Buy Jim's Book

Photo by Davis BarberProbably because most of what I own was bought used or at a drastic discount, I tend to think that products haven't truly filtered into our society until they turn up in a swap-meet heap or on a remainder table.

So I can barely express the sense of paternal satisfaction I felt a week ago when I saw a book I co-wrote (with Richard Johnston) in one of those discount-book warehouses that inhabit abandoned grocery stores. (Was it called Literature Trough? No, here it is: A&S Bargain Books in Irvine, and do they ever have some good books cheap.) My remaindered title, Martin Guitars: Let's Whack Off to Photos of Rare Guitars(Rodale Press, 1997), has finally made it to heaven, as far as I'm concerned.

And not a minute too soon, since another book with my name on it has just been born. As some of you know, I've been working for the past couple of years with manufacturer/philanthropist John Crean on his autobiography, now finally out and titled The Wheel N I. We thought we'd just chat a bit, slap it down on paper and, voila, a book! It wound up being a far more protracted undertaking.

This was due in part to the fact that Crean is always up to something new and always recalling ever more stories from his packed life. After nearly two years of talking, he was still coming up with different times he'd been arrested.

Can I be objective about a book I was involved with? Sure: the Martin book kinda sucked, and this one doesn't.

I'm a giddy student for Southern California history—hearing about the Compton dance halls, the Anaheim orange fields, the Pacific Electric depots, the idyllic drive-in days when you could street-race a hot rod without having to worry about its effect on the ozone layer. It was a different life then, and Crean lived a lot of it.

In my introduction to The Wheel N I, I say something to the effect that John's story is a treatise on how to live. He's a guy with a wild zest for living, the sort of person who's already building a thing while others are still thinking of reasons why it can't be done; or who tackles a thousand miles of rocky Mexican trail in a kid's dune buggy on a whim.

Crean's life in thumbnail: he grew up poor in Compton, back when it was largely farmland and mustard fields. He drank his way through World War II, with his teens and early 20s spent in a beveraged lie-out with some street-racing, skirt-chasing and petty theft thrown in.

He began working in the trailer business; married his wife, Donna; started a company in his stepdad's garage; and slowly built his Fleetwood Enterprises into a $3 billion-per-year Fortune 500 company, the world's largest manufacturer of RVs and manufactured homes.

In his spare time, he was one of the first guys in the U.S. to race Porsches; a 1967 dune buggy trek resulted in the Baja 1000; he produced Bill Cosby's first film and the wonderful Elizabeth Taylor/Richard Burton bomb Hammersmith is Out. More recently, he's been the chef on that deranged cooking show At Home on the Range.

I read Lee Iacocca's autobiography, and it bored the piss out of me, as do most business-success tomes. Most of the rich people I've met are not fun. I have no particular affinity for recreational vehicles. Conservatives—and Crean is very much one—often give me the willies.

Yet I loved doing this book with him. I'm a sucker for a good storyteller, and Crean reminds me of physicist Richard Feynman in that respect. He is also one of the least full-of-crap people I've ever met. Unlike so many businessmen with no talent for anything but acquisition, he's a wholly hands-on guy who revels in designing and building things. Instead of playing Wall Street games, he based his business on the belief that if you do right by your customers and your employees (he was a pioneer of employee profit-sharing plans), success will be the natural result. I've never known a Christian who talked less about being one or who acted more like one. He and Donna give half of what they make to charity, and they don't have any big sanctimonious reason for it; they just do it because it's fun.

Boy, is Crean ever a Republican. George W. and his ilk aren't half conservative enough to suit him. But his arguments against liberalism are more libertarian than anything. He doesn't like big government, he says, because government is always beholden to big business, and the bigger the government, the bigger that undue influence. He thinks the world was a safer place and businesses more ethical before people trusted “Uncle Sugar” to look after their interests because government will never do as good a job of that as individuals could in a free market.

At a time when corporations are monkeying around with genetic information that might drastically alter life on this planet, I'm somewhat less sanguine about the long-term correcting effects of the free market. Crean believes businesses that screw their customers may do well in the short term, but that they are doomed to fail. Though he's not naive, he is from a generation in which it was not so routine to see businesses thriving on price-fixing, defect-hiding, corporate-welfare sopping and competition-stifling mergers.

One thing this book was sorely lacking was a dramatic arc. John just sprang from one good time to another. “No wonder this guy's so goddamned optimistic,” I thought more than once. “Everything he touches turns to gold.”

Fortunately—for the book if nothing else—Crean's life butted head-to-head with gray corporate reality last year. He had retired from Fleetwood but was still chairman emeritus of its board. After he opposed a risky merger, management ousted him from the company he'd founded and headed for a half-century.

It was a very interesting time to know and observe John. He devoted less than a day to being furious. Then he spent a few days seeing if the damage could be rectified. (It couldn't. Fleetwood shares, incidentally, have plummeted from $48.50 when he retired in 1998 to around $12 today.) Within a week, he was already busy designing a new motor home with the intent of starting over.

Then his wife pointed out that he'd already been No. 1 at that and maybe should try something new. So he's now addressing America's lack of low-cost housing. Using new construction methods, he has designed a house he says is safer, better-made and more comfortable than conventional homes, and he intends to sell them for tens of thousands of dollars less. His first tract is already under construction in Hemet, and he says there'll be no goddamned community association to tell people what to do with their homes.

The lesson I infer from that is very similar to what John Lennon was saying in his final interviews: don't count on the president or anyone one else to create the world you want to live in. If, as Calvin Coolidge said, the business of the American people is business, then play the game better than the greedheads and start a business that envisions the future you want. Sure, the world has changed immensely since Crean got his start: megacorporations and, yes, government red tape may make it harder to succeed, but you'll never know if you don't try, right?

The Wheel N I is available for $25 (postpaid) from, of all people: Jim Washburn, P.O. Box 11168, Costa Mesa, CA 92627.

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