February 6th is a memorable date in my life for three reasons: It is the birthday of our 40th president, Ronald Reagan; it is the wedding anniversary of my best friend of over forty years; and in 1992 on that date, my life was forever changed when an Air Force C130 crashed into the Drury Inn complex in Evansville, Indiana, where I was conducting a management workshop for P&I Supply company.
Over the past 25 years of giving keynote presentations and conducting workshops, only twice have I mentioned the tragic events of that cold, sunny winter morning. With the 25th anniversary upon us, Lynn Jackson and I – two of the survivors – want to pay tribute to the company and family that have long inspired us to live life to the fullest.
My initial encounter with P&I Supply was on September 15, 1991, my very first day of work in Extended Services at the University of Southern Indiana (USI). For the 18 years prior, I had worked for large international consulting firms and eventually started and later sold my own consulting firm. My professional dream was to write a book about customer service and Walt Disney, and what better place to begin that journey than on the faculty of a university. Just before I was hired by USI, the University announced their groundbreaking Center for Total Quality Management (TQM), and I became its first director.
When I arrived in my new USI office, my phone was ringing. On the other end of the line was Bruce Stallings, one of the executives of P&I Supply and also son to its President, Bob. Bruce told me his company had been trying to implement TQM in their organization, and was calling to request my help. A few hours later, I was introduced to my future business partner, coauthor and wife, Lynn, who was also on the faculty at USI. Lynn had extensive marketing and consulting experience, and I was pleased to learn that she would assist the Center as needed.
Over the next few weeks, I met with P&I Supply’s executive team (Bruce; his brother, John; his sister, Carol; and his father, Bob), and then with most of their 35 employees before presenting a plan for their total quality management implementation. When we work with companies of any size to implement a new culture, all employees are involved in a multi-day experiential workshop to solidify a new vision, values and codes of conduct. After leading numerous implementation efforts, I have found that an effective workshop experience requires at least ten participants. My rule of thumb is that most organizations can only remove about 10% of their workforces for a few days to minimize disruptions, but at P&I that would equate to an unacceptable number participants in each workshop. So, Bob said to me, “This is important to our future. Let’s have three groups of 11-12 and the four of us leaders can fill-in. It will be good for us to pick orders and deliver our products.” Because of his visionary leadership, we scheduled the three workshops.
February 6th was the third day of the second group from P&I Supply. After we had returned from our morning break at 9:45, Lynn was at the flip chart recording participant responses and I was in front of the group of 11 leading the discussion. Within minutes, I heard a strange noise coming from an airplane. At first, having conducted many meetings around airports, I didn’t give it much thought. But as the noise grew louder, I said to the group, “I hope he makes it.” I looked out the window at 9:48, the exact time of impact, and saw a huge fireball coming towards us. Lynn, two participants sitting in front of the room, and I were literally blown out of the room and managed to survive. The other nine P&I Supply workshop participants lost their lives in that horrible tragedy. Among the victims was Bob’s oldest son, John.
Of the four of us, Lynn was the most severely burned and was quickly life-lined to a burn unit in Louisville where she remained for 11 weeks (for the next dozen or so years, she endured 17 reconstructive surgeries); I was taken to a local hospital where I was treated for 5 weeks. But we were the lucky ones…and I was soon to witness the amazing leadership of the great Bob Stallings.
During my recovery, there wasn’t a single day when I did not receive a visit from a P&I Supply employee. Several times each week, Bruce and Bob would stop by to check on my recovery and also inquire about Lynn’s progress in Louisville. I believe it was the second week of my recovery during one Bob’s visits that he told me that he didn’t know how I could cope with this tragedy sitting in bed all day. He said that he was able to throw himself into his work each day, and although he wasn’t sure how effective he was, it was good therapy. Then, he said something that truly touched my heart. He told me he needed me to recover so that I could continue the workshops for the remaining employees and the group of new hires. Now remember…this leader was also a father who had just buried his oldest son and lost 1/3 of his workforce. But, he was also concerned about my recovery. After eight weeks, I was back at work and under Bob’s direction, I continued helping launch the transformation of his company.
Lynn’s return to her consulting role was as motivating to me as was Bob’s encouragement. At approximately seven months after the plane crash, I was conducting a three-day public workshop for about 15 companies that were interested in developing a customer-centric culture. Lynn was between surgeries and was scheduled to attend the workshop as an observer. A consultant friend of mine had flown in from another state to assist me with the workshop. On one of the coffee breaks, the two of us were sitting at the back of the room discussing which of us should facilitate the next exercise, when out of the blue Lynn said, “I can do that section.” Plastic mask, bandages, healing scares, future surgeries be damned…she was ready to face the audience.
Without the support and encouragement we received from Bob and the P&I Supply family, Lynn and I believe that continuing our consulting careers would have been extremely difficult. And yet, witnessing how they handled their own recovery still inspires us to this day.
For the past 25 years, P&I Supply has grown from a small local industrial supplier to one with a national presence. Bruce Stallings has since continued his late father’s work, and has facilitated P&I Supply’s growth to seven locations across the US; since 2007, the company has realized a 900% growth in business! Lynn and I are so proud to have been a very small part of their history.
By 1993, Lynn and I had dreamed beyond the confines of university life and founded Capodagli Jackson Consulting. A few years later, we wrote the first edition of The Disney Way and dedicated it to Bob Stallings. Within weeks, Fortune magazine named it “Best Business Book of the Year.” Since then, we have been spreading The Disney Way message to a global audience (published in nine languages), most recently with The Disney Way 3rd edition that was released by McGraw-Hill in 2016.
For a quarter of a century, our companies – P&I Supply and Capodagli Jackson Consulting – have impacted the lives of many, in many different ways. (Not a bad track record for two small companies born in Evansville, Indiana.) The success of our company would not have been possible without the encouragement we received from Bob, Bruce, and the entire P&I Supply family.
Our sincere and heartfelt thanks to the late Bob Stallings, who passed away in 2009, and to Bruce Stallings, now president & CEO.
There are days when the events of that sunny February day in 1992 are not in the forefront of my mind, but I can honestly say that at least once a week, I remember that day and the souls that were taken from us all too soon:
- Darrell Arnold, 38, Evansville
- Charles Berqwitz, 22, Evansville
- Robert Hays, 45, Evansville
- David Horton, 29, Evansville
- Ronald Keown, 45, Chandler
- Mathew Prasek, 27, Evansville
- Thomas Ruby, 28, Evansville
- John Stallings, 41, Evansville
- Harry Tenbarge, 51, Evansville
May you all rest in peace.