John Aden was living the dream — a fast-climbing business executive, the CEO of a well-known company at just age 33, married, children and money.
But his life was a mess, he said. "Inside, I knew better. It was a messy time in my life," Aden said, talking about the fall of 2002.
Speaking this week to about 2,000 people at the Chattanooga Area Leadership Prayer Breakfast, he shared how his life was turned around by a Christian business group and a Bible study.
The University of Washington graduate had joined snack maker Frito-Lay out of college and advanced rapidly in the business. In 2000, he became president of hand tools supplier Mac Tools, which he termed "a turnaround" project.
However, Aden said, the success he had previously experienced in business didn't come.
"I did everything I knew," he said. "There was no constant progress."
Aden said he didn't realize it at the time, but that "stall pattern" wasn't working for him and was starting to hurt.
"I'd gotten addicted to that more, faster, better idea of the '90s and the success that came," he said.
When success didn't come immediately at Mac Tools, he got into other pursuits such as fitness, riding motorcycles and even reality television.
"It was always trying to fill that more, faster, better void," Aden said. "It was like this hole that success was filling for a long time. But when I hit that stall pattern, I had to find other things to fill that hole with. Ultimately, that led to bad decisions."
He said he shared his discouragement with an acquaintance, telling him he didn't think he was supposed to be a CEO.
"I chased and I chased and I chased and I got here," Aden recalled he said at the time. "Now that I've got here. I don't like who I'm becoming. And other CEOs, I don't want to be them either."
He said the acquaintance told him "you have a problem with the CEOs you know" and told him a friend would call him.
Aden said that David "Mac" McQuiston, founder of CEO Forum, telephoned him and invited him to a meeting of the business group the next week in Dallas. There, Aden said, he found top executives talking about values, purpose, culture and having a positive influence in the world.
"It was a collection of Christian men and women in some of the largest companies in America," he said.
Also, Aden said, he took part in a Bible study called "Experiencing God" by Henry Blackaby.
"God used that study to radically change my life," he said. "For the first time in my life I started to learn the difference of religion and a relationship with God. God changed everything in my life."
In 2003 at Mac Tools, Aden recalled, the company had to cut a division and put about a third of its employees out of work.
"It was the most defining time of my leadership career," he said. Aden said he was introduced to a retired vice chairman of Wal-Mart, Don Soderquist, whom he described as that company's "keeper of the culture."
"I said 'Let's talk about strategy.' He said, 'No, I want to talk about your [company] values."'
Aden said Soderquist told him how important it was to complement strategy with a strong culture driven by values, offering examples from Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton.
"He said there's no way to successfully implement this strategy unless you get locked and loaded and focused on leadership and company values," said Aden.
At Mac Tools, he said, the company implemented five core values and "it really started to make a difference."
"I saw the impact of the choices and values and the impact they make on people around us," Aden said.
McQuiston said Aden "turned Mac Tools around" and has an ability to attract talented people.
"He's able to see around the corner and come up with a strategy and make it successful," McQuiston said.
The 50-year-old Aden stayed at Mac Tools seven years before becoming a senior vice president in Wal-Mart's international operation where he oversaw its supply chain and the team that performs and integrates acquisitions. Still later, he joined the retailer's U.S. business as an executive vice president in merchandising.
Aden said he stayed at Wal-Mart for about eight years and then decided to work with private equity companies and help management teams on joint ventures or acquisitions, as well as spend more time with his family.
Contact Mike Pare at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6318.
This story was updated May 3 at 10:30 p.m.