John Ruan III, who died earlier this month at the age of 78, was a talented businessman who, along with his wife Janis, succeeded in dramatically improving the quality of life in Des Moines.
They did so despite having lived almost two decades in the shadow of John III’s larger-than-life father, also named John, a self-made man.
Elder Ruan’s father, Dr John Ruan, had died in 1931 as the Great Depression began to choke the country, leaving his budding 17-year-old entrepreneur son with few means.
Dr Ruan’s son dropped out of school and, with just one dump truck, started a business that was so successful in the 1960s that the legendary Hubbell family of Des Moines asked him to take over Bankers Trust and solve the problems, which he did.
John Ruan then helped kick-start a downtown renaissance, erecting three major buildings – the Ruan Center, Ruan II, and the Downtown Marriott Hotel – and launching the downtown gateway system. He also wanted to erect a 100-story building that would signify Des Moines’ position as the agricultural capital of the world; when that proved impossible, he took command of the brand new World Food Prize and brought it to Des Moines.
John III, unlike his entrepreneur father, was not comfortable being the center of attention.
“John III has the drive and intelligence of his father, but not his boast,” Michael Gartner, director of media and baseball once said.
He also had a talent that was beyond his father’s many abilities. John III was the best talent judge of any Iowa executive I’ve known in 45 years of Iowa business writing.
It turned out that John III’s abilities were even more valuable to the community of Des Moines than his father’s many accomplishments. It was John III, from the late 1990s, who not only kept all of his father’s balls in the air, but drastically moved each one forward.
John III was, according to Des Moines lawyer Steven Zumbach, a rare commodity. He was a second generation hit.
“Most of the time, the second and third generations of successful people just want to spend the money they inherit and live very comfortable lives,” said Zumbach, who has spent much of his own career counseling the Ruans. and others on how to be successful in family businesses. from one generation to the next.
None of Zumbach’s clients have done this better than the Ruan, the attorney said.
“John III was extremely proud of what his father built and worked hard to carry on his father’s legacy by overcoming difficult challenges over the years through absolute determination and innovation in a changing market,” said said Steve Chapman, a seasoned travel director John III set up to smooth the family’s transportation businesses before handing them over to son-in-law Ben McClean a few years ago.
He made an even bigger transformation at Bankers Trust, helping find a bank chairman, J. Michael Earley, who ended years of regulatory oversight. And following that with an original successor, accountant Suku Radia in 2008, who took the bank to new levels of profitability, before handing it over in 2018 to another unusual find, banker Don Coffin, who had grown up. in a family of blue collar workers in Waterloo.
John III performed a similar magic behind the scenes in 1999 when he persuaded outgoing US Ambassador Kenneth Quinn, originally from Iowa, to take charge of the World Food Prize.
Grand Des Moines Chamber of Commerce president Michael Reagen had suggested Quinn, who had worked with Reagen as Gov. Robert Ray’s senior assistant. But after Quinn interviewed John III’s father, he was willing to turn down the job because the job seemed to lack vision and structure.
Next, John III spoke with Quinn and gave him a better idea of the opportunity, as well as the assurance of the support he would need to transform the World Food Prize into the first educational and philanthropic foundation that ‘it is today.
Although John III is the only Iowan to have chaired the powerful United States Chamber of Commerce (2011-12), he has been “often misunderstood by his peers as being somewhat aloof or difficult to talk about”, said Chapman, who described John III as “extremely humble and shy.
But not without humor.
“John III had a very sharp mind,” Chapman said, noting that he had previously asked his boss to stop using a red pen because “nothing good in business is written in red”. A few days later, Chapman noticed that John III was using a green pen. “He looked at me and said, ‘Steve, green is the color of money, and I thought you’d be okay with that.'”
In fact, John III was an unfinished work, a person who evolved over a lifetime that included two notable failures.
The first was the collapse of Carriers Insurance, a truck insurance business his father started in the 1950s and was responsible for in the mid-1980s at a time when the insurer was stifled by pricing pressures. Of the industry.
He was also for a time the public face of Access Air, a start-up airline in the late 1990s designed to offer more competitive prices for flights to and from Des Moines and both coasts. . The airline received voice support from many Des Moines companies, but collapsed when those same companies failed to provide the passenger support needed to be successful.
Despite the failures, John III continued to believe and want the best for his hometown.
Janis Ruan was a big part of her husband’s motivation, Zumbach said.
“They both grew up here and raised their families here. As cheesy as it sounds, they both want the best for their hometown, the best education system and the best cultural amenities, ”Zumbach said.
The former Janis Arnold was a Roosevelt High School reunion queen and fashion coordinator in Younkers when she met John III, 25, in 1968, shortly after his release from the Navy. They married two years later.
His long-standing interest in gardening is evident in the gardens of the World Food Prize Hall of Laureates and Des Moines Botanical Garden, as well as in the streets of downtown, along Ingersoll Avenue and on Fleur Drive.
When Quinn began transforming the old riverside Des Moines Public Library into the World Food Prize Winners Hall, he explained the need for a truly distinguished facility, noting that nations often build monuments for rulers and generals who win wars.
But Iowa is different, Quinn said. The heroes of Iowa did not wage wars or conquer territory. These were people who quietly worked to improve the human race, people like George Washington Carver, Jessie Schambaugh, 4-H leader, Henry Wallace, and Norman Borlaug.
Iowans are caring, successful, and modest people, Quinn said.
Just like Jean Ruan III.