Business titan John W. “Jack” Creighton Jr., the first nonfamily CEO to lead local timber conglomerate Weyerhaeuser Corporation, died last month at age 87.
Mr. Creighton, who also served as the interim CEO of United Airlines in the turbulent aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, is recalled by colleagues, union officials, friends and family as an approachable, understated leader with a rare ability to find common ground between opposing interests.
Throughout his life ran threads of commitment to his employees, his family, the Boy Scouts of America — and to the Pacific Northwest, his adopted home.
After retiring from Weyerhaeuser in 1997, Mr. Creighton joined Seattle investment firm Madrona Venture Group, where he advised local companies nearly until his death on Jan. 29, of a stroke.
Born in Pittsburgh to a working-class family during the depths of the Great Depression, Mr. Creighton was an Eagle Scout and the first in his family to graduate from college, at Ohio State University, where he went on to earn a law degree. He later received his MBA from the University of Miami (Florida).
He took the reins at Weyerhaeuser in 1991, after working for nearly two decades in the company’s real estate and diversified products divisions, overseeing sectors as diverse as hydroponic lettuce farms, paper diapers and homebuilding.
For the six years he was CEO, Mr. Creighton worked to repair relations with unionized employees, strained after a 1986 strike, even as the company closed one-fifth of its timber processing facilities.
Mr. Creighton won appreciation from the union by devolving decision-making authority to loggers and millworkers. And it helped that he made himself approachable, said former woodworkers’ union representative Steve Fluke.
“He’d sit down with the shovel operators, loading logs,” Fluke said. “And when he came to a meeting, he wouldn’t wear a suit. He wore suspenders, a pair of work pants, and a regular work shirt, just like the loggers.”
When preservationist groups blasted logging companies like Weyerhaeuser for destroying habitat of the northern spotted owl, Mr. Creighton embarked on a statewide listening tour to hear the concerns of loggers and environmentalists.
The sessions were so tense Mr. Creighton would do pushups to calm himself down before taking questions, said Lee Keller, a Weyerhaeuser public affairs manager who helped organize the tour.
But Mr. Creighton also sought out opposing viewpoints, she said. When the company was trying to decide where to meet in Seattle, he backed her suggestion that they hold the event in the Mountaineers Club, a hotbed of environmentalism.
By the time he left Weyerhaeuser, he had won the respect of workers, said Dan Fulton, who worked for Mr. Creighton in the company’s real estate division before assuming the top job himself in 2008.
Fulton said that when he became CEO, he was surprised by how many employees remembered Mr. Creighton fondly. Even the building’s security guard “always wanted to know how Jack was doing.”
“He was the employees’ CEO,” Fulton said. “He went out of his way to get to know people: the names of their kids, how they were doing in school.”
When Fulton’s son became an Eagle Scout, Mr. Creighton — at the time serving as president of the Boy Scouts of America — made time to attend the ceremony, Fulton said.
After Mr. Creighton retired from Weyerhaeuser in 1997, his family expected his pace of work to slow, said his son, John Creighton III, a former Port of Seattle commissioner.
Aside from a Mount Kilimanjaro trek with son John — which Mr. Creighton trained for by climbing the hundreds of stairs between his cliffside Whidbey Island vacation home and the beach — that’s not what happened.
Union officials were so impressed by Mr. Creighton’s tenure at Weyerhaeuser that when UAL, the parent company of United Airlines, was looking for a new, labor-friendly board member in 1998, former International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers president Tom Buffenbarger “wholeheartedly” recommended Mr. Creighton.
Even when Weyerhaeuser and the union were involved in tense negotiations over mill closures, “we always had the ability to pick up the phone and call each other,” said Buffenbarger, who also served on the national board of the Boy Scouts of America with Mr. Creighton. “Jack never turned down a phone call. We were always able to find a compromise.”
But Mr. Creighton’s time at what was then the world’s second-largest airline was rife with challenge.
By mid-2001, labor turmoil and an ultimately unsuccessful merger with US Airways had dragged down the value of company shares nearly 80%. The 9/11 terrorist attacks, which involved two United planes, further jeopardized the company’s future.
In an October 2001 letter to employees, which leaked and caused United shares to sink still further, then-CEO James Goodwin said unless unions agreed to tighten their belts, the airline would “perish.”
Goodwin was voted out in an emergency board meeting. Mr. Creighton volunteered to temporarily fill the spot after other board members with CEO experience demurred.
Given Mr. Creighton’s lack of aerospace experience, the appointment raised eyebrows. But, his son said, Mr. Creighton felt he had no choice but to step up because “80,000 employees’ ability to put food on their families’ tables was at stake.”
To signal his commitment to workers, Mr. Creighton took a $1 salary.
Despite his efforts to secure a federal bailout, several months after he stepped aside in late 2002, United filed what is still the largest-ever airline bankruptcy.
Mr. Creighton also served on the board of the energy giant Unocal during a tumultuous period for that company.
Soon after Mr. Creighton joined the board in 1995, the company drew fire for trying to woo the Taliban to grant the company permission to develop a Central Asian natural-gas pipeline.
Later, Unocal was criticized for its ties to Myanmar’s military junta. Human-rights advocates alleged Burmese soldiers committed atrocities while guarding a Unocal gas pipeline.
Mr. Creighton, his son said, personally undertook a fact-finding mission to Myanmar, ultimately concluding the company’s presence there was doing more good than harm.
As Mr. Creighton receded from the national corporate arena, he turned his attention to the Pacific Northwest, mentoring a new generation of business leaders while at Madrona Venture Group and serving on the boards of local businesses and nonprofits, including maritime conglomerate Saltchuk Resources and the William D. Ruckelshaus Center for public policy, a partnership between Washington State University (WSU) and the University of Washington.
Throughout his life, Mr. Creighton eschewed the flashiness of many top CEOs. He lived in the same Bellevue home from 1970 to his death. As Weyerhaeuser CEO, when he flew to New York City to meet Wall Street analysts, he took the bus between the airport and Manhattan.
He had two indulgences, his son said: His fire-engine red Porsche, and the Pacific Northwest Native American art that filled his living room. Mr. Creighton and his wife, Janet Creighton — who earned a Ph.D. focused in part on Northwest Native American history from WSU while Mr. Creighton was CEO of United — were enthusiastic boosters of the Burke Museum of Natural History.
Mr. Creighton is survived by wife Janet, son John, daughters Julia Creighton (John Bronson) and Jennifer Creighton, and granddaughters Emma and Stella Bronson.
Mr. Creighton’s family will honor his memory at 2 p.m. April 29 at the Bell Harbor International Conference Center. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be made in his honor to The Jack Creighton Endowed Scholarship in Real Estate, administered by the University of Washington’s College of Built Environments.