David Owen Featured in Business Lexington
Good listener, great leader: Greenebaum Doll & McDonald’s David Owen
By Janet Holloway
Columnist: Leadership issues
At a function where former President Clinton had just finished speaking, a woman near the front of the audience stood and commanded the microphone for a full two or three minutes while trying to form a coherent question. She rambled, the audience squirmed and even began to boo, and the emcee cut her off to take other, more focused questions. Before leaving the stage, however, Clinton asked to go back to the woman’s comments, saying she had made a very, very important point that he wanted to address. He rephrased the question as he understood it and spoke to the point. The woman nodded throughout, and Clinton was able to address an important issue no one else had considered.
It’s a telling lesson that, when we judge another person, the majority of people stop listening. Or, as a friend of mine says, “It’s as if the act of judging releases a chemical in the ears, and we cannot hear beyond the judgment.”
David Owen, like the former president, is known to be a leader who listens.
Senior vice president of Commerce Lexington Lynda Bebrowsky has observed David Owen in his leadership role as a Commerce Lexington board member for several years. “One of the key reasons David is effective as a leader is that he … listens carefully before offering suggestions. His solutions [are] always based on a good understanding of the issues,” she said.
Adecco CEO Guy Huguelet told of playing 18 holes of golf with Owen: “…and only later did I realize how much I’d revealed to him about myself. He’s so personable and interested in other people.”
Huguelet continued, “When he was chair of Commerce Lex’s public policy committee, David engaged city leaders, the UK president, state legislators, the state chamber and the business sector in difficult discussions, and reached agreements that couldn’t have happened without his insights and abilities.”
Owen knows the importance of listening and its impact on his legal practice, community work and family. His practice involves him in a wide variety of commercial litigation matters — environmental, toxic tort, anti-trust and construction. Details, written opinion, facts and questions are his business. Listening for the truth is what he does.
As a youngster, David didn’t plan to be a lawyer; he wanted to be an athlete like his father, who coached basketball at Mt. Sterling High School. “Both my parents were educators, and I wanted to follow their path.” In time, however, he tried medical school, realized it would take too much time, then transferred into chemical engineering. “I did well, but it was too limiting for me. My personality [requires] more contact with people.” He took the LSATs, did well and was encouraged to apply to law school. “That’s how I became a lawyer,” he said with a laugh.
His passion for his work with Greenebaum Doll and McDonald, however, is evident.
“First of all, it’s a first-class operation,” he said. “We get to work on really high-profile issues, often international ones, where you can devote the kind of attention, focus and concentration that’s needed.”
He prefers negotiation to litigation: “… preparation and what you know is the touchstone of client work. If you don’t have your preparation, then you’re going to get surprises that put you in a weaker position. It’s just human nature that people remember things selectively, and it almost never fails in any dispute that facts come out that were not disclosed initially. Either an individual didn’t think they were important, didn’t remember them or thought that nobody would find out about them! You have a lot of witnesses who have different perspectives, and it takes a while to find what we believe is the truth. It’s never fun to have to find out at the end that your position is not what you thought it was.”
He brings this same persistence and commitment to his service on community boards. Sam Barnes, president/CEO of Fifth Third Bank, admires Owen’s contributions to the community: “…he has provided leadership and sound advice to a number of organizations in our community…and he doesn’t hesitate to roll up his sleeves and get involved when needed.” Owen remembers his father preaching to his high school basketball players: “Showing up is half the battle.”
“As a child, I was not allowed not to show up,” he said. “In my first board experience…the organization was doing well, but the board was so dysfunctional. People were casual about showing up; they had very different agendas. They worried about whose friend they were going to get on the board, and they weren’t accomplishing much. It took a lot of new people and hard work to turn that around.”
His long-time friend Nick Rowe of Kentucky American Water speaks highly of Owen’s commitment to the community. “More importantly,” Rowe said, “he is a man of highest integrity … committed to adding value to whatever he does.”
Easy-going, modest, with a dry sense of humor, Owen shrugs at these comments. “Earlier this year, when I was named member-in-charge of the firm’s Lexington and Frankfort offices, there was a newsletter article circulating that had my picture in it. I got home that day, and my son had drawn glasses and a mustache on it. I clearly don’t have any problem remembering who’s in charge when I get home!”
The same skills that make him a successful lawyer and community activist serve him well in his family life and sometimes push him beyond his abilities. When his children asked for a tree house, for example, he listened and jumped into action. “My wife, Kim, my daughter and son and I built a very simple tree house in the backyard. It was fun.” But that wasn’t all. “The kids wanted a bigger tree house — then an even bigger one. It’s now at two levels, and we’re trying to figure out how to make a third. I’m not exactly a carpenter, so we’re hoping it will stand up.”
Structural integrity aside, it’s clear that the Owen clan shares David’s willingness to pitch in what talents they have to share, skilled or not, to accomplish larger goals.
And at time of publication, the tree house was, indeed, still standing.
Showing up, after all, is half the battle.
Janet Holloway is president of j. holloway & associates and co-founder of Women Leading Kentucky. A national columnist for womenentrepreneur.com, she can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org