John W. Norris Jr., who helped build his family’s Iowa furnace business into one of the most successful and recognized companies in the world. died January 21 in Maine. He was 87 years old.
Norris spent his life working to become Lennox International, now based in Richardson, Texas.
The company began with humble beginnings in Marshalltown when his grandfather DW Norris, a local newspaper editor and publisher, purchased the company from David Lennox in 1904 for $57,000. According to Stock Analysis, today the company is worth more than 16 billion dollars.
In 1978, it was Norris, then president of the company, who decided to move Lennox’s headquarters from Marshalltown to the Dallas suburb of Richardson.
In a 1991 interview with Texas Monthly magazine, Norris joked about the weather in Texas, displaying his Iowa-grown sense of humor. “They tell you the average temperature is fifty-six degrees, but they don’t tell you if it’s plus or minus fifty degrees,” Norris said.
The current Lennox facility in Marshalltown, with 757 employees, is still considered the company’s flagship location, and the facility was recently upgraded following the 2018 tornado. Lennox employs more than 13,000 people worldwide.
Although Norris decided to move the headquarters to Texas to attract the professional experience Lennox needed, son Bo Norris said he never forgot where his father came from and always called Iowa home.
“The Lennox employees at the company still speak of its Midwest values of integrity, respect and excellence, so being from Iowa meant a lot to my dad. My father never wavered from these values throughout his business career,” Bo Norris emailed the Register.
Bo Norris, who sits on the Lennox board of directors, said the key to her father’s success was building strong teamwork.
“I don’t believe he’s really read any of the hundreds of management books about being a team player or a servant leader. But Dad had an innate sense that you will get better results by surrounding yourself with people who bring different perspectives and ideas, supporting them in their goals, fostering camaraderie, and letting them make decisions and make their own,” wrote Bo Norris.
In a prepared statement, Lennox’s current CEO Alok Maskara, John Norris Jr. said the positive culture established by continues to contribute to Lennox’s success.
Mascara singled out Norris’ success in piloting Lennox through its 1998 initial public offering and building the company’s commercial HVAC and refrigeration segments.
“Without John Norris Jr.’s leadership, we would not be the Lennox we are today,” Mascara said.
Bo Norris said his father was “a kind and humble guy who avoided the things that would come with being the CEO of a big company.”
“As the company prospered and his personal wealth grew, he remained grounded and humble. Throughout his career, he created great loyalty among people throughout Lennox, and to this day there are co-workers throughout Lennox who remember how my father personally greeted them and took an interest in their lives,” Bo Norris wrote.
In addition to overseeing the innovation and growth of the family company, it was Norris who came up with the iconic apron-clad “attaboy, Dave” marketing character used in advertising for more than 40 years. The “Dave Lennox” image still appears on the carton of every Lennox product.
In an interview with a trade publication upon his retirement in 2006, Norris said that when he was younger he dreamed of working in the family company, but not running it.
“I never felt like I was forced to work in the family business. Being around my dad just made me feel like I belonged at Lennox,” he said.
Norris was born on February 10, 1936 in Marshalltown, Iowa. He attended Grinnell College for two years and then graduated from the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology. After graduating from MIT, Norris joined Lennox and held various positions in nearly every department, eventually becoming CEO and chairman of the board.
Norris is survived by his wife Terri, three children and five grandchildren. Arrangements are being made for future commemorations.
Kevin Baskins covers jobs and the economy for the Des Moines Register. Contact him at [email protected].