Ken Melrose, an Under-the-Radar Servant Leader

By David Williamson.

“He was Toro Company’s ‘Servant Leader’” was the headline in the morning’s business section of the local newspaper (the Minneapolis Star Tribune), announcing the death of Ken Melrose, who had been president and CEO of Toro for nearly 25 years. Ken was a brother in Christ and friend, whose Christian faith was “under the radar.” Yet it was there, informing and shaping – profoundly, creatively, gently and almost subliminally forming – the servant-leader style.

As a leader, Ken took Toro form near bankruptcy to a successful, vibrant, creative and flourishing corporation. One of the early “under the radar” decisions Ken made was to be committed to being a servant leader. He didn’t mention it often publicly, but it was deeply shaped by Jesus’ call to serve, and to lead by serving.

The newspaper article listed the following qualities and practices that Ken developed at Toro: active employee engagement, including encouragement for employees to own stock in Toro. He frequently included celebrations of a particular employees’ contribution to the company (complete with balloons and cake). He put his office in the middle of the complex, close to the people he served. He made a disciplined practice of spending a day working alongside other employees, in one of the plants.

Ken frequently said that the company needed to be more accountable to the employees. He actively limited or restricted his own (and others’) executive compensation, even going against the strong recommendation of his board. He often criticized excessive executive compensation in his industry, and in business generally. It was said that Ken built a “values-based culture” long before that was celebrated in the larger business community. Again, an under the radar, subliminal Christian faith. Under his servant style leadership the company not only survived, but thrived.

From early in his career, Ken would also host a Bible study in his office. He did this first as president of a Toro subsidiary, Game Time, and later when he became president of Toro, attending as often as he could.

I remember being in a Leadership retreat (at Laity Lodge) where Ken was one of the featured speakers. Ken spoke about how Toro handled personal injury and product liability issues. Ken had spoken of his clear understanding that the Bible strongly encouraged Christians to stay out of court and settle difficult issues in person. He formed a team of employees to personally visit families with a product-related injury, and together work out a satisfactory response. Ken stated that only once, out of more than a thousand incidents, did Toro go to court.

Amazing, but true! And difficult though challenging for the audience that day, who were leaders in their businesses, to imagine. He was driven to find applications of biblical material to challenging business situations, a little under the radar, to transform common “business as usual” practices.

Some of Ken’s life was complicated, to be sure. He was not a saint. Yet throughout his business career, the most important thing for Ken was serving others. When he retired from Toro (which was now highly profitable), his successor was a person Ken mentored for the position – including sending him to college and graduate school. He formed a leadership consulting organization, Leading by Serving. Ken did benefit substantially from Toro’s success, and was able to serve a major hospital by generous giving, enabling the development of a large eating-disorder clinic. He also gave substantially to the local humane society, and to a Christian study center at a university.

Ken served God by serving the business and philanthropic community and by genuinely caring both for his employees and customers. He was an effective leader who live his conscious Christian faith under the radar, leading by serving.

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