal role model

He took a page from a business playbook that was truly ahead of its time.

by steve churmPublished: February 01, 2012

Decades before smartphones and long before the shelves at local bookstores were filled with business titles about efficiency, I visited the office of an Orange County executive and was surprised by what I didn’t find on his desk. There were no stacks of papers or files or newspapers or even personal effects. Just a lamp, a polished desktop, a phone and a yellow legal pad with a pencil and pen.
For 33 years, the vast majority of it as a chief executive and then chairman of a plastics and rubber manufacturing company based here in O.C., he maintained the same Spartan management style. He rarely touched the same piece of paper twice. In fact, he handled 90 percent of his own correspondence, even when the company grew to more than two-dozen plants and several thousand employees from coast to coast. His solution to business letters: Take the original, copy it, pen a brief reply with a felt-tip marker and mail it back. It was personal, impactful and, above all, efficient. If more needed to be communicated, he picked up the phone and called.

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I marveled at the simplicity and straightforward management approach to operating his expanding enterprise. There were few frills and almost no personal ego embedded in the company’s leadership. He had fun, mind you, and he was all about taking care of talent on his team. He also wanted the best, from holiday decorations in the office to automobiles for his sales force. But it was a business, and at the end of the month it was about making money for the stakeholders who worked for him and the shareholders who bought stock in his company. 

In many ways, this businessman was a contrarian. When his company needed a name change in the late 1980s, he didn’t hire a pricey advertising or marketing firm. He  offered $1,400 worth of stock as a grand prize and received some 8,000 potential names from more than 3,000 entrants.
Responses came from as near as San Clemente and as far as Stuttgart, West Germany, on cocktail napkins, T-shirts and in formal presentations. They came via fax machine, and two even arrived from jail. The publicity, both print and electronic, was global. The best part was that the total cost of the entire initiative was less than $25,000.
As a result, the company name went from Fluorocarbon to Furon, and the executive in charge was Peter Churm, my father. The contest was emblematic of his Midwestern roots. He was a shirt-and-tie kind of guy who today would probably still be in his corporate uniform if he were running the firm. He retired 20 years ago, and at the age of 85 he passed away just a few weeks ago on New Year’s Eve from complications of a stroke. I will miss  his business acumen. But I will never forget his spotless desk. I’ve got some work to do  to catch up.