Executive Insight with 4Rivers Equipment’s CEO

From Technician To Chief Executive Officer, John Shearer’s Equipment Industry’s Success Story

After a career of dedication to the John Deere business, Keith Olson retired in January, passing the responsibility of 4Rivers Equipment to John Shearer after 41 years of leadership. As John Shearer transitions into his new role at 4Rivers Equipment, many things in his daily routine will change, but there’s one thing that will stay the same: he’ll never stop looking for a better way to do something.

“Our industry has always been under a state of change; the difference today is the speed of those changes. Some people come to work and do what they always have. That's not going to get us anywhere other than where we have been,” he said. “We need to be committed to getting better every day.”

A lot of executives preach the importance of continuous improvement. But for Shearer, that focus is more than a business value; it’s an inner drive he discovered when he was young. The urge to find a better way wasn’t just good preparation for an eventual management career. It was a big part of what made him want a management career.

As a teenager, Shearer had enrolled in his high school’s diesel technician program after getting into arguments with his dad. “I had a habit of tearing things apart to see how they worked. I just wasn’t real good at putting them back together, so I got into a lot of trouble in the early years with my dad. So the course solved that problem. I needed to put stuff back together.”     

After studying diesel mechanics at his vo-tech high school, Shearer joined the military, where he worked in maintenance in the 1st Infantry Division. “I think a lot of people have this thought, ‘If only I were in charge, we could do this so much better.’ I was looking for a career that would allow me to think outside the box. But, unfortunately, the military had its limitations for growth like that.”

The end of Shearer’s stint in the military found him entering a tough civilian job market in the 1980s, and he didn’t get a chance to interview for a mechanics job until he’d spent three years as a tree trimmer. Finally, Leon Houser, the owner of the John Deere dealership in Shearer’s hometown of Lebanon, Pennsylvania, interviewed Shearer personally, liked what he heard, and hired him. “Leon taught me a lot about the business. He invested time and energy into my growth. I don't know what he saw in a guy that had been trimming trees for three years. 

“I really enjoyed the years of being a technician, which gave me a unique perspective when I moved into a management role. The biggest thing I learned from Leon was how the business side of the dealership worked. Leon assigned me and our CFO to a project that took us deep into the financials and key metrics that make a dealership financially successful.”

Shearer also credits Mark Romer, at James River Equipment in Virginia, for his success. “He’s the guy who made a difference in my career. He just laid out tremendous opportunities for me. His faith in my ability gave me the courage to do bigger things, such as start a hydraulic rebuild shop from scratch. This later became Riverside Hydraulics in Ashland, Virginia.”

His hiring and subsequent success gave Shearer a lot to think about when he was to interview and hire others. “This project was my first exposure to a real problem we have in our traditional mindset. We are too hung up on industry experience. Instead, we need to focus on what employees are passionate about and how they want to evolve our business.” While 4Rivers has done some formal testing of candidates to identify those intangibles, his approach is still more intuitive. “Unfortunately, it’s hard to uncover these passions in just one interview or review. After hiring, we need to challenge ourselves to have more conversations.”

Shearer notes two values that he ranks among his most important leadership principles. The first is integrity. “You have to live with yourself every day. We need to take care of our customers, and we need to do it the right way. Your integrity is yours; it’s a personal possession. Nobody can take it from you. Nobody can give it to you.” Shearer’s second leadership principle, not surprisingly, is a lifelong commitment to being better. “Those are the two things I push our people on.”

Another value preached by Shearer is the importance of listening to customers – really listening. “You’ve got to have a little humility. The first thing that happens when you get too confident is that you quit listening. That’s the death nail for a company, when you are not listening to people. But on the other hand, when you earn trust, they will open up and let you know what opportunities you have to get better. We’re an equipment dealer, but most importantly we’re a solution provider. If we’re not listening for their pain points, we’re not able to provide solutions.”

No executive will talk about the wellsprings of their success for very long without mentioning the importance of people, especially developing the people in the organization. It comes up quite naturally for Shearer because he counts his impact on others as his most significant success. “One of the most significant rewards of leadership and management is people. When you get a thank-you letter out of the blue, letting you know you were an influence on their lives personally and professionally, it’s something I can’t describe.”   

Yet Shearer feels 4Rivers always has room to improve when it comes to developing people. “We’ve used AED’s leadership institute, and we’re starting to use more of the products AED has to offer. Then there’s a local group we’ve been working with called Vistage. CEOs and senior leaders of different industries come together and discuss common issues – hiring, recruiting, making the workplace a little better, developing talent.”        

Today, as he continues his transition to CEO, Shearer is experiencing at least one significant change in perspective: from more of a focus on the day-to-day to emphasizing the company’s future in the big picture. 

“It’s been an adjustment of perspective stepping into the role of CEO. First, I was in a place to make sure the day-to-day activities were on track. Now I am looking at where we want to be as a company. What’s next in our growth path, and how do we take care of our employees and customers better?”

In one sense, as CEO, Shearer isn’t so different from his teenage self. He’s tearing things apart in his mind to see how they work. And he’ll have more opportunities than ever to put them back together in new and better ways.

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