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David Kearns gave Xerox renewed focus on quality

  David Kearns is best known for his business acumen at Xerox Corp., where in the 1980s he rallied the company against its competition and brought Xerox back to the forefront of its industry.

  Those who knew Mr. Kearns, however, say his business savvy was only part of his character and describe him as a man who also will be remembered for his kindness, educational efforts and social responsibility.

  "Everyone loved David Kearns," said Frank Steenburgh, chief marketing officer at ColorCentric Corp., who retired from Xerox in 2005 after working there nearly four decades.

  Steenburgh said this week that he has thought of Mr. Kearns continually since the former Xerox CEO’s death last Friday at age 80 from complications related to sinus cancer.

  "I miss Dave tremendously already," he said. "I’m going to really miss his booming voice, his sense of humor and his bear hugs."

  Mr. Kearns, who led Xerox for eight years, was a 2007 inductee into the Rochester Business Hall of Fame.

  A graduate of Brighton High School and the University of Rochester, Mr. Kearns served in the Navy and then worked at IBM Corp. in various roles, including vice president of data processing.

  After two years at IBM, he joined Xerox in 1971, and he became Xerox’s president and chief operating officer in 1977.

  Mr. Kearns is best known for his role as CEO at Xerox from 1982 until he stepped down at age 60 in 1990.

  Steenburgh, who was senior vice president of business growth at the end of his Xerox career, had known Mr. Kearns since January 1973. He described Mr. Kearns as an icon.

  "He was a brilliant business leader, the best leader I ever met in my career," Steenburgh said. "He was outstanding in delivering performance and outstanding with people. He made you strive to be successful. He made you strive to never fail."

  Steenburgh acknowledges that Mr. Kearns could be tough but says he inspired those around him to work hard.

  "He got you emotionally committed," Steenburgh said. "He was a great strategist. He was a great implementer."

  That was seen clearly in the 1980s when Japanese competitors and even companies such as Eastman Kodak Co. and IBM Corp. were taking business away from Xerox.

  Mr. Kearns made customer satisfaction the top priority, even before financial concerns. He implemented an initiative, "Leadership Through Quality," that focused on changing Xerox from an inwardly focused bureaucracy to a customer-focused competitor.

  "Dave knew that if we delivered customer satisfaction, financial results would follow," Steenburgh recalled. "Dave’s pursuit of customer satisfaction is legendary."

  His efforts helped Xerox receive the Malcolm Baldrige Award for Quality, the nation’s highest such accolade, in 1989 from President George H.W. Bush.

  Ursula Burns, Xerox chairman and CEO, praised Mr. Kearns’ efforts to turn around the company.

  "In a time of great need for Xerox, David shouldered the mantle of leadership and rallied Xerox people to overcome a fierce competitive challenge and ensure the company’s future," Burns said in a statement.

  Mark Enzien, vice president of Xerox’s marketing development group, knew Mr. Kearns as Xerox CEO when Enzien was a new engineer with the company. He found Mr. Kearns a personable, positive person who was always shaking people’s hands and smiling. "He was a good person to be around," Enzien said.

  Enzien also was impressed that Mr. Kearns always remembered Enzien’s name, even though the two met only a couple of times.

  Enzien praised Mr. Kearns’ leadership initiative at Xerox.

  "He really changed, in a very short period of time, the company’s attitude toward quality," Enzien said. "He made us more customer-focused. (Mr. Kearns) was the first CEO to really make us more aware of the competition."

  After Xerox, Mr. Kearns turned his efforts toward education. From 1991 to 1993, he served as deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Education.

  He also was author or co-author of sev-eral books, including "Winning the Brain Race: A Bold Plan to Make Our Schools Competitive" with Denis Doyle; "Prophets in the Dark: How Xerox Reinvented Itself and Beat Back the Japanese" with David Nadler; "Legacy of Learning: Your Stake in Standards and New Kinds of Public Schools" with James Harvey; and "Crossing the Bridge: Family, Business, Education, Cancer, and the Lessons Learned."

  Steenburgh said it was a shame that Mr. Kearns’ health took him away from his work as deputy secretary of education.

  "I know our education system would be in better shape today if he could have had more time to fix that issue like he fixed Xerox when it was in deep trouble with competition," Steenburgh said.

  Still, he noted, Mr. Kearns did not let his health problems get him down.

  "He remained feisty and zealous to the end," Steenburgh said.

  In addition to spearheading national education efforts, giving back to the community was important to Mr. Kearns.

  He once served as chairman of the National Urban League, and as Xerox CEO he encouraged diversity and the development of black business leaders. His encouragement inspired the creation of the David T. Kearns Center for Leadership and Diversity in Science and Engineering at UR, which supports minority students earning master’s degrees in the sciences.

  Vin Nolan of the Rochester office of Keller Industrial Products Inc. knew Mr. Kearns’ family when he was a child because he lived nearby. He described the Kearnses as friendly and down-to-earth.

  Nolan was unaware of the true scope of Mr. Kearns’ achievements until recently but was not surprised by his endeavors and dedication to service.

  "I have often since felt that his combination of charisma, leadership and gentlemanly ways is a bit of a dying breed in both business and political circles-and something we all truly miss about Mr. Kearns and many of those who have gone before him," Nolan said.

  The Kearns family had a long history in Rochester. David Kearns’ mother, the late Margaret "Peggy" Todd Kearns, grew up in the Strong-Todd House on East Avenue. Her father, Libanus Todd, developed the Todd Protectograph, a machine to prevent check fraud. Mr. Kearns’ father, Wilfred "Duke" Kearns, was a business executive, and his uncle, Conway Todd, was a local architect.

  Mr. Kearns received the inaugural David T. Kearns Medal of Distinction in 1996 from the UR’s Simon Graduate School of Business. The award recognizes significant achievements in business, public service and education.

  Also in 1996, he was an inaugural member of the Brighton Schools Alumni Hall of Fame, a project of the Brighton Schools Alumni Association.

  "He saved Xerox, genuinely he did," said Pete French, professor emeritus at Monroe Community College and a member of the Brighton Schools Alumni Association.

  French, who also knew Mr. Kearns because both were members of the Genesee Valley Club of Rochester, described Mr. Kearns as personable and gentlemanly.

  Mr. Kearns lost his left eye to radiation treatment related to his cancer, which prompted him to wear an eye patch. He would often take a college student under his wing, and that student would take him to meetings and act as his eyes on many occasions.

  "I wish we had more men like him in the business world today," French said.

  Besides his professional endeavors, those who knew Mr. Kearns said, his top priority was his family. Mr. Kearns is survived by his wife of 56 years, Shirley, six children and 18 grandchildren.

  "Dave’s greatest assets were his love of family and friends, his personal and business integrity and his leadership," Steenburgh said. "He leaves behind a great legacy in Xerox and a great legacy in the Rochester community. I will cry at his funeral."

3/4/11 (c) 2011 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or e-mail rbj@rbj.net.

 

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