John MacDougall: A Reflection
Nice N Easy veteran remembers the man he called King John
CANASTOTA, N.Y. -- There are people who make a great first impression, firm handshake, bright smile, pat on the back and active listening skills galore. Then things get worse. They ultimately let you down or show the proverbial feet of clay. John MacDougall was the opposite. He got better over time.
Not that John didn’t make a great first impression. He did. The best, in fact. Within a few minutes of meeting John, you felt as though you knew him and he knew you. He didn’t need to use active listening skills because he truly was listening, and he listened because he really cared. Based on his background, that fact should not be surprising.
John was going to be a priest and almost made it to that point, choosing instead to leave the seminary for the secular world. However, his studies of philosophy and theology informed his decision making throughout his life, and dramatically affected his personal and business relationships. There was always a bit of father-confessor about John. You felt compelled to tell him the truth. Honesty was at the core of any relationship with John and honesty engenders trust. People trusted John because he trusted people.
When John left the seminary, he worked in downtown Cleveland as a probation officer. This brought him into some tough areas and difficult situations with people who could smell phony compassion a mile away. John was the real article, and the people he dealt with knew it. His compassion was real and the help he offered sincere.
John and I used to sit in his office and laugh about how a philosopher theologian and an English teacher could team up to operate a successful convenience-store company. We either broke every business rule in the book or followed them instinctively and brilliantly. Either way, it had to do with understanding people and treating them properly. And, in any case, we were both fans of a Liberal Arts education.
Working by John’s side was a privilege. Before I met John, I thought the idea of having a hero or someone to look up to was something used as a plot device in movies and TV shows. I hadn’t experienced it. That changed quickly. John was so honest and trustworthy, fair and consistent, and compassionate that I couldn’t help but be overcome; my resistance to hero-worship dissolved. I admired him. Loved him, too.
But there was more to John than the nice-guy persona people saw. He was also an intellectual. He liked to hide that fact behind the “everyman” façade he created, but if you were around him long enough, you witnessed the quality and depth of the man’s intelligence. He never stopped writing things down. His mind never stopped. His creativity never stopped flowing. Whenever we flew somewhere, I’d read a book. John would get his yellow legal pad out and start writing. By the time we landed, he had 15 to 20 new initiatives to discuss.
Why did Nice N Easy Grocery Shoppes, an upstate, New York chain, become successful when it started with no real assets or advantages other than John MacDougall? The experience of the seminary and social work, as well as John’s own DNA, gave him a greater understanding of wants and needs of the people coming through the doors of his stores. His personal relationships with trade partners made them want to work with him and see him succeed. Smart, motivated people wanted to work for him and stayed for years, often turning down higher pay with other companies who tried to recruit them. John was so modest and humble that he disavowed most of the praise he received, most often deflecting it to the people who worked for him.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention another part of the person I called King John. Somewhere in John’s background there must have been Scottish royalty. In fact, if you looked at John just right, you could picture him in Henry VIII vestments. King John would get irritated or just plain angry, and his nose would get higher and higher in the air, his lips would purse and his earlobes turn crimson. Someone would be laid out in red. Many times I was that someone. One time he slammed his fist on his desk and said, “This is NOT a democracy!” Yes, John had spine and conviction, but it never came at the expense of a grudge.
It was a treat for all of us at Nice N Easy to see John honored as often he was. He earned every accolade and Hall of Fame ever thrown his way. The foodservice program, the big, new stores, his television commercials, his devotion to community service, the staff he developed, his closing seminars at NACS Cornell Executive Leadership, and his willingness to devote time and people to industry initiatives were all stellar achievements.
But the way he fought to get better over the last six months of his life was truly inspiring to us all. Each improvement or positive step gave us hope during a long, dark and cold winter. When he was able to come home, our spirits were raised to the heavens. But total recovery was just not to be. John died June 21 after a long illness.
I was blessed to have had the chance to spend more time with him this spring and say many of the things I wanted to say to him. I made sure I told him I loved him every time we parted.
We all miss him terribly, but he lives on in our attitudes, our philosophies and in the way we treat the people around us. He lives on in every customer transaction at each and every one of our stores.
He lives on.
Fran Duskiewicz has worked for Nice N Easy Grocery Shoppes and with company owner and CEO John MacDougall for 34 years. The senior executive vice president recently assumed the titles of president and chief executive officer of the convenience-retail company based in Canastota, N.Y.