Dealership leader puts employees & customers first
The art of sailing involves more than simply jumping on a boat and letting the wind take you away. There are physics involved—a delicate balance of ropes and pulleys, adjusting tension to match the wind’s speed and direction. The equilibrium achieved by this combination of forces allows for a smooth voyage.
The same can be said for a lifetime career in the water industry. Growing up immersed in the industry does not automatically guarantee longevity and success. It takes a strong foundation, the right attitude and—perhaps most importantly—an inherent desire to serve people.
John Packard understands the balance of these forces when it comes to sailing, and he has found a similar balance in his nearly 50-year career in the industry. John is at the helm of Packard Culligan, a 72-year-old company headquartered in Minnetonka, Minn., with 32 locations across nine states.
John Packard (left) hopes to one day pass the business on to his son Derek (right)
F. Wayne Packard, John’s father, started the business in 1946 with two partners. John grew up around the business, beginning his work there around age 12. After graduating from McMurray College with a degree in business administration and accounting in 1969, he was excited to get started working at the business full time.
Coming from what he called the “workaholic era,” John said in retrospect he wishes he had taken some time off to see the world before jumping right into work, something he later encouraged both of his children—Derek, 31, and Andrea, 33—to do when they graduated college.
In his first 30 days working at the family business after graduation, John spent his time repairing units in the plant. After 30 days, he had to join the union. He then was tasked with odd jobs around the office, cleaning brine tanks, handling hauling routes and learning the business from the ground up.
“I fundamentally just worked my way up in the business doing all the stuff they couldn’t find anybody else to do,” John said. “That’s a typical kind of ‘son in the business’ deal. If somebody wasn’t available, I did it.”
Once, early in his career, an issue arose at Culligan of Calgary. The general manager left the dealership to work for a competitor and took seven employees with him—unbeknown to the home office. John took what was supposed to be a three-day trip to the Calgary office to conduct training and ended up staying for three months.
“I had to have my mother go to my apartment and send my clothes up,” he said. “That’s an example of a ‘son-of-the-owner’ thing. I could do it. I was single, and I learned a huge amount from that. At the time it was kind of a pain, but it was a great experience.”
These experiences doing grunt work made a lasting impression.
“You really understand what the employees go through,” he said. “That was a big deal, appreciating what the employees had to do. That’s stuck with me forever.”
John and his wife Karen met through their mutual love of sailing
The Value of People
Some of the lessons learned early in his career continue to have an impact on John, even now in his position of president, which he has held since 1986.
“The principal lesson is: take care of your employees so they take care of the customer,” John said. “That certainly is one that I had from the beginning. You need to have a philosophy like that in order to really make good decisions when you’re running a business.”
John visits each of his locations at least once a year, according to Derek, and he makes a point to communicate with everyone, from route drivers to upper management.
“Employees really look forward to seeing him,” Derek said. “He has an amazing ability to communicate with everyone at all levels. Just watching him naturally communicating has been really important. I’ve tried to emulate that.”
According to Derek, John not only keeps the company’s 550 employees top of mind, but also prioritizes the thousands of employee family members who also rely on the responsible operation of the business. By offering good benefits and treating employees fairly, they will be more inclined to do a good job. In John’s eyes, the employee experience has a direct impact on the customer experience.
“He is always asking how a decision that we made will affect the customer,” Derek said. “You can’t lose sight of the customer. That’s why we’re here. So [thinking about] how every decision affects the customer is something he stresses a lot.”
Scott Clawson, Culligan’s CEO, first met John in 2011. It was Clawson’s first week on the job, and he visited Packard Culligan’s headquarters in Minnetonka. Since then, John and Clawson have worked closely as partners and friends.
“John’s capacity is amazing, both intellectually and [in terms of] work ethic,” Clawson said. “I’ve been impressed with his ability to lead such a big business, understanding it well, leading his organization, and still keep up with industry, boards and family priorities. You can ask John something about any one of his dealerships, which span many states from Pennsylvania to Arizona, and he will be right on top of what is going on there.”
The importance of civic duty and charitable giving is something Derek has seen as important in the way his father operates the business. Through his charitable endeavors, John has shown his team the value of giving back.
In that spirit, Packard Culligan launched a Culligan Cares campaign across its 32 dealerships. The goal of the campaign is for each dealership to choose a local charity to support, whether monetarily or through volunteer efforts. Packard Culligan matches each employee’s donation dollar for dollar, and donates $25 for every volunteer hour an employee puts in at the designated charity. So far, 26 of the 32 dealerships have participated.
Left: F. Wayne Packard (right) taught John (left) the importance of fostering relationsips with competitors. Right: F. Wayne Packard started Packard Culligan in 1946.
Learning by Association
Packard Culligan has been a Water Quality Assn. (WQA) member since the association’s inception in 1974, and was a member of Water Conditioning Association Intl. before that. John himself served as president of WQA, and cherishes his time with the association, calling it “the most meaningful endeavor of [his] business career.”
The educational opportunities offered by WQA have proven invaluable for John and his career, but it is the meetings and networking events that have had the greatest impact. For John, WQA has created an environment in which competitors are loyal friends “in the same fraternity,” he said, working toward a common goal, rather than spiteful enemies out to steal trade secrets.
“In the olden days, [the industry was not] at all that way,” John said. “It was kind of like, ‘the only good competitor is a dead one.’ I never really thought that way.”
He learned this lesson from his father, who made a point to maintain friendly relationships with competitors.
“That’s how I was brought up,” John said. “We’d have [competitors] sleep over at our house when they were in town. You don’t think of them as enemies.”
To benefit from WQA, John said, one needs an open mind and the desire to improve and succeed. That is why he is not concerned about sharing too much information with others in the industry.
Trust is important to John, and it is what allows him to maintain a level of transparency in his work with WQA and his relationships with other dealers. He participates in roundtables and educational sessions and is happy to share his philosophies with those willing to listen.
“Independent businesspeople are interesting,” John said. “You could tell them your deepest, darkest secret and the majority of them will do nothing about it. You can tell the really connected ones from those that aren’t. Many independent businesspeople think they know what’s going on and they’ll listen to your advice, but they won’t take it.”
That does not seem to be a problem for John, according to Clawson.
“When John speaks, people do listen and take note,” Clawson said. “It is not uncommon when discussing an issue with our dealer council that someone will ask, ‘What does John think?’ He has that level of confidence and respect from his fellow dealers.”
Next in Line
John has led by example, passing the lessons he has learned throughout his career down to the next generation.
Derek initially had no interest in joining Packard Culligan. When he graduated college, John encouraged him to take time off to explore the world, so Derek spent a year and a half in Australia. When he came back, he called his father.
“He said, ‘Well, I’ve seen the world and I need to earn a decent living,’” John said. “That was probably one of the better days of my life.”
Derek currently is the area manager overseeing Packard Culligan’s Idaho stores, based out of the Stillwater, Minn., location, where he serves as general manager. “I’m really happy with the way he’s developing,” John said. “He’s not immediately ready; there’s some other things he’s got to experience, but hopefully it’ll happen. I will be thrilled because he’ll be third generation and it’s a big deal.”
Describing John as a “hands-off” manager, Derek said John has given him adequate freedom to make a name for himself in the industry.
“You see a lot of people sometimes kind of attached to their dad’s hip at conventions or meetings, but he’s given me a lot of space to figure things out on my own and form friendships naturally and let me be myself, which has been really helpful,” Derek said.
For the past four years, John and Derek have spent Thursday evenings in the summer on the golf course, where John dispenses wisdom over nine holes. He offers advice and words of encouragement, and notes areas of improvement. The two debrief after important meetings or management retreats, breaking down each other’s performance and sharing lessons learned.
John also has been known to offer his expertise up the corporate ladder.
“On some of the most important or complex situations I have faced in the water industry, I have sought John’s council and advice. That says it all,” Clawson said. “He is someone I admire and respect and [am] very thankful to have as part of the Culligan system, and as a business partner overall.”
Until the time comes for the next generation to take over—and John is not ready to say when that time is—John will continue running Packard Culligan the way he always has: with people in mind.
“You can’t be wandering around wondering what’s the secret to running this business,” John said. “There is no secret. It’s a service business. It’s run by people. If you can’t value people, you’re in trouble.”
When he manages to find some free time in the midst of overseeing Packard Culligan’s 32 dealerships, John enjoys a number of extra curricular activities.
“I’m still pretty active, even though I’m an old bastard,” John said, with a laugh.
John is an avid sailor. Aside from garnering a love of the sport, sailing has made another huge impact on his life: it is how he met his wife, Karen. Sailing has taken him around the world; he has sailed in Italy, Croatia and Turkey. The day he spoke to WQP, he was heading off on a 10-day sailing and diving trip in the Caribbean.
“He’s really good at sailboat racing, which he’s continued to do into a later age than almost anyone I’ve ever seen,” Derek said. “He taught me how to sail, as well.” Derek, like his father, met his fiancé through the sport.
John also enjoys skiing and golfing, and up until a few years ago, played hockey regularly.
He also has a handy side, according to Derek. Derek recalled a story of when he was in Boy Scouts as a child and John helped him build a car for the Pinewood Derby. Derek was convinced he was going to lose, but John surprised him by building a perfectly weighted car with graphite wheels and several coats of paint. In the end, Derek won the race.
“I couldn’t believe it, but he really has a lot of know-how and a handiness to him that I think you wouldn’t expect,” Derek said.
Derek also listed John’s great taste in food, wine and travel destinations among his other interests, even though he said John is not a “high-maintenance person.”
“For all the time he spends working, which is a lot, he does a lot of cool extra curricular activities,” he said.