Houston Astros owner Drayton McLane Jr. on the keys to successful leadership Featured

8:00pm EDT April 25, 2008

It was 1964. Drayton McLane Jr. was a young executive working

in the grocery distribution business of his father, Drayton McLane

Sr., and still years away from the worldwide business mogul and

Major League Baseball franchise owner he would become.

What was then known as the McLane Co. Inc. was still a small

family operation based in Cameron, Texas.

But McLane saw the potential of his father’s company, if his

father and the company were only willing to take a risk.

“We were in an old distribution center that had been built by my

father, who had been in the business since 1922,” McLane says.

“We needed to build a new, modern distribution center, and to do

it, I felt we needed to move to another city about 40 miles away.”

The company had no debt, and McLane needed to convince his

father to assume a large amount of debt in addition to uprooting

his business from Cameron to move to the larger city of Temple,


McLane told his father that the company could never reach its

full potential where it was and that any short-term adversity would

be worth it to position the grocery distribution business for

increased growth down the road.

“We were the largest employer in town, with about 100 employees, and it was going to be hard on them when we moved as well

as for my father and mother, who had lived there all their lives,” he

says. “That’s on top of going into debt pretty heavy to build this

facility. But that’s what we did, and in 1966, we opened our new

distribution facility in Temple, and that’s what really opened the

doors for our business to grow.”

McLane, who now chairs the McLane Group — a private holding

company that does not disclose revenue — says a tolerance for

risk is one of the toughest traits to build in a businessperson, especially when you’ve achieved success and feel like you’re on the

right track. But, he says, the greatest business leaders always see

the potential in their companies and have an eye toward what

might be in the future. You’ll never achieve your full potential in

business without taking risks and cultivating a work force that is

willing to follow your example.

It’s what has helped take McLane from small-town grocery distribution executive to the highly public helm of the Houston

Astros, where as chairman and CEO, he has overseen the most

successful era in franchise history.

What follows are some of the lessons he has learned about leadership in his decades-long business career.

Spread the passion

Leaders are teachers. Without an ability to teach, McLane says you

will never get your people to see eye to eye with you, understand

your vision for the company and feel the passion you feel for the


For McLane, teaching starts with getting his employees involved in

shaping the company’s future by posing problems and letting them

come up with their own solutions.

“You have to teach people your business, what the problem is or

what you want to accomplish,” he says. “You sit down in strategy

sessions, you outline it, and you tell them, ‘Here is what I think are

the objectives.’ Then let people spontaneously talk about it, maybe

go home knowing we’re going to meet at 8 o’clock the next morning

and figure out just how we’re going to do this. When I do that, I’m

always amazed at the big ideas people come up with.

“You have to give them free rein, this is what enterprise and entrepreneurship is all about, people with new, fresh ideas. Let

them feel a part of that, but also let them feel a pride in not just creating it but achieving it.”

But McLane says involvement in shaping the company’s future

should also come with a sense of responsibility and accountability.

Growth on a personal and companywide level doesn’t generally

occur when you arbitrarily throw stuff against a wall to see what

sticks, so employees given the opportunity to create must be given

parameters and then held accountable for staying within those


The parameters should fall in line with what you want to accomplish as a business.

“In a large business where you have a number of people working

for you, you have to identify what your objective is and what you

want to accomplish,” he says. “Is it products; is it services? You

have to identify the objective, what it is you want to do and what

it is you want to produce. Then you have to sell people on the goal,

what it is you want to achieve. Then the last part is the toughest

word in the English language, and that’s ‘accountability.’

“Imagine you’re back in college, and, on the first day of class, the

professor says, ‘I’ve got great news. At the end of this semester,

everybody is going to make an A. But I still want you to buy the

book, read the lessons, do the homework and be in class every


“Now, if I knew I was going to get an A regardless of what I did,

I might not try very hard. But that’s not how they do it in the U.S.

educational system. You have exams, term papers and homework

to determine your grade, so you’d better do the work if you want

to graduate. You have to be accountable in school, and, in business, it’s the same deal.”

Make time to connect

If leading starts with teaching, McLane says teaching starts with


A good leader must be a good communicator — a job that is

made exponentially harder if your business is spread throughout

multiple countries as is McLane’s business. But there is no excuse

for inadequate communication.

“That is just the job of a leader, being in front of people,” he says.

“Our company has a lot of people, about 9,000 employees spread all

throughout the country, so I have spent a lot of time going to different

divisions, talking to employees and getting to know just about everyone by their first names.”

As your business grows, it increases the importance of having

competent leadership beneath you. You can’t be in all places and

communicate with everyone on an as-needed basis the way you

might have been able to when your company was smaller, which

means you need to be able to know what to delegate to others,

who to delegate to and when to do the delegating.

Knowing how to delegate the operational tasks you used to perform will free up your time to get out among your employees on a

regular basis.

“Delegation is when you can clearly, clearly show someone or

groups of people what needs to be done,” McLane says. “You can’t

do all of the details as your business grows. You have to have the

skills and ability to pass on the responsibility to the people who

handle the day-to-day work, then hold those people accountable.

“Then, you free yourself to be upfront. You have to be that

upfront leader, be able to communicate with employees, walk around and see what kind of job they’re doing, and if they’re doing

a good job, to praise them.”

As your business grows internationally, the ability to free up your

time through delegation will become essential when it comes to

communicating on a personal level with your employees. Between

traveling for business matters and traveling for baseball matters,

it’s something McLane says he has learned firsthand.

“I recently returned from eight days in Poland, where we have a

grocery distribution system,” he says. “I visited almost all of our

employees there just as I do in the U.S., and we have almost 450

employees in Poland. Just like in this country, you have to take the

time to communicate, express your thoughts and ideas, and learn to


Use your perch wisely

McLane bought the Astros in 1993. At the time, the team hadn’t

made the playoffs in seven years and was facing sluggish attendance figures in the obsolete Astrodome.

McLane took the reins of the Astros with an eye toward

improving its fortunes on the field and at the gate. To that end,

his ownership regime has had some success, winning division

titles in 1997, 1998, 1999 and 2001 and a National League pennant in 2005, marking the franchise’s first World Series appearance. He also worked with city and county officials to fund and

build Minute Maid Park, the club’s home since 2000. Since moving to their new digs, the Astros have topped 3 million in season

attendance four times, placing them among the top draws in

Major League Baseball.

But the prospect of on-the-field success isn’t the only thing that

attracted McLane to the Astros. McLane also wanted to affect the

community at large, and the highly visible perch of Astros ownership provided him the perfect opportunity to increase his involvement in community programs.

“We bought the Astros to make them a champion but also to get

equally as involved in community programs,” he says. “We have

one of the most extensive community involvement programs in

professional sports. They go to over 3,000 events in the Houston

area every year. That kind of involvement ignited everybody.”

The importance of community involvement as a business leader

is something that McLane learned from his father, who partnered

his business with the United Way, the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts,

and with American Red Cross blood drives.

“It’s really one of the great features of America and American

business, getting involved in philanthropy and giving back, both

financially and with services,” McLane says. “I saw my father do it,

and as we were in business, I found it makes you feel great about

yourself and your fellow employees in the company when you get

really involved.”

McLane says community involvement should be an extension

of your commitment to running your business the right way

and not taking shortcuts. You must decide what you want your

business to embrace as its core values, and then drive those

values to every person.

“I learned early in my business career that the most important things in business are honesty and integrity,” he says. “So

set your values, hold everybody — and yourself in particular —

accountable for integrity and honesty. That’s where most businesses go wrong. They try to cut corners and not do the right


“But if you dedicate yourself to your job, if you are really

excited about your job, your company, the people you work

with and your customers, it will show. You can overcome

almost any problem when you have a feel for what you do, a

passion for what you do, and you want to be the best.”

HOW TO REACH: Houston Astros, www.astros.com; McLane Group, www.mclanegroup.com