When you ask Mervin Dunn about his success as president and CEO of Commercial Vehicle Group Inc., you’ll instantly be struck by his humility. Rather than espouse the company and what he’s accomplished, he simply says he just happened to be in the right place at the right time.
Dunn grew up in a low-income household in Kentucky, where he was the most educated person in the household by the time he finished third grade. He won the regional 2008 Ernst & Young Entrepreneur Of The Year Award in the turnaround category for his efforts in diversifying CVG’s customer base to become a publicly traded global manufacturer of parts for the commercial vehicle market. Despite that, Dunn never forgets where he came from or how hard he worked to rise above it.
Smart Business spoke with Dunn about how his upbringing impacts CVG’s philanthropic efforts as well as his own beliefs in giving back.
Q. What does corporate philanthropy mean to you?
A. I first found out about philanthropy when I was in the fourth grade. I lived in a very, very poor neighborhood, a slum. The Shriners took us to the Ringling Bros. Circus and they took all of our pictures in front of the school bus. The next day, there was a story in the newspaper with the headline, ‘Indigent Children Taken on Field Trip.’ Up until then, we didn’t know that we were that poor.
So today, my idea with kids is this: We live in a very affluent area, so most of the kids have everything but not always have they been taught to dream. My gift to them, if I can do it successfully, is to teach them how to dream. If you can teach them how to dream and how to work hard and go get (what they want in life), that’s my idea of philanthropy. It’s not always giving money; it’s giving time, which is more valuable.
Q. How do you instill that in a company culture so that employees understand how important this type of philanthropy is to the next generation?
A. It’s important for them to know what’s instilled deeply in youth. Everybody in my company knows my background. In a way, they know it better than I do. My story is something I was always ashamed of when I was little. But it has done me so much good now. Where I lived, you dealt with confrontation every day. And, in business, you deal with confrontation every day. You just don’t get to use your fists as much now. My thing is to teach everybody that we’re lucky. There are a lot of people who work a lot harder than I do, but even if you work hard, you have to have a little luck, too. People need to realize that if you don’t give a little of that back, it’s not a good society. But I think we’ve got people that understand that and give.
My time is spent with my kids and the kids in the community — either the community I live in, where my company is, where my kids go to school in or the community of our employees’ kids. We cannot always provide everything to everyone, but we can provide some jobs, we can provide some vision and teach them how to dream a little bit. When they walk in and see my Ford GT there, they think, ‘This guy really came from nothing and he’s got all this and did all this.’ That says that you can do it no matter who you are in this country. There are a lot of people out there with a lot of more money and with larger companies than us, but there are very few that can compete with us about how we feel about giving to kids and giving of our time. That’s what is important to us.
How to reach: Commercial Vehicle Group Inc., www.cvgrp.com
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