As mayor of the City of Peoria from 2001 to 2005, Dave Ransburg managed his term the only way he knows how: by getting things done. An Indiana native, he earned an engineering degree from Purdue University and obtained his MBA from Harvard. He worked for IBM, United Technical Industries and Keene Corporation, a New York-based diversified manufacturer, before purchasing the LR Nelson Corporation and moving to Peoria in 1972. Under Ransburg’s leadership, Nelson became one of the world’s leading manufacturers of lawn and garden sprinklers, nozzles, couplings and accessories, with offices in Peoria, China and Spain. As a business leader, he focused on customers, creating a positive company culture and growing the company to its full potential, before selling it to Robert Bosch Tool Corp. in 2008.
During his tenure as mayor, Ransburg used his business background and strength in long-term planning to initiate several task forces to improve the quality of life in central Illinois, including Vision 2020 and the Heart of Peoria Plan—both instrumental in laying a foundation for the city’s continued growth. He also played a key role in the turnaround of the Peoria Civic Center, the completion of Dozer Park and the development of the Peoria Riverfront Museum.
Together with his like-minded wife, Zan (Alexandra), the Ransburgs’ volunteerism has touched nearly every corner of the region through their involvement with Bradley University, Methodist Health Services Corporation, Peoria Civic Center Authority, Peoria Riverfront Museum, Peoria Civic Federation, Wildlife Prairie Park, Rotary Club, Illinois Business Roundtable, The Salvation Army, American Red Cross Central Illinois Chapter, Economic Development Council, Peoria Symphony Foundation, Illinois Municipal League, Illinois Tax Increment Association, Peoria Academy, American Cancer Society, Peoria Area Chamber of Commerce, Peoria Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, Sun Foundation, Peoria YMCA and the W.D. Boyce Council… to name a few.
This spring, Dave and Zan welcomed iBi into their beautiful home on a bluff overlooking the Illinois River to talk about civic responsibility and the long tradition of entrepreneurship and altruism in the Ransburg family.
I appreciate you both sitting down to talk with me today.
Dave: Well, she’s the outgoing one, and I’m the quiet one.
Let’s start with your upbringing, Dave. You grew up in Indiana?
Indianapolis. I was there until I went off to college, went to work for IBM and went off to the army. Zan and I got together in Indianapolis and got married [there].
And how’d you two meet?
Zan: (laughs) Well, we’re both from Indianapolis families that have long been involved in the community and in politics... Our families had known each other forever, and I had worked in the State Department and had been in Germany for a couple of years, and Dave had done things [elsewhere] and somebody suggested that he call me—several times. And he did. On our first date we initially didn’t like each other. Probably because we are so different. But we tried again, learned that opposites could attract, and we got married three months later. That’s the short version. (laughs)
What brought you to Peoria?
I bought a company—LR Nelson Corporation. We got married in Indianapolis, had our first child in Indianapolis and then I worked for a company in a suburb of Indianapolis doing aircraft R&D… Anyhow, the R&D effort was not successful, so I decided to go back to business school. I had an engineering degree, but I thought it’d be nice to get a business degree. So I applied to several business schools and went to Harvard in Boston, and moved the family to Boston. We moved to New York [to work for Keene Corporation], then Keene moved me back to Boston. When I bought Nelson, it was easier to move the family to Peoria than it was to move the company to Boston.
So why LR Nelson? What was your goal when you were looking to purchase a company?
Dave: When I got out of college, I went to work for IBM… in a branch office in Indianapolis. It’s a big office, and I did well with them. Then, when I got out of graduate school, I went to work for a company in New York [Keene]… I just thought I would really like to do something on my own—
Zan: His family, for two generations, had been entrepreneurs. However, he didn’t really want to work for the family business. But he had that entrepreneurial spirit, and I think that’s why he wanted to do his own thing.
Dave: My grandfather started a company [the Harper J. Ransburg Company] in the early 1900s. They’d buy [stoneware and metalware home products], paint [them] a base color, and then they had an assembly line of decorators hand-painting the designs on them… My father spawned another company called Ransburg Electro-Coating Corporation—to paint things using an electrostatic painting process… It ultimately became a public company [Ransburg Corporation]. My brother… was a commercial photographer. So, he had his own business, too.
So you grew up amidst a family of entrepreneurs. Would you say you were a born leader?
No. I don’t think I was very sure what I wanted to do growing up. I guess I wanted to be in control of my own destiny. In retrospect, I don’t know if I could’ve been successful at IBM or Caterpillar or any other big company. I chose to go the small company route… I think early on I was probably too involved, and I learned to delegate more and how to be responsible so the company could grow…
What are you most proud of achieving at Nelson?
Dave: I think growing the company and making it a good place to work. I got a nice note the other day from a gal who needed a reference and she said [Nelson] was a wonderful place to work.
Zan: But she also acknowledged that you paid for her education. So, he has done a lot of things that are not publicly known about. He wouldn’t say that, but I’m saying that.
Dave: We had a college reimbursement program, so if you took college credit courses we’d reimburse you.
That’s unusual for a smaller company. Why was that so important to you?
To improve people—to give each [employee] a chance to improve.
How else do you go about creating a strong company culture?
Dave: First, you decide you want to. I think you can talk, but then you have to actually do it. So, [we did] things like this tuition reimbursement, and we’d… have company picnics in the summer for all the employees and their children. So, we’d do things and try to make it friendly.
Zan: Dave was out with the people in the plant or wherever [they were]. He was not just sitting in his office. So I think that really made a difference, too.
Dave: And little things, like we had an employee phone list… in alphabetical order by first name.
Let’s talk about your decision to run for mayor.
Dave: Well… first, I ran for City Council. I’d been involved for years in politics, but behind the scenes—helping candidates and contributing. I belong to an organization called the Young Presidents’ Organization (YPO), and we went to a YPO meeting at a university, and a speaker there said, “You YPOers are nuts… you go… and complain about something the government just did. By the time you’re hearing about it, it’s over. There was a committee that [already decided], and then it went to Congress, and they passed a law; you have to live with it.” He said, “You really ought to get involved with helping good candidates that believe in what you believe.” So, I did get involved—that was probably in the late ‘70s.
Zan: Well, and he was also selected Small Business Person of the Year for Illinois [in 1984], which was very exciting, and quite an honor… It was because of that, that I think he realized how important [public service] was.
Dave: For years, I had supported candidates, but I never ran for anything. Zan actually ran for the Country Board before I ran for anything.
Zan: At [this] time, which was funny, we were both “The Honorables”… Being a County Board member, my title was “The Honorable,” and when Dave was city councilman and mayor, it was “The Honorable” (laughs). We led sort of a crazy life then. It was very interesting, and it was very broadening.
Dave: I was district councilman for the 5th District, then I ran for mayor. There were eight of us who ran for mayor, so they had a primary to pick the top two. I won the primary, but lost to Bud Grieves in the general election by six votes per precinct. So, I barely lost. Then, four years later, I ran for mayor and won. And four years later, I ran for mayor and lost. So, I’m batting about .500 (smiles).
Can you share some of your favorite moments as mayor?
Well, first of all, the interesting thing that you learn is there are two parts to being in public office. One, is the running—you’ve got to get elected. The other is the governing. I was much better at the governing than the running. I was much better at getting stuff done than I was at going to crowds of people I didn’t know and trying to get them to like me.
So, what did you get done?
We finished the baseball field—that got done. We did some major regional planning—something called Vision 2020 and the Heart of Peoria Plan. These led to major additions to the community, the Peoria Riverfront Museum and the Caterpillar Visitors Center. We did some better five-year financial plans and balanced our budgets in some tough times.
What prompted your decision to sell Nelson?
After years of growth, we went through a tough period. Housing fell off, [and] our customers moved stuff to China, so we either had to follow them or lose the business. Then we had the financial crisis, so there were a lot of things ganging up on us. We decided that we really needed to sell the business to someone with greater resources than we had, so we sold it to Bosch. Unfortunately, they recently sold it again, to a company called Fiskars. I don’t think they ran it very well; it probably wasn’t a very good business fit for them. They’re a real big company—very top-down… I don’t mean it with any disrespect, but we tried to be more of a family-friendly business. And they were running it from 2,000 miles away.
It sounds like you have some regrets having sold it that way.
Sure, because I think while some people [still] had jobs for a while, most of the people have left. [For] the people who were still there, it wasn’t the same. I feel badly.
Community involvement has been a big priority for you since growing up…
Well, I was a Boy Scout and an Eagle Scout. My grandfather, who’s my role model… was very involved in the community. So… as an adult and since childhood, I tried to follow his example.
What was the first group that you became involved with in Peoria?
Dave: Zan and I were both on the Lakeview Museum board. When we moved here, it was the first public contribution we were asked to make… When the thought was to move [the museum] downtown, there were a lot of people who were against that. But finally, it got done, and when I was mayor, we got the Sears block put together, and got the building demolished… [Eventually] they were looking for people to be on the [new] museum board, so they asked me to join, and I said no.
Zan: Well, I can tell the rest of the story. Dave thinks about everything, which is wonderful. But I’m more impulsive—I’m just like: (snaps her fingers). One day, I walked into his office and I looked at him, and I took a quote from Nike, and I said, “Just DO IT!” and he did.
Dave: I had to do it, or I wouldn’t eat. (joking)
Zan: The museum would not be here today if it were not for Dave. And the reason—Dave had the respect from the people who were bickering and fighting with each other. They didn’t like each other, and they took sides. And because that’s one of Dave’s strengths, I think, to always have been up-front, open, honest and respectful, he was able to bring these people together, and I’m not sure there are many people who could’ve done it.
Dave: And so, she got me involved, and then I was asked to be chairman. So, I had to work on the agreement with the County; I had to work on raising more money; I had to work on getting the museum built, getting the exhibits installed, and working and getting it operating.
Tell us about some of your other community involvement.
Dave: [Peoria Symphony] was a long time ago, in the ‘70s. Somebody came to me and said they’d like to get some more business people involved in the symphony [as] they were trying to transition from a volunteer orchestra to a paid orchestra.
Zan: And Methodist… I was involved in the Methodist Service League and Dave was involved on the Methodist board for years… We [also] did The Salvation Army together. I think there’s hardly anything that one of us wasn’t involved in that the other one didn’t support. I mean, Girl Scouts—I was a leader; Dave took the kids on overnights. He did lots of things [having been] an Eagle Scout, which was one of the most amazing things to accomplish at a very young age. Tell us about your continued support of the Boy Scouts.
Dave: The Boy Scouts really were very important to me. I didn’t realize, really, until I looked back how much I learned… I think it teaches a lot of values like hard work and going for goals. I support it because I think it’s important for kids growing up, particularly inner-city kids—they’re the ones who need it the most. We have to reach out and help. Some of those kids don’t have strong family relationships and maybe they can learn something from scouting.
Zan: One of the things that we’re really proud of is our grandson, who’s eight, is a Cub Scout… I think all the things that you have seen in Dave’s career stem from what he learned and the values that he got from the [Boy Scouts]. I just really think it all goes back to that.
Dave: (smiling) Eric, [our grandson] is the one… who went up to some people that he didn’t know and said, “Did you know that my Papa was mayor of Peoria? But not enough people like him, so he’s not mayor anymore.” (laughs)
Zan: (points to a family picture) They threw us a surprise 50th wedding anniversary…
Congratulations! So, what’s your secret?
Dave: Just do whatever makes her happy.
Zan: (smiles) I always felt that I had wonderful freedom, and that’s a good feeling. Not to feel that you have to do everything together, and you can be independent… When we got married, I remember Dave told me specifically …“I will not be a 9-to-5 person,” and that was fine with me. I think being your own person and feeling you can be independent [works]… (turns to Dave) Do you think that sort of thing?
Dave: Whatever you think. (smiling)
Zan: There he goes again. (laughs)
Tell us more about your kids.
Zan: Both of them are in Chicago. David and Emily are four years apart. They went through the public school system here, [and] David ended up going to Stanford, and Emily went to Wake Forest on a tennis scholarship. So they went to amazing schools and we were public school supporters, and they have been very successful. [Our grandkids] are 12, nine, eight and four… It’s great because they live close.
Dave, do you have a guiding life philosophy?
Dave: I think to try to make the world a better place. We’re not here very long.
And what do you want to be remembered for?
Dave: That I was here to help make the community a better place, to make the company a better company, and to help people to become better people.
Zan: He’s always thinking about other people. He thinks more about other people than himself.
Dave: Well, one of the things you haven’t asked about is the Civic Center.
Tell us about it.
Dave: The City Council, back in the ‘70s I guess, decided to [build] it. There was some state money available… and other money here that came off a new HRA tax to fund it. They ran it for a while, but it was losing three-quarters of a million dollars a year. Again, Zan was the conduit. Jim Maloof was the mayor at the time, and Zan talked me into becoming chairman of it. I do whatever she wants me to do (laughs).
Zan: He thinks too much.
Dave: Their problem, very simply, was we had this big wonderful building, and they couldn’t save their way into prosperity… When I took over, it was 10 years old but it looked like it was 30 years old. It was a wreck. It was dirty, filthy; the restrooms had graffiti… and there were holes in the walls… So, we cleaned up the place. We fixed the restrooms, and steam-cleaned the arena, and we worked on things to build. We had a hockey team that was losing a quarter a million dollars a year, so we sold it… We did a lot of things, and we turned it around.
I know you came to Peoria because you bought the company, but why did you decide to stay?
Zan: We loved it, because we were from Indianapolis, and we still had family there. And we were welcomed [here] with open arms because of the Nelson family. I don’t think there’s a better place to bring up a family and Caterpillar’s a part of it—you have people here who are very interesting; they’re worldly. [Peoria’s] not typical of a 350,000-population community because of Caterpillar, Bradley, the Ag Center and all these things…
Dave: And the medical community.
So there was never a point when you wanted to leave?
Zan: Never. I wouldn’t even go now. I just can’t imagine it. I think we’ve been blessed to find Peoria and its people.
Dave: She showed you our view, right? (smiling)
On the way out, we walk past a vast display of Ransburg Collection household items—the eclectic pieces that propelled Ransburg to a household name throughout the ‘30s. We stop at the back window to take in the sweeping river vista it took the couple 17 years to find, Zan explains. In this family, persistence is a virtue—the view is gorgeous. iBi