John Wright is a Renaissance Man. In addition to being a CFO, he’s a WWI & II history buff, collects vintage musical instruments, has a recording studio in this home and he restores old Volkswagens. As soon as he sits down with you, you can feel his energy.
KB: John, thanks for meeting me.
JW: Great to be here.
KB: Has Indy always been your home?
JW: For the most part. I was born here and grew up on the NE side – near 56th and Arlington. We lived there until I was about eleven and we moved to Cincinnati for my Dad’s job.
KB: What did he do?
JW: Beginning in the 60’s, he was a salesman for IBM; sold the System 360 to Kroger Company. Mom was a nurse at St. Vincent.
KB: Wow. So how long were you in Cincy?
JW: I was there for elementary school, high school, college and the beginning of my career. I graduated from Fairfield High School – Then I attended and graduated from Xavier University.
KB: Did you know it was going to be accounting?
JW: No, I was originally a computer science major; BASIC was easy, assembly language on a DEC PDP 11 did me in. Then I switched to accounting. I worked full time and went to school full time. You could pay as you went then, and I only had $2,000 of debt when I graduated.
KB: You worked at Radio Shack. Tell me about that.
JW: I worked at Radio Shack during both high school and college, and they offered me a job after college. It was an amazing experience. I learned how to run a small business – I had full P&L responsibility. I learned how to talk to people. Face to face talk is an art. You couldn’t have the stereotypical “accounting” personality. I learned to compensate for being an introvert. The only downside was the retail hours having just started a family.
KB: What happened next?
JW: Wanting to use my accounting training, I answered a blind ad in the newspaper. Turned out it was for a real estate development company owned by Cincinnati’s Williams family. The same family owned the Cincinnati Reds and was one of the founders of Western Southern Life. There were two brothers that primarily ran the business. I started as a staff accountant for a shopping mall and soon became the Controller. Thanks to my Radio Shack experience, I was the IT guy as well. In time, I moved to another one of their companies, Marting Manufacturing. It was a $12MM business that manufactured feeding equipment for livestock. It was extremely profitable, but they eventually sold it.
KB: Is that when you came back to Indy?
JW: Yes, I moved back to Indy and did some work in the Medical/Dental supply industry, and then I got a chance to work for Made2Manage.
KB: That was a great ride, wasn’t it?
JW: Yes, it was. I joined Made2Manage in 1999. They wanted to hire a CPA that had manufacturing experience that could help write accounting functional requirements for the software. They also wanted someone who could test the product and ensure conformity with GAAP. So, I was really in QA…my job was to try and break the software. These were the busy days of converting DOS products to Windows and we were busy. It was also during Y2K. After just a year in QA, I moved to the accounting department and ended up as Tax Director and Treasurer.
KB: What did you learn there?
JW: It taught me to appreciate the diversity of people. It taught me how to work under extraordinary pressure and navigate success. We went from $20MM to $300MM in revenue very quickly, we made acquisitions regularly. My co-workers there are still great friends today.
KB: They eventually got acquired, right?
JW: Yes, got bought. Accounting was originally going to stay in Indy, but then it didn’t.
KB: And that brings us to Justus.
JW: After Made2Manage, I knew I wanted to get back into real estate. The Justus organization is over 100 years old and the fourth generation is at the helm. Very private, closely held, family companies…but we’re really growing. Justus has gone from 200 to 500 employees in the last few years. While still developing conventional apartment communities, our passion is senior living, from independent, to assisted living to memory care. We have significant properties in Carmel and New Palestine and soon on Indy’s west side.
KB: Did you have any influential mentors?
JW: The President at Marting Mfg. Inc. took me under his wing. He taught me that the people come first. Bob taught me that I work for the employees, the customers, and the vendors. Doing right by those three constituents will take one far. He taught me when you walk through the plant every morning, say hello to everybody. You must know their names and their kids’ names. Eat lunch with them every now and then and listen.
KB: What advice do you have for the aspiring CFO?
JW: Listen to your team. Consider their advice. If it’s sound, take it. There is a wealth of knowledge available from your team be it Boomer, Gen X, or Millennial…listen. Allow them to participate in the process, acknowledge them for it and reward them for it. If someone leaves the team for bigger and better things, I hope I’ve helped them through mentoring.
KB: How has business changed during your career?
JW: In the past, you had more time to make a decision. Today, decisions have to be made instantly. You can’t sit on your hands. You go with the information you have. Thought and reflection don’t happen as much as they used to. Those days aren’t gone, but at times, we’re in a ready-fire-aim dynamic.
KB: What excites you about business today?
JW: Technology. I’m absolutely a proponent of technology. I like the fast pace of change, but I am cognizant of the past. There has never been a better time to start a business.
KB: What disappoints you about business today?
JW: Technology enables inhumaneness. People use it to hide. Also, people rarely return phone calls or follow through on commitments anymore. Every now and then, don’t send another email, get off your rear and go speak to the person.
KB: What’s your take on the economy in the near term?
JW: I think interest rates will be the same or lower. Next year is an election year, which creates uncertainty. The Fed will likely react to that by keeping rates low. We have three things happening now that aren’t supposed to co-exist: low interest, low inflation and low unemployment. Overall, I see status quo for the next 12-24 months.
KB: What’s your favorite movie?
JW: Dr. Strangelove. Peter Sellers and Stanley Kubrick are absolute genius. The movie is absolutely absurd and wildly funny.
KB: What’s your favorite quote?
JW: It’s by Voltaire – Simplified, I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend your right to say it. (Actual quote is “I wholly disagree with what you say and will contend to the death for your right to say it.”)
KB: If you weren’t a finance guy, what would you be doing?
JW: I’d be a history professor teaching Western Civilization. I’m constantly learning from the past and applying it to the future. History books are the only books that keep getting longer.
KB: This has been so much fun, John. Thank you.
JW: My pleasure.