After a successful career in law, Mike Crane has spent the last three decades in the family business at Crane Group. Known for his passion for people and his ability to draw out their best, he helped build and then evolve a plastics business into an investment company—while nurturing a culture where people thrive. He also spent his final decade with the company watching one of his sons, Dan Crane, become the fourth generation to enter the family business. As Mike prepares to retire as EVP this month, Andrea Thomas—Crane Group’s VP of Leadership and Development—sat down with him to reflect on a meaningful career.
Q: You were succeeding at a law firm before joining Crane Group. How was entering the family business?
A: I was concerned about working with family members—did I really want to work at a place where my father, uncle, brother, and cousin were just down the hall from me? But my concerns were unfounded—it was very enjoyable and rewarding to work with Dad, Jay, Tanny, and Uncle Bob (Tanny’s dad). Uncle Bob would have those zinger questions, just like Tanny. I would always leave those meetings with a little sweat on my brow.
Q: What is the most rewarding part of running a family business?
A: The most rewarding part is it helps keep us together as a family. We all have a common bond. We own this company together. We share the legacy of our grandfather and our fathers. And I feel Tanny and I having such a respectful and rewarding relationship, a lot of that was driven by family.
Q: You’ve helped build a truly incredible culture here. What have you learned about building and sustaining community and culture?
A: I could look back and see that Uncle Bob and Dad’s success was surrounding themselves with really good people and then letting them thrive. They would listen to their views and opinions and get different perspectives. One of our key core values—our most important— is treating people with dignity and respect. When you do that, you build that culture.
Q: What are some decisions you’re proud to have been part of?
A: One of the first ones I think of is hiring a full-time, in-house leadership and development expert. As Tanny said, we needed to walk the talk. At the time, we had a leadership consultant, and I said, “Let’s hire him fulltime.” Another is the sale of our legacy businesses. It was so difficult. Seriously—we’re going to sell the business that Popoo started? It was so difficult and emotional. And then we’re going to sell our siding company that Dad and Bob started? I like to hold onto companies, because selling them can be painful. It’s saying goodbye. But we had operated the three businesses for 62, 34, and 15 years, respectively, and we had taken them as far as we could. What’s incredibly gratifying is that all three companies still operate. Crane Plastics, now Engineered Profiles, is on the south side of Columbus and still making parts for Andersen windows. The siding company is still operating, too, and the new owners maintain many of our original product lines. And TimberTech – Azek kept our brand name, the plant in Wilmington, and also much of our product line. Ultimately, these decisions allowed us to evolve the company into the Crane Group of today, letting us diversify a great deal while securing capital for us to invest.
Q: You’re so good at remembering things people have told you—the activities their kids are involved in, concerns they have about family members, trips they’re excited about. Do you consciously work on remembering details about people’s lives, or is it just natural to you?
A: I think part of it is DNA, mostly picked up from Dad, and then also watching him through my life, because he was such a magnetic, charismatic man. When he was talking with you, you felt like you were the only one in the room. I could see that. But also, I do make an effort. And now it’s easy with iPhones; in Contacts you can say, “Spouse—Shirley, Son—Joe,” so I do that sometimes. Between my first and second year of law school, I went to a Dale Carnegie speech course back in my twenties. There was a chapter on remembering names. Remembering people’s names, and using them, does have an impact.
Q: What are some professional memories that make you smile?
A: Dan succeeding.
Q: Your eyes have welled with tears. That clearly makes you emotional. What about him succeeding feels so good?
A: Just hearing the positive comments from people about him as a person. Seeing him respect other people and people respect him. And then watching him get involved in community work.
Q: What other good memories do you have?
A: Thinking back to the 90s, in our 30s and 40s, we had a lot of fun in the south hall of Crane Plastics. We’d fly around the country to work, helping to expand both our plastics business and our outside investments, and we’d also mix in fun and humor. We’d often close the door and talk about work, sports, life, and sometimes laugh so hard we’d have tears in our eyes. And memories of our siding team when I was president—that was cool. Such a great group of people, a great experience. And at Belmont (our home office), fun memories of just hanging out in the kitchen with everyone.
Q: What are some lessons you’ve learned?
A: One of the key things I’ve learned is don’t get complacent. Stay vigilant. Stay humble. Our fathers had the Depression. Many years later, we were cruising. We came up with this strategic plan that we were going to grow to $1 billion in sales by 2010. Business First had us on the cover: Crane growing to $1 billion by 2010. Dad saw this and was like, “What is this?!” And then the Great Recession hit—which killed the construction industry—and our key businesses were building products.
Q: What would you tell a young Mike Crane?
A: There will be good times, and there will be bad, and you’ll recover.
Q: What is something you hope Crane never stops doing?
A: Keep hiring good people. And I hope we continue adapting as needed. I think we’ve done an incredible job adapting through our 75 years, to the economy and to changes in the marketplace, and I think we will continue to do that.
Q: You’ve given so much back to the community over the years. What causes are closest to your heart?
A: One of the best things I did was get really involved with the Buckeye Ranch in my 30s and 40s, serving on their boards and accepting leadership positions. And more recently I’ve had a chance to reconnect with the Ranch. With the Crane Mentoring Program, I worked with a young middle schooler at Southmoor, and I mentored a young man at Fort Hayes High School for a number of years. Paige and I both have also enjoyed being involved with Columbus Academy. We recently helped build the Crane Outdoor Learning Center (Paige’s idea, of course). It’s in the middle of the woods north of the school and gymnasium, a building with garage doors that open with seating inside and outside. The teachers take kids of all ages out there to learn in open spaces. And growing up in Bexley I enjoyed supporting Capital University, serving on their board and establishing ongoing programs for the faculty and staff.
Q: We’re going to shift gears here and ask something I think everyone wants to know. Do you actually own any T-shirts, or do all of your shirts have collars?
A: Ha! Yes, I do own T-shirts. I wear them occasionally under a shirt. And when I work out.
Q: Related question: Does it make you nervous when you see untucked shirts?
A: That is an issue. But I’m adapting. The world has gone casual. Everybody wears all sorts of casual clothes. I’m just a little bit concerned about guys in the office wearing untucked shirts! (laughing)
Q: You will never find Mike Crane not looking anything other than well turned out. Even when you paint, you probably wear a collared shirt tucked in.
A: I don’t paint. (laughing)