A trucker that made a difference

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"I am no smarter than a lot of guys in town … but I work harder." –John Ruan, founder of Ruan Transportation Management Systems, who passed away at age 96 on Feb. 13 this year

It’s hard to sum up the impact John Ruan – a one-time gravel hauler, with a single truck to his name –had on the trucking industry, the city of Des Moines, Iowa, and the world. One thing is for certain – his long and rich life shows that, no matter the circumstances you face at birth, you can go quite far in this country on sheer grit and determination.

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Yet in some ways, though, Ruan – who died this week at aged 96 – left behind a many-hued legacy that occurred due in no small part to grave family misfortune. Born on Feb. 11, 1914 – the eve of World War I, when much of the world still relied on horses to move around – Ruan grew up in the “Roaring ‘20s,” a heady era of American society, in a small town outside of Oskaloosa in Mahaska County, Iowa.

However, his father – a doctor – lost most of the family’s money in the 1929 Stock Market Crash. As a result of that financial cataclysm, Ruan’s family moved to Des Moines in 1930, where his father died in 1931. Though Ruan wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a doctor, he could only afford to attend Iowa State College for a year. With no money available, Ruan left school to find work – not an easy thing to do in the depths of the Great Depression.

Yet according to a short biography by Bill Friedricks, the hardships didn’t faze Ruan one bit. In fact, they seemed to fan the fires of an inner source of gumption. On the advice of a friend, Ruan traded one of the family cars for a truck in the summer of 1932 and began hauling gravel for a local road builder. A year later, he owned three trucks and was hauling coal. A fellow trucker who knew Ruan at the timed noted that, "he was aggressive, always moving; he pushed hard and never eased up."

By the mid-1930s, Ruan’s growing fleet began moving freight and later hauling petroleum – soon becoming the largest trucking operation in central Iowa. After World War II, his trucking operation grew even faster, becoming the nation's largest hauler of petroleum products by the end of the 1950s. Along the way, he acquired the taxi service in Des Moines as well as the city's Avis Rent a Car franchise.

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The following decade, he expanded into truck leasing business (eventually selling it to rival Ryder System in 2003 for $145 million), while broadening the scope of his trucking operations to include logistics, supply chain services, and dedicated contract carriage. Today, Ruan Transportation Management Services (RTMS) operates a fleet of 8,700 trucks nationally.

But he didn’t focus on just trucking – Ruan was nothing short of a jack-of-all-trades when it came to the world of business. In 1964 he purchased a majority interest in Bankers Trust Company, eventually buying out the entire company, then branching into other areas including real estate and property management, the import-export business, and a securities firm.

In addition, Ruan was one of the most influential leaders in the revitalization of downtown Des Moines in the 1970s and 1980s. So significant was his role that Robert Ray, former governor of Iowa, said: "John Ruan is the father of the renaissance of Des Moines. Because of him, the city started to prosper and grow and come alive."

His 36-story Ruan Center, which was the state's tallest building for 15 years, became the anchor for the new downtown. As general partner, he was the prime mover behind the construction of the downtown Marriott and soon thereafter erected Ruan Two, another office building adjacent to his original tower – all while playing a central role in the planning and layout of the skywalk system.

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Yet those weren’t his real accomplishments, for it would be in philanthropy that Ruan really laid down his legacy. Multiple sclerosis or “MS” afflicted both his wife, Elizabeth Jayne, and daughter, Jayne Ruan Fletcher (who would later die of complications from MS) – and Ruan spent millions on charity efforts devoted to trying to find a cure for this terrible disease.

He formed the John Ruan MS Charity, which became one of the largest one-day charity golf events in the U.S., to fund research in an experimental MS regimen at Rush Presbyterian-St. Luke's Medical Center in Chicago.

In the late 1980s, Ruan personally donated $2 million for the establishment of the Ruan Neurological Center (now the Ruan Rehabilitation Center) and the Ruan Neurology Clinic at Des Moines' Mercy Medical Center, which cares for patients with MS as well as other neurological disorders such as stroke and Parkinson's disease. $2 million for the establishment of the Ruan Neurological Center

Then there was the World Food Prize – a global award Ruan stepped in to support after its major corporate sponsor backed out in the 1990s.

Following discussions with Nobel Prize winner Norman Borlaug – a fellow Iowan – Ruan agreed to back World Food Prize, establishing a foundation in 1990 to support it and helping honor the award winner with a $250,000 prize in a ceremony held in Des Moines.

In 1997, he endowed the World Food Prize with a gift of $10 million and in 2001, Ruan and his family pledged $5 million for buying and renovating the downtown Des Moines Public Library building to make it the permanent home for the World Food Prize organization.

[For more insight into Ruan’s contribution to this global award, watch the The World Food Prize and John Ruan below, written and narrated by Michael Gartner.]

Yet despite being one of the wealthiest and most powerful people in Des Moines, despite hob-nobbing with U.S. presidents and other elites, Ruan never changed. By his own admission, Ruan possessed “a hard-charging personality” that led him to the office seven days a week and a business style that was often described as "sheer determination." And he wore bow tires and wire rimmed glasses, whether fashionable or not.

Never completely divorced from his work, Ruan was always thinking about "ways to make a buck," noted biographer Friedricks, and he was fastidious about jotting down ideas on note cards. When out of the office, he carried a small leather address book, which included a pad of paper and pencil, in his pants pocket so that, even when hunting or playing golf, he could write down possible opportunities so they would not "get away from him."

His is survived by his sons John Ruan III and Thomas Ruan, six grandchildren and seven great grandchildren, who to this day still operate the family business.

“Our family is grieving. We have lost our mentor and dear companion,” said John Ruan III, RTMS’ chairman and CEO. “My father’s influence in the industry and with his employees and customers built the strong foundation for the company that exists today.”

“John Ruan was a recognized leader in business, education, and community. He was the visionary who formed the World Food Prize,” added Thomas Donahue, president and CEO, U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the former head of the American Trucking Associations (ATA), who knew Ruan for many years. “But most importantly, he was a man of courage and conviction, a leader who made others stronger and better because they knew him.”

Not too bad for a one-time poor Iowan that started out with a single truck hauling gravel to make ends meet.

Not too bad at all.

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