Don Urban, the Real Urban Legend

Thoughts on a friend, mentor, business partner and now an admitted septuagenarian

I beg your indulgence to depart from discussing the vexing problems and challenges of the business and political world for just one week, to salute and pay tribute to a guy I have been lucky enough to know and work with for more than 35 years. Don Urban and I met in 1977 when he was 34; now on November 7, he turns 70. That means I have known Don for more than half his life and that makes me feel both lucky and old.

Early in 1977, just a month or so after being hired as vice-president of marketing for ITT Life in Minneapolis, the president of the company sent me out to San Jose, California to meet Don; but it was much more than simply a “meet and greet.”

Don, who was born and raised in Iowa, had decided that life in the “Hawkeye State” was just too hectic for him, so he had moved to California for a slower-paced life. When Don made the move, the president of ITT Life offered him “exclusive rights” to the entire state. Then, another “best friend” of this president wanted to move to California, but was blocked because of Don’s exclusive rights to all of ITT Life’s business in the state. This president, who operated on the belief that it was better to be loved than respected, did not want to incur Don’s ire, so the “new kid” was dispatched to deliver the bad news that California was no longer his exclusive playground.

It will not surprise anyone who knows Don to hear that he arrived late for our first meeting. (In life, there is real time, Lombardi time and Urban time!) After we spent some time trying to connect, I began to tiptoe around this issue of his exclusive contract in California. After letting me dangle for just a bit, Don jumped in and took me off the hook. He knew the president of ITT Life much better than I and he told me that he understood that it was not my decision; telling me that he anticipated it would be coming and accepted it. Not only that, but Don told me that I could go back to the guy and take credit for convincing Don to give up his exclusive contract.

Needless to say, I walked away from that meeting as a Don Urban fan forever. It was my first – but by far not my last – exposure to Don’s unique ability to put all issues in perspective and to lead from behind. Don has an exceptional capacity to lead without seeming to do so.

Over the years, my friendship and respect for Don did nothing but grow. I learned to go to Don for perspective and input on virtually all issues, never to be disappointed. One incident remains bright in my memory: It was 1980 at an ITT Life convention in London. At this meeting it was announced that the president everyone loved (but for which they had little business respect) was going to “leave the company to pursue personal opportunities,” and that I would be replacing him as president. For many of the field leaders, this was not an especially welcome announcement. Then at the final, formal dinner of the convention, Don quietly departed the scene, only to return – dressed as a waiter – to deliver a Big Mac, fries and a Coke to me on a platter. I appreciated it; first because that food was a lot better than the goat vomit and Haggis being served at the dinner, but mostly because this was Don’s way of signaling to the other field leaders that my being president of the company would be okay. This thoughtful gesture on Don’s part made it easier and gave me time to gain the acceptance of the field leaders. During the ensuing years I would often to go to Don for candid, open, honest advice and perspective on all matters of impact to the company. He never let me down. (This even included, during a convention in Hong Kong, helping me to find the most potent Chinese aphrodisiac available. Turns out it was “deer dick jerky.” How he knew that, I have no idea.)

It showed how much I had come to trust and respect Don when, in late 1986, during a breakfast at the Arizona Biltmore in Phoenix, I first mentioned my intent to leave ITT Life to start what would become LifeUSA. As expected, Don was full of questions, objections and concerns about such a move, but as usual he was helpful and supportive. It was not long before I came to the obvious conclusion that with his unique talent and quiet leadership, Don should become a co-founder of LifeUSA.

It was a little disconcerting when I presented the idea of Don joining the group to the other co-conspirators – Dan Rourke, Joe Carlson and Peyton Huffman – and they were all resistant to the idea. But they didn’t know Don the way I had come to know him and I pushed forward. To their credit, less than six months after we started LifeUSA, each one of them came to me and said that the decision to include Don in the group was the best decision I had made; that we would not have been successful without Don. 

The single, most important and appreciated vote of confidence I have ever received in the business world was Don’s willingness to give up the lucrative, good life in California; to pick up and move his family back to Minnesota and risk it all on my wacky dream for a new company. Trust me, at the time, Don had much more to lose than it appeared he might gain, but he did it anyway. (To this day, Don does not get the credit he deserves for the success of LifeUSA.)

No one who has worked with Don would equate him with strong executive management skills, but they would never question his quiet strength as a leader; one who would lead without appearing to lead. Don has this truly exceptional ability that encourages people to open up to him and trust him. Don could get people to tell him things they would tell no one else. Also, Don seemed to have this special 3-D type ability to see inside and assess people, even when they put up the best of fronts. Over the years I learned to rely on Don’s ability to “see” beyond what others “said and showed“ to expose what they were all about – good or bad. (One of the other things we learned from Don was that when staying in a hotel, you don’t reach outside your room to pick up the morning paper, if you are naked!)

Don is loyal almost to a fault when it came to principles, ideas and people. Nothing seems to offend Don more than the violation of loyalty. It was simple: you could count on Don so long as he could count of you. You may not have known it, but when you violated Don’s loyalty, you were no more than a “dead man walking.” And Don continues to offer and earn that loyalty. Even today, Don will send notes and congratulations to the people who worked with him at LifeUSA. I can’t tell you how many times Don would and still does drop a note to update me about events in the lives of other people or remind me of their birthday; all so I could contact them and appear to be as nice as Don.

In truth, Don is a leader’s leader.

And the Moral of the Story …

I have considered myself very lucky in life with a wonderful wife, great kids (and yes grandkids), unimaginable business success and the friendship and support of scores of wonderful people, but I was never luckier than the day I met Don Urban. That is until today, when I am lucky to be able to say: Happy 70th birthday, Don. You are the exception to the rule that says “the good die young.”

6 responses to “Don Urban, the Real Urban Legend

  1. Colin MacDonald

    Happy Birthday Don..70 years young..Hope to see you this winter at the Rock..Colin MacDonald

  2. Dave Sunderland

    I would not have had the chance to be in the position I enjoy today without Don Urban. When he came to Fargo in 1968 and hired me to work for Minnesota National Life, which I believe was only licensed in 7 states, it turned out to be the most important day of my business life, unbeknown to me at the time.

  3. I’ve had the pleasure of working with Don since 1987 with Life USA, Allianz and retirement.
    He is an dynamic and upstanding leader in my eyes!
    Happy Birthday Dude!

  4. robert wershay

    CONGRADULATIONS ,DON

    I`ve known Don since we were competitors,in the college market in 1964 ! Yikes!!
    Ironic as it maybe, Don was able to sign the check and actually bought the company he worked for in 1964.
    I`m proud to call Don my friend !

  5. I enjoy always jumpng on to Mac’s website to read,educate and laugh. I just saw Don give a wonderful salute to remember Roger McCarty last week. My thoughts, Don is amazing, terrific and a great person who believed in so many of us. He looks great and how lucky all of us that were associated with Mac, Dan and Don on the opportunities that they gave us but even more so the opportunities that we are taking advantage of because of what we learned.

  6. stan katlin

    give me a call it is well past nov 7

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