A model businessman Featured

9:56am EDT July 22, 2002

The lights were dim, but the room was loud — really, really loud. Plane engine loud. And not just because the music was blaring. There were people everywhere: standing, seated, clapping, dancing, talking, laughing, singing. There must have been close to 3,000 excessively exuberant, mostly middle-aged, revelers assembled — and it was barely 8 a.m. It was the strangest sight I’d ever witnessed as a member of the media.

This was the Longaberger Reunion Bee and I was in awe.

What kind of company evokes such unbridled, almost cult-like enthusiasm from its sales force? I mean, thousands upon thousands of independent sales associates, as The Longaberger Co. likes to call them, flew and drove to Columbus from all over the country for this annual powwow. What could possibly make these people so loyal and so very proud of what they do for a living? I soon found out.

When company founder Dave Longaberger took the stage, the fervent cheers hit a whole new level as the entire crowd sprang to its feet. When he spoke, the group hushed. Clad in hand-woven Longaberger sweaters and clutching basket-shaped purses, the masses leaned forward and hung on his every word. Then they cheered, and cheered, and cheered some more. Clearly this man was more than their leader; he was loved and admired by them. He was their hero. In many ways, they couldn’t have picked a better role model.

Dave Longaberger was a picture of dignity and class. He was humble in his success and gracious when honored. He was intensely dedicated to his hometown of Dresden, a quiet community about 50 miles east of Columbus where he chose to start his basket weaving business 26 years ago. Longaberger was noble in his fight against cancer, too. He never hid his worsening condition or tried to evoke pity in the 22 months he fought this disease.

His genuine nature made him a father figure — looked up to, trusted and revered, not just by his two grown daughters, but by his staff of more than 54,000 nationwide. It’s said that Longaberger was the type of manager who often walked the manufacturing facility’s floor talking to employees, listening to their concerns and recruiting their ideas. Apparently he knew the importance of respect and he earned it honestly.

Longaberger was also a master planner. Years before his cancer diagnosis, he laid the groundwork to ensure his legacy would continue to flourish under the able leadership of his daughters, Tami and Rachel. That’s why, although Longaberger’s March 17 death seemed to come far too soon, his company won’t miss a beat.

Tami, his eldest, has been serving as president of the now-$700 million Longaberger Co. for nearly five years, with the same modesty, energy and genuine class her father displayed. Rachel appears to share her dad’s passion for supporting the local community, too, through her work as president of The Longaberger Foundation.

Although Dave Longaberger won dozens of awards for his business and civic achievements during the 64 years he spent on this Earth, I have to think his most cherished reward is knowing his daughters have done, and will continue to do, him proud.

Rest easy, Dave, and thank you for showing us all how to succeed with grace. Nancy Byron (nbyron@sbnnet.com) is the editor of SBN Columbus.