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
“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
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.”