Don Friese—A Fond Farewell: CRL Chair and CEO Says Goodbye After Decades of Dedication:
By Ellen Rogers
After nearly 60 years of dedication to his customers, business and team, Don Friese, chairperson and CEO of Los Angeles-based C.R. Laurence (CRL), is retiring. He will be succeeded by company president Lloyd Talbert, who has been with CRL for more than 27 years himself. Along with assuming this additional leadership position, Talbert will maintain his role as president.
Friese’s career is a true American success story. He joined CRL in the warehouse as its sixth employee in 1961 and worked his way up through the business. By 1997 he was the CEO and sole owner. Through both acquisitions and organic growth, Friese grew CRL into North America’s largest manufacturer and distributor of custom hardware products and supplies for the glass and glazing industry. Today, the company makes or distributes more than 65,000 products for the architectural, construction and automotive industries.
When Friese was 70 years old he decided he would work for the next ten years and, during that time, would develop his succession plan. But as he told USGlass magazine columnist Lyle Hill in a 2015 interview, he found himself at the age of 75 and no plan in place. That’s when he called on Los Angeles-based investment banking firm Greif & Co. to help guide the transition. While there were many options, Friese wanted to ensure he found the right match for CRL—and was certain that would not be a private equity firm.
Then, on the morning of August 27, 2015, the industry heard its biggest news story of the year, if not the decade: Oldcastle BuildingEnvelope® (OBE) had purchased CRL for $1.3 billion. CRL became an independently managed and operated subsidiary of OBE and retained all existing management structures and personnel, which had been an important condition for Friese regarding the acquisition.
But there was more to it for him than simply making sure employees retained their jobs. Friese took it a step further, not only committing to keeping current personnel on board, but also ensuring the employees knew they were appreciated. Upon the company’s sale to OBE, Friese sent a thank-you note to each CRL employee who had been with the company at least a year, and attached to the note was a bonus. It was no small gesture, as the bonus pay-outs totaled approximately $80 million, ranging from $5,000 to more than $1 million.
At the time, he told Forbes magazine, “I couldn’t build all this without all the employees, so I thought it was only fair that I should share.”
Qualities of a Leader
Throughout his career, Friese not only shaped and impacted his company, but also left a lasting impact on his employees as well as many others in the industry—even some he’s never met. Talbert has a lot of memories after working with Friese for close to 30 years.
“Don is a classic entrepreneur who relies on his gut instincts; I’m a finance guy and thrive on data and analysis to make decisions. Over the years we developed an unspoken code where we instinctively knew what to do when a situation arose. It was just a natural that I would do my part and he would do his,” says Talbert.
“The results continued to get better and better the more closely we worked together and we built a great relation-ship over many years.”
He adds, “Don brought such a joy to working at CRL. I’ve often described it as, ‘Don doesn’t have to go to work, he gets to go to work.’ He enjoys everything about it, but especially the people. He does a lot of ‘managing by walking around’ and still knows most of the employees by name.”
Vice president of sales Paul Daniels started with the company in June 1980, as the outside sales rep based in Boston covering the New England territory. He, too, learned a lot from working with Friese.
“When Don interviewed me for the VP of sales position, he told me that his job was to continue to grow the company, so that he could attract good people and give his people room to grow. This is a promise he certainly kept,” says Daniels. “As a young man, shortly after I took the VP position, Don gave me some good advice. He told me that I did not get this position overnight and I would not lose this position overnight. That always kept me grounded in good times and, yes, there were also some not-so-good times over the years.”
Lee Wright, senior vice president of operations, is also retiring this year after 44 years with the company. He says it was within his first few years there that he realized there was some-thing special about “this man called Don Friese.”
“I could see his love and compassion for the company, the customers and especially for his employees. Even though I started in the Atlanta operation in 1975, I knew then that I wanted to be on Don’s team. CRL was a small company in those days, but I learned very quickly Don had a vision for how to grow this company. I know today, looking back, that he is the number-one reason that I committed myself to CRL and I can truly say now it was a very rewarding journey.” USGlass columnist and industry consultant Paul Bieber worked at CRL from 1976 to 1985, serving as the Northeast regional sales manager for those last six years.“I loved working for the company. The only reason I left was that I was on the road 40 weeks a year and that became too much while we were having children. Don was, and I am sure still is, a great student of people,” says Bieber. “He promoted people who deserved it, paid well and earned loyalty. This formula worked very well. It was because of this loyal cadre of people that CRL grew many times larger than an average company. Don worked hard; 12 to 14 hours per day was average during the time I was there. He created a very successful and strategic force within our glass industry.”
Dedication and commitment to customers is also a characteristic that stands out about Friese—and it’s one that’s carried throughout the company.
“Don is all about consistency and commitment. He’s worked six days each week his entire career and is dedicated to our customers,” says Talbert. “We’re always making sure we ship ‘every order, every day.’ That’s not something we do to maximize revenue, but because our customers depend on us to supply the product they need to finish their job. When you boil it down to something so basic, it’s really clear you need to do all you can to make sure all our customers are taken care of.”
Glass.com spokesperson Dustin Anderson, president of Anderson Glass in Waco, Texas, and the resident glass expert on HGTV’s Fixer Upper, can attest to that. Anderson has partnered with CRL over the years on a number of new product patents and, for him, Friese represents a pioneer for the industry.
“His company blueprint allowed glass shops of any size to find virtually any glazing product or accessory and obtain it. This put both the little guys and the big guys on the same playing field,” says Anderson. “This clearly shaped the industry, giving every glass shop the same opportunity as any other. I never met Don personally, but … I attribute … a piece of my company’s success [to him].”
Wright points out that for Friese, the company echelon is upside-down, where he is at the bottom and the customers are at the top.
“The set up from top to bottom are the customers, employees, middle-managers, VPs, SPVs, CEO and then Don Friese,” says Wright. “He likes the fact that he works for everyone in the company and has devoted his life to serving the CRL customers. Don’s kindness toward his employees is greatly responsible for the growth of CRL. We all have worked hard for him and we appreciate what he has done for us throughout the years. It has been a humbling experience to know that Don Friese has allowed me the opportunity to work and be a part of this great company, CRL.”
Daniels adds that while Friese was driven to grow the company, that focus was mainly for his customers.
“Our customers were always first. Don felt it was important to service our customers so they could grow their businesses and keep our industry strong. Don loved to talk to our customers, whether at the will call counter or at trade shows … he listened to them.”
One on One
In addition to having a professional relationship with Friese, Lyle Hill is one of the few people who have had the opportunity to sit down and interview him on a number of occasions.
“To me, the total story of a business leader is more than just the numbers that are shown on a company’s financial statements … or the amount of money the business commands at the time it’s sold. The rest of the story is found in the personal interactions between the leader and his/her team. And it’s here that I have always been most impressed with Don Friese,” says Hill. “For as long as I’ve known him, he has constantly encouraged, trained, developed and nurtured the people around him.
“Don’s son once told me there were a couple of approaches to business that Don had always followed and taught to his team. The first was what Don called the 3-Cs. No matter what the situation, stay calm, stay clean and always stay current. In essence, be in control of at least yourself and your environment regardless of what you may be facing. The other was Don’s common sense approach to running the business. It goes like this … first, see things as they really are, not as you might wish them to be or as someone may tell you they are, but as they really are. Secondly, know what it is that needs to be done about the matter (whether positive or negative) and lastly, actually do it. Simple, direct and impactful. That’s Don Friese.”
Talbert says while Friese’s retirement represents a big change for the company, “it’s part of the plan we started developing almost ten years ago to transition beyond the time when he would no longer be running CRL. Most of our management and leadership development was targeted to ensure CRL would continue as an independent company for generations to come and we believe we’ve been successful in building the necessary infrastructure to accomplish this goal.”
He continues, “In fact, a primary consideration in choosing OBE as a partner was their track record of acquiring good companies and letting them operate with relative independence. We’ve certainly found that to be the case in the three years since we joined the group. All in all, this is a natural progression for us and we look forward to continuing our industry leading role for many years to come.”
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