In The Limelight
Retired CEO and President of Forward Janesville, Inc.
Story by Teresa Nguyen
With contributions from Lucy Beckord
"I've tried to show genuine respect and support for members, both large and small, I've tried to lead with a positive, "can do" attitude and I've tried to find a little bit of humor in the daily work that we do here. I think very fondly of the time I've spent with Forward Janesville employees and the laughs we shared almost every day. I would like to thank the Forward Janesville members for their support... I'm proud of the accomplishments we've been able to achieve over the past 20+ years."
~ John Beckord
John was born and raised in the small rural community of Rolfe, Iowa. He grew up on the family's fertilized egg farm with 100,000 chickens! In the early years, John says he had the pleasure of cleaning up a lot of chicken poop! The fertilized eggs were used by drug companies to create human flu vaccines.
John grew up playing basketball with the neighbor kids and, as a high school freshman, was placed on the varsity team. During one of the games, John suffered a compound fracture of his left leg. His grand visions of playing college ball were crushed. He would soon learn the injury was a blessing in disguise.
The Beckord Family in 1960
John playing at his home
He began playing guitar at age 12 and, after the broken leg, started realizing music was his real passion. By the end of his high school freshman year, he was earning money playing high school dances in the bands "Starship" and "Maddog."
Growing up, John would spend summers at the family cabin in Estes Park, Colorado. The summer after his freshman year, John played nightly at a local restaurant with his acoustic trio "Uncle Festus".
During his junior and senior years, John often played weekend gigs throughout Iowa and southern Minnesota. John entered a competition and was selected to be part of America’s Youth in Concert during the summer of his junior year. He toured Europe and performed with 125 other musicians in six countries before ending the tour with a concert at the Town Hall Auditorium in New York City.
John attended the University of Iowa where he earned a bachelor's degree in economics. During his undergraduate years in Iowa City, he played in the bands "Muzic", “Smokey Moses" and "Clever Gambit." He also nurtured his love for the Iowa Hawkeyes, attending games when he wasn’t performing in bands. After graduating from the University of Iowa, John started playing four nights a week as the house band at a friend’s bar in Burlington, Iowa, called The Penthouse Club.
John met and married his first wife, Carol, while in college, and began playing 6 nights a week as a touring bar band, when his first daughter Lindsay was born.
John's Band's Album Cover
In 1981, while in his mid-twenties, he decided to return to college to earn a master’s degree in economics.
In 1983, John landed a job in Washington D.C. with the Bureau of Labor Statistics as part of a team of economists calculating the Consumer Price Index.
John’s 2nd daughter, Abigail, was born in 1986. That same year, John left the Bureau for a job with the National Association of Realtors. Soon after he started, he was assigned to a position analyzing commercial real estate markets for the Society of Industrial and Office Realtors.
John’s son, Alex, was born in 1988.
Around that time, John landed his first chamber job, when he was recruited by the Oskaloosa Chamber of Commerce in Oskaloosa, Iowa. This 300-member chamber was, as John says, “stuck in the 70’s and ready to be modernized.”
His proudest achievement was convincing a tech company from Santa Rosa, California, to relocate to Oskaloosa. That company relocation got the attention of Alliant Energy and, in1993, John was recruited to join their Economic Development department.
In 1996, John was recruited by the Iowa City Chamber of Commerce. This 900-member chamber, in a university-dominated community, was an entirely different professional challenge. John is most proud that he initiated a public policy advocacy program for the chamber and facilitated the merger of a nearby, smaller chamber in North Liberty.
Coming to Janesville
On February 1st, 2001, John began his career at Forward Janesville, Inc.
Jim Johnson, who was on the search committee, recently wrote a message to John:
"John, my, how time flies! Your first day at FJI was twenty years ago. Wow. As we’ve said many times, our committee absolutely made the right decision - to reject the first group of candidates, and tell our (disappointed) search firm to start over with a fresh new group of candidates…a la finding you!! And, John, we were so excited to finally have found YOU as our new President! Your enthusiasm is infectious! Not in my wildest dreams did I predict YOUR bond to our community, with 20 great years of FJI leadership, leading up to your retirement. Thanks so much for staying committed through this Covid craziness. We wish you all the best!"
John at his first chamber job in Oskaloosa, Iowa
In Janesville, John initially focused on building infrastructure, such as expanding the airport and building a road to the GM plant.
Eight months after starting with Forward Janesville the 9/11 attacks shocked the economy. The economy slowed to a crawl and there was a great deal of uncertainty about what would happen next.
But before long, the economy started to recover. John looked for opportunities to build the organization and decided to launch two new events: the Annual Awards Luncheon and the Annual Golf Outing. Both were big successes and remain popular 19 years later.
In 2003, John brought the idea of a Leadership Development Academy to then City Manager, Steve Sheiffer. They formed a small planning group and launched the program. Creating the Academy is one of John's proudest achievements.
A New Vision
When John first started at Forward Janesville, the office was in the old Janesville Telephone building at 51 South Jackson, located across the street from their current location.
During an important meeting with an industrial prospect, considering a new manufacturing plant in Janesville, John remembers looking out the office window, over the shoulder of the company representative, and seeing the lot across the street littered with broken soda machines and an abandoned car next to two dilapidated old buildings. He thought to himself, "This is not the kind of impression we want our community to make.”
In 2006, John and FJ Executive Committee member, Jeff Hazekamp, put together a redevelopment plan for the entire quarter block. Jackson Square would include new construction on one-half of the site and renovations of the two rundown, but historic, buildings on the quarter block.
John ready for the annual Forward Janesville Golf Outing
A Challenging Time
Finally, in 2008, FJI moved into the new building at 14 S. Jackson St.
But the celebration would soon fade as the Great Recession began to severely impact the local economy.
Later that same year, a coalition of local leaders, including representatives of Forward Janesville, tried to convince GM to retrofit the plant, but GM had made their decision to mothball the plant. Forward Janesville was facing one of its most tumultuous years, including a 25 percent decline in membership.
John recalled, "We did our very best to keep the wheels on the bus until the recession ended. It was a tough, tough time."
The redeveloped Forward Janesville on S. Jackson Street
Photo by Kim Hoholek Photography
Rising Up, Moving Forward
In 2009, John was part of the team that brought business leaders together and pitched a plan. The Rock County 5.0 strategy was embraced by business leaders. Mary Holzhauer and Diane Hendricks agreed to become Co-Chairs of an Advisory Board to help guide our comeback plan. It was a well-crafted plan and the business community stepped up and provided the needed funding. The results speak for themselves. The Rock County 5.0 plan has been a remarkable success.
Near the end of Governor Doyle’s term, the governor "enumerated" the $1.2 billion Interstate 90/39 expansion project that Forward Janesville had been lobbying for prior to the recession. After several years of nudging the idea along, we had finally been added to the list of major highway projects to be funded by the State of Wisconsin.
Things started to look up and, in 2015, the ARISE plan was adopted by the City of Janesville. Forward Janesville launched a fundraising campaign for private donations that began with two $1 million dollar gifts from the Jane Blain and Mick Gilbertson family and the Janesville Foundation.
John served on advisory teams and assisted in large donor fundraising. He was a strong advocate for the revitalization of downtown. To date, over $6 million has been raised to help revitalize our downtown!
ARISE Now is a private-public partnership dedicated to seeing the ARISE plan completed in phases. Using a combination of federal, state and local funding sources, the City of Janesville has provided the resources needed to replace the Milwaukee Street bridge, improve streets, acquire and demolish old buildings, and improve the river walls.
The private donations have been used to embellish and improve the aesthetics of the Town Square spaces. Notable examples are the Blain Gilbertson Family Heritage Pedestrian Bridge, the Resilience sculpture on the bridge, the Bubbler water feature, the JP Cullen Memorial Pavilion, the Cope-Ryan Pavilion, and the decorative lighting.
John is naturally proud of the new Town Square and says, “It is so gratifying to hear Janesville residents expressing pride about their downtown again. As private investment continues to improve downtown buildings, and additional phases of the ARISE plan take shape, it will be fun to see what downtown Janesville looks and feels like 10 years from now.”
The Resilience sculpture over the Blain Gilbertson Family Heritage Pedestrian Bridge in downtown Janesville - Photo by Teresa Nguyen
The Bubbler in downtown Janesville
Photo by Kim Hoholek Photography
Making Music, Feeding the Soul
In 2009, John began inviting musicians Eric Wirth, DJ Scullin, Eddie Gansen and other guest players to play covers and write songs in his basement studio. John most often plays bass but his real love is writing, arranging and recording original songs.
“My ears tell me I am a much better songwriter than I am a player or a singer. I have a goal to release my 6th CD in 2022. I’ve already recorded the title track Let the Fun Begin. It is in 5/4 time, which makes it a commercial disaster,” he says with a laugh. “But I’m not trying to sell anything. I’m just trying to get these song ideas out of my head and onto the hard drive.”
John and Lucy annually host "Band Camp" which includes six or more "seasoned bandmates" and their wives. They travel to Janesville from four states for a long weekend of food, libations and lots of live music. After two days of rehearsals, the band plays an intimate, private concert in the basement studio. The long weekend ends with several players showing off their chops on the grand piano in the living room. Singing along with some classic tunes in between craft cocktails is the perfect ending to another musical journey.
John playing bass and one of the many Band Camp gatherings
John often speaks fondly about college friends and people he’s known in various bands. One particular collection of friends is affectionately called the Precision Guided Thinkers or "PGT" for short. The group consists of Tim Trinka, a real estate attorney from Seoul, Korea; Dennis Perkins, a retired, Russian-speaking Intelligence Officer from Oklahoma; Wayne Spies, a Yale-educated management consultant from Connecticut; Jack Vreelend, a classical pianist and marketing guru from Maine; and Dick Howard, the most talented bandmate John has ever had, and an investment trust officer from Burlington, Iowa. They have frequent, intellectually-stimulating, online conversations and Zoom meetings about world affairs, economics, politics, music, and coming of age in the Midwest, roughly in that order.
I Love Lucy
As told by Lucy (Anderson) Beckord
In February of 2010, I was having a drink at Time Out for the BA5 (Business After 5) afterparty that Sara Investments had hosted. I’d had a long day at Kutter Harley-Davidson and ordered a shot of Jameson.
The bartender, Tyler, said, "Sorry, Lucy, we're out."
John suddenly appeared, leaned in, tie all loosened up and said, "I bet they have some next door."
I said, "Sure!" We walked over to The Looking Glass, enjoyed a shot and walked back to the event.
A few days later, he invited me out for lunch. It was nice.
Then he sent a FB message on March 3rd and asked when I might have time for a drink. He said he had a small birthday gift he wanted to give me.
I said, “I am free tonight!”
We had our first official date at O'Riley and Conway’s where, of course, we had a shot of Jameson.
We were married on August 18th, 2018.
John & Lucy
John was supposed to retire in 2020, but the pandemic created a huge challenge for the area business community. Forward Janesville needed John’s experience in this time of crisis, so he stayed on.
At that time, when John was asked, “Why stay?” he replied, "Because I've invested 20 years of my life in this organization and I want them to find the right person. It is important to me that they find someone who will bring new ideas and energy to the position and take the organization to the next level."
The following year, on June 23rd, Forward Janesville announced the hiring of Michael Osborne as the new CEO of the organization. Tragically, just hours after the announcement, Osborne was struck by a car while riding his motorcycle in Illinois. He passed away from his injuries just a week later. It was a shock to the search committee, to Forward Janesville and to the community. A great man and our future business leader was lost in an instant.
John made the commitment to remain at the helm of the chamber until Aug. 31, 2021. Forward Janesville welcomes Curt Parish as the Interim CEO until a new president and CEO is hired.
Plans for Retirement
John gave a list of reasons for retiring, saying mainly that he has a lot of things he wants to accomplish and is ready to get to it!
The following is John’s 10-point list of future retirement projects:
“I want to…
wander around this country and touch base with friends I have collected throughout my life.
spend a lot of time playing music, writing music and recording music.
spend more quality time with my kids and grandkids.
shave a few strokes off my handicap.
become really good at smoking meats.
learn how to bake artisan bread.
treat my wife like a queen.
write children's books.
be a power-putzer around the house and collect swizzle sticks (yes, this is a real thing).
become really proficient at playing craps.”