Remembering Paul Purcell

Former Baird CEO was a true leader

Leadership

When Paul Purcell came charging into town in 1994 to lead Robert W. Baird’s investment banking area, I was a beat reporter covering the company. Sometime during his rise to CEO, we scheduled our first meeting. It was out of the ordinary in two memorable ways.

First, Paul said he’d be straight with me as long as I was straight with him. The minute I broke that trust, he’d be done with me. The same way he was done with a well-known Fortune magazine reporter who’d abused his trust. This guy didn’t mess around.

Second, Paul left the room for a short time and came back smelling like cigarettes. I couldn’t help but notice he was human – and he couldn’t help but show it.

Paul died recently at age 73 after what Baird tweeted was “a valiant fight with cancer.” I’m thankful I knew him.

His business achievements were extraordinary. Paul grew Baird during a difficult time in the investment industry that felled many of its peers. He pushed revenue to well over $1 billion from less than $200 million when he started. He more than doubled Baird’s employee count and successfully challenged associates to secure a long-time spot for Baird on the Fortune magazine list of best companies to work for. He dreamed big and pushed those around him to do the same.

Paul Purcell
Paul Purcell

But to me, more than two decades after our first meeting, it’s Paul’s straightforward and genuine nature that made him so special. He was the real deal: A true leader who had the rare ability to make difficult decisions and still be a decent human being.

For several years Paul stopped talking to me; he didn’t like some of the stories I wrote about Baird. But neither of us ever broke his initial rule, so he eventually thawed. For that, I’m grateful.

A lot of CEOs hide behind their titles. Not Paul. Once, beaten by a national publication on an important story, I left a plea for help on his mobile phone. He was at a big conference, but he called back. “You’re one of the few people who knew the New York investment bankers would leak this to their New York sources,” I said. “You’ve got to at least help us catch up on such a big local story.” He gave me the confirmation we needed.

Paul was five years old when his mother died. He and his brother Phil, who went on to become CEO of Morgan Stanley, were raised by their father. Paul once described to me the impact on him and Phil of losing their mom so young: It was the two of them against the world.

Maybe that’s one of the reasons he didn’t flinch when he had to make difficult decisions. I heard from more than a few irate Baird employees who were on the wrong side of those decisions, of course. When I asked about one of them, Paul was very direct. He’d given the employees a choice: They could either do it his way and stay at Baird or they could continue to do it their way and leave. They’d chosen the latter.

Paul’s decisions meant that rather than going out of business like many competitors, Baird grew and created more jobs. Ultimately, he excelled at the two most important things in a CEO’s job description: Grow the company and leave it in good hands.

On 9/11, Paul was one of the first people I called. He said we’d survive the terrorist attacks, that the assault on our country wouldn’t take us down. Later he told me he had no recollection of talking with me that day. Even on autopilot, Paul was a leader, always forging the path ahead.

But he knew when to take orders too. It was well-known that Paul – who had never moved from the Chicago area to run Milwaukee-based Baird – had a van outfitted as an office, hired a driver and often worked in his office on wheels. What wasn’t as well known is why he did it. His wife told him he had to.

By the nature of our professional relationship, I was always on the other side of Paul. But even from that perspective, it’s clear: Paul Purell was one heck of a guy.

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