PORTRAIT OF AN INSPIRATION
John H. Dasburg has taken his humble beginnings and transformed them into a lucrative career as a serial CEO for some of the nation’s most respected companies. In the process, he’s succeeded as a leader, a businessman, an entrepreneur, and, most importantly, as an inspiration to everyone he’s met along the way.
Text by Jorge Arauz Photos by Andres Hernandez
It’s 1948 and a little 5-year-old boy wakes up in a tiny wood-framed house in Hialeah. As the sun shines on his face, he gets up and shakes the scorpions out of his shoes before heading out to start his day. It’s Sunday and that means the family’s going to take a drive out west to ride ponies and eat some ice cream. They don’t have much money, but they’ve saved enough to enjoy this cherished family tradition as regularly as they can. No one could have ever imagined that little boy would one day grow up to lead some of the most venerable companies in the world including Marriott, Burger King, Northwest Airlines and DHL Airways. Or that he would be the recipient of the 2001 Horatio Alger Award for Distinguished Americans and be named the airline industry’s “Man of the Year” in 1994.
All the accolades and accomplishments aside, John H. Dasburg is a man who comes from humble beginnings and an even more humble work ethic. His father was a WWII veteran who was a prisoner of war before escaping from German forces and returning to the U.S. Soon thereafter, he picked up his family in New York and moved to Florida, first to Hialeah and then near the Flagler Dog Track on LeJeune & NW 7th, in a community created specifically for veterans and their families. “Dad was a paint salesman and mom worked at the downtown Lerners,” says Dasburg. “I still go by the old house when I drive from the airport — there’s a big oak tree at the end of the block I used to climb as a kid that was split by lightning in the ‘50s but still stands strong!”
So it came that Dasburg attended Kensington Park Elementary School followed by Kinloch Park Middle and Miami Senior High. Admittedly, however, he was not a very good student. “I graduated in the bottom 10% of my class, but you can’t even brag about that, who cares, at least being last gives you something to brag about,” he quips.
“In my family, you never thought of just being a student,” he continues. “I always worked and went to school — it’s all I ever knew.” As such, before and after the school bell rang, Dasburg was hard at work earning as much money as he could — from woodworking and steel working on boats and tending to diesel engines in the Miami River to delivering The Miami Herald in the morning and working the night shift at a local grocery store’s produce department in the evenings.
After graduating from high school, he was offered a job in St. Thomas that he just couldn’t refuse. “The money was good, I’d be living on a boat and working in the sunshine all day — plus it had nothing to do with school,” he laughs. “I couldn’t imagine a better scenario!”
Though the excitement of the new opportunity was enough to get him away from Miami, Dasburg quickly realized that the gig lacked longevity. “It was a very physical job, but in between the scrambles, I had a lot of time to think about my life,” he says. “One day a light bulb went off in my head and I figured that at best I would get a 1% raise a year until one day I broke my leg or got a finger caught in something — it was time for me to do something that magnified my efforts…and allowed me to use my brain!”
A few weeks later, Dasburg returned to Miami and enrolled at the closest university to his home, the University of Miami. There, he spent 2 years until the high tuition prices and work-study balance got the best of him. “I made a fatal error,” he says. “I thought I could succeed doing all these odd jobs and going to class, studying, etc., until I realized I had to work too hard, too many hours to pay UM’s tuition.”
With a few dollars to his name and a good friend in tow, Dasburg headed up to Tallahassee to apply at Florida State University, where tuition was cheap and housing costs near campus were reasonable. It was early summer and Dasburg had no idea what he was getting himself into once he arrived on campus and handed the admission department his transcripts. “The nice lady at the window took one look at my 1.9 GPA and politely told me my record was just not going to cut it,” he says. “She said they already had a lot of students with as bad a record as mine and they were trying to get rid of them as it was, so applying would be a waste of time.”
Dasburg was running out of options, but the University of Florida was still a possibility, so he and his buddy detoured to Gainesville on the way back to Miami. “We went straight to the Phi Delta Theta house opposite the UF building,” he says of the fraternity he had joined while at the University of Miami. “We sat around and drank some beers and told lies all night long…probably not the best of ideas given that I had an appointment with the admissions office early the next morning!” He arrived unshaved, unshowered and a little out of breath — a mix of nerves and lack of sleep. “They told me that if I took an easy summer course and got a B in it, I’d have the 2.0 I needed to be admitted,” he says. “This was my shot!”
That September, after successfully getting a B in a chemistry course, Dasburg moved into the Phi Delta Theta house and began his studies at UF, with a concentration on Engineering. “I enrolled with a 2.0 and I graduated with a 2.0,” he says of his solid C average. But his mediocre GPA failed to impress potential employers. The economy was down, the job market was as tough as ever and it was the height of the War. “Joining the Navy was my best option at the time,” he says. “Shortly after graduating, I enrolled and got ready for deployment.”
But a few nights before he was set to take off, he received a call from a good friend telling him that he had just gotten engaged. He wanted Dasburg to join him on a double date to celebrate, but the pal insisted that Dasburg bring a classy girl along for the occasion. “I knew just the girl to invite. Her name was Mary Lou. Back in high school, I’d met her at a party. She was an A student, member of the student council, the National Honor Society and The Miami Herald’s “Girl of the Month” — I was a C student at best,” he says. “When I called her, she was very happy to hear from me, which made me feel great. I explained to her that a friend of mine was getting married and I wanted to invite her on a double date with him and his new fiancé. She immediately accepted, which made me feel even better. But right after she accepted, she said: ‘So what time are you picking me up, Jack?’ Having then realized she really wasn’t sure who she was speaking to, I quickly replied: ‘I’ll pick you up at 7 p.m. — goodbye.’ There was absolutely no way I was going to tell her I wasn’t Jack considering how well that phone call went!”
When he arrived at her doorstep a few days later, he rang the doorbell and waited for her reaction. “She said ‘John…John Dasburg — what are you doing here?!’ I said ‘I’m here for our date’…she said ‘No, I have a date with Jack.’ After explaining to her what had happened, she agreed to go out on a date with me anyway since she was already dressed and I was at her doorstep to pick her up!”
The evening rapidly transformed into what Dasburg describes as a classic Lady & The Tramp story. “After a long night of dancing and having a good time, we went to grab some root beers and burgers at Royal Castle, and I took the opportunity to share an unrehearsed profession of love to Mary Lou,” he says. “It was 4 a.m., she’d known me for a good 8-9 hours and I was about to be deployed in a couple of days. Long story short, I asked her to marry me right on the spot and she accepted! I guess my dance moves must have really impressed her that night!”
The couple were married the week Dasburg returned from Vietnam and then it was on to a short honeymoon before eventually moving to Jacksonville to settle down. “As I was finishing up with the Navy, I came home and quickly realized that my engineering degree was not going to help me in the current economy,” he says. “Mary Lou told me she didn’t think I was the engineering type and suggested I go into sales and business.”
So it came that in 1968, at the age of 25, he took advantage of the GI Bill and applied to a series of MBA programs throughout the country, but again, his academic record proved to be a hurdle. “Everyone rejected me,” he says. “Then one day I got a handwritten letter from a Dean at UF who invited me over for a chat. He was a former WWII Vet who noted that I had just returned from Vietnam and had pretty high scores on my graduate exams.”
Dasburg told his wife this was his only hope and drove to Gainesville from Jacksonville. “We talked about the war for hours,” he recalls. “At the end of the conversation, he told me that based on our time together, he was going to give me a chance — but under the condition that he would tell me which courses to take and that I had to get an A in all of them if I was to stay enrolled.”
Ready to take the Dean’s challenge head on, Dasburg moved to Gainesville and lived in a graduate dorm, visiting Mary Lou every other weekend. “When I entered graduate school, I didn’t even know what an MBA was because I had no frame of reference, no mentors,” he says. “I just knew I did not want to do what my father did, and an education was my way of opening up my options.” Dasburg earned his MBA with an A average, fell in love with learning, took advantage of his academic momentum and decided to pursue either a Ph.D. in Economics or a Law Degree at UF. “I sat down with Mary Lou one night with some cheese, bread and wine and we flipped a coin — heads was a law degree, tails was a Ph.D. in Economics,” he says. “It landed on heads.”
At this point, he’d developed a rhythm with his studies and he breezed through law school. Suddenly, the young boy who once hated school had grown up and now had 3 degrees under his belt and job offers coming at him from every angle — from CPA companies to government jobs to law firms. “I stayed completely open,” he says. “I was waiting for the right opportunity to come along.”
In the end, international CPA firm KPMG came back with the highest offer — $13,500 a year to start. “The firm is like bootcamp for people interested in business,” he says. “I went in thinking it was going to be a career and quickly made my way up the ranks, eventually elected partner within 5 years.”
Then in 1980, a headhunter contacted Dasburg about an offer to work for Marriott Corporation, and Dasburg happily accepted, moving to the suburbs of D.C. shortly thereafter. “I went in as the VP of Tax but quickly evolved through a series of other titles until I ended up as the President of the Lodging Group and Executive VP & CFO of Marriott Corp.”
After nearly a decade as an exec with Marriott handling major mergers and raising money in big capital markets, Dasburg’s career momentum came to a devastating halt when his 6-year-old daughter was killed in a school bus accident. In the weeks that followed, Dasburg gradually returned to work, but the sorrow wouldn’t subside, and he resigned within the year. “There were just too many reminders of her,” he says. “The only way I knew how to deal with it was to pick up and move.”
Once he felt emotionally and mentally sound enough to return to work, he took up an offer from a former Marriott associate to move to Minneapolis to do some consulting work for Northwest Airlines, the nation’s 4th largest airline. The job quickly turned into a President & CEO term that lasted from 1990-2001. “It was both the most rewarding and most challenging job of my career,” he says, mentioning two of the most difficult periods he faced: The ’98 strike, which lost the company an estimated $1 billion, and the deep recession of the early ‘90s, during which Dasburg was credited with saving the company from bankruptcy. “The CEO gets the credit and the blame for a company’s ups-and-downs…but no one person can be responsible for everything — successes and failures are a team effort!”
After a decade in the airline business, Dasburg felt it was time to move on to something new. “Frankly, I was bored,” he says. “It was too much of a tightly-focused industrial business and I was ready for my next move.” Shortly after realizing he was ready to leave, Dasburg was approached by an old associate with an offer that seemed too good to be true. “He told me Burger King Corporation was looking for a CEO to come in and turn the company around,” he says. “Not only would this serve as a vehicle to bring me back to Miami where I eventually wanted to end up, but it also provided a smooth transition into a new position.”
Eventually, Dasburg made good on his promise, and a lot sooner than he had expected. It took him just 2 years to get the company in order. Shortly thereafter, the company was sold. “Almost immediately after the announcement was made public, my phone started ringing off the hook with headhunters offering me various CEO jobs,” he says.
In the end, Dasburg settled on a Chairman & CEO offer from DHL Airways, which at the time was being attacked by competitors questioning its legality because of the fact that a foreign company had the majority ownership of the company. He agreed to come aboard, but under one condition: He would only join if he could draft out a framework that would give him the opportunity to one day have the option to own the airline. “I always wanted to be an entrepreneur and this seemed like the perfect opportunity for me to do that,” he says. Eventually, he rolled in a couple of partners and acquired the airline, relocating its headquarters from Rockville, IL, to Brickell. “We also renamed the company ASTAR Air Cargo on the advice of our lawyer, who thought it would be a good idea to divert negative attention associated with the company because of certain trial issues we were facing at the time,” he says. “We thought it was a great idea, especially when it came to the media, but we quickly learned journalists are more savvy than we gave them credit for: Every article included the line ‘…formerly DHL Airways’!”
So what has Dasburg learned from all his exciting and diverse career choices? “All business is the same,” he says. “No matter the industry, they all have balance sheets, they all require a strategy, and they all need good leadership. My core view of the world is to keep your options open — what appears to be luck is not — it’s actually a result of keeping your options open.” And, in order to do that, he says, you have to abide by 3 very important principles: stay as healthy as you can, keep learning and avoid debt. “Everyone’s situation is unique, but somehow or another if you put yourself in a position to succeed, opportunities will present themselves.”
So what’s next for this highly successful businessman who has seemingly done everything in his career? “More business, of course,” he says. “I’m not planning on retiring anytime soon — at least not in this lifetime!”