Is John Breen's career the quintessential American success story? You be the judge. The son of Irish immigrants, Breen worked three jobs to put himself through college, joined ROTC and served in the Army and the reserves for 10 years. After graduation, he was hired by bearings manufacturer Clevite as a management trainee. At 27, he was given the task to chart the com-pany's path into the emerging market for electrodeposited copper foil for printed circuits. He expanded the firm's operations into the United Kingdom, Germany and Japan. After Clevite's purchase by Gould, Breen rose through the ranks to become the No. 3 executive at the firm.
In 1979, he was offered the post of CEO at Sherwin-Williams, at the time floundering from a series of acquisitions intended to diversify the company. On his first day as CEO, he faced a greenmailing attempt to take over the company by Gulf and Western CEO Charles Bluhdorn. Breen told Bluhdorn he hadn't signed on to run the paint division of Gulf and Western, and Bluhdorn soon sold his shares.
Breen shook up the management team and refocused the company on the paint business. He instituted strict financial controls and gave employees both latitude in running their operations and responsibility for results.
When Big Box retailers demanded he sell the Sherwin-Williams brand paints in their stores, Breen decided to rapidly build the company's network of paint stores in order to cater to commercial painters. He preached not just customer service but a "servant relationship" between store personnel and their painter customers.
Breen aggressively expanded Sherwin-Williams' paint and coatings offerings with the purchase of well-known brands such as Dutch Boy, Krylon, Pratt & Lambert and Thompson Minwax.
Breen's moves soon had the company humming, but he says the initial turnaround was the easiest part of his stewardship of the company. The hard part, he says, was coming back to his team for 21 years and "raising the hurdle" for the next year. They came through. By the time Breen retired as CEO of Sherwin-Williams in 1999, the company's market value had increased 41 times from $108 million to $4.4 billion.
In addition to serving on corporate boards, Breen has actively supported educational and medical organizations in the Cleveland area, including Ursuline College, John Carroll University and University Hospitals.