A Fourth Generation Leader who Mastered the Art of Embracing Tradition and Change

Amy Schuman
Amy Schuman

Successful long-lived family businesses find a way to preserve their historic values and traditions while, at the same time, renewing themselves and responding to opportunities in an ever-changing world. Firms that are too rooted in the past become ossified, out-of-date, and outmoded. However, those that shun past success as irrelevant to present realities squander a treasure trove of values and accomplishments. It’s an art to combine the ‘secret sauce’ of historic success with the imperative to respond decisively and passionately to emerging opportunities and challenges.

Baird GraphicThis fine art was exemplified by John W. Baird, who passed away in December, 2013, at age 98.

Mr. Baird took over as president in 1963, following his father, Warner G. Baird, who guided the company in helping Chicago rebuild after the Great Fire of 1871. The firm was founded in 1855.

As president of Baird & Warner, Mr. Baird was deeply involved in civic affairs and the preservation of open spaces and landmarks. In the 1960’s, he was a leader in the effort to end housing discrimination in Chicago, and, as president of the then-Metropolitan Housing and Planning council, testified in favor of ‘open occupancy’, housing made available without consideration of race, ethnicity, religion, etc.

His son, Steve Baird, currently the fifth generation company president, commented, “At the time it would have been considered a very negative thing to the company because it was going against the tradition.”

However, what was ground breaking and ‘non-traditional’ at the time, now serves as a model of civic involvement and integrity for the company, the family, and the city of Chicago. And in fact, was part of the ‘secret-sauce’ that enabled this Chicago institution to survive and thrive up to this day.

There is much more to learn from the example of John W. Baird, who serves as an inspiration to others seeking success in leading their long-lived family firms. A quick web search will yield many links to articles, obituaries and tributes that are full of useful lessons – worthy of further reading and exploration.

*This article is drawn from obituaries and articles that appeared in The Chicago Sun Times, The Chicago Tribune, and online at INMAN NEWS.

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