Max De Pree ’48
Max De Pree ’48 of Holland, Michigan, an internationally respected corporate leader who helped shape Hope across 12 years on the college’s Board of Trustees, died on Tuesday, Aug. 8, 2017, at age 92.
De Pree, who was chairman emeritus of Herman Miller Inc., was a member of the college’s board from 1983 to 1995 and chair from 1987 to 1995. Hope presented him with an honorary degree in 1987. His tenure on the board coincided with two major capital campaigns: the Campaign for Hope (1985-87) and Hope in the Future (1992-94). Campus development through the campaigns included the construction of the Maas Center, Admissions House, Van Wylen Library, Lugers Fieldhouse and DeWitt Tennis Center; acquisition of the Knickerbocker Theatre; addition of laboratories to the Peale Science Center; and renovation of the track and field facilities. Significant growth in the college’s endowment included major support for
the academic program; multiple endowed professorships and student scholarships; and establishment of the Hinga-Boersma Dean of the Chapel and additional support for Campus Ministries.
De Pree began his career with Herman Miller Inc. in 1947. For 40 years, until
December of 1987, he worked in nearly all areas of management, including for 18 months in Europe directing the international operations. He became chief executive officer in 1980.
He was the author of five books: Leadership is an Art, Leadership Jazz, Dear Zoe, Leading Without Power and Called to Serve. His books have sold more than one million copies and have been translated into more than a dozen languages. He received numerous major professional honors and held seven honorary degrees. De Pree was a member of the Peter Drucker Foundation Advisory Board and for 40 years served on the board of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. Fuller established the Max De Pree Center for Leadership in 1997 in his honor. His education began at Wheaton College but was interrupted by military service during World War II — including one-anda-half years in the European Theatre of Operations. Under the Army’s direction he studied at the University of Pittsburgh,
Haverford College and the University of Paris. He attended Hope after completing his military service.
Survivors include his wife, Esther, his sons Charles and Kris, his daughters, Jody and Nancy, their spouses, 23 grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren. His daughter-in-law Dr. Barbara Tacoma ’81 De Pree is a member of the college’s Board of Trust Obituary posted in the Holland Sentinel
A corporate and civic leader, Max De Pree published eloquent and moving analyses of the qualities of leadership that carried his influence far beyond the company he led and the corporate world in which that company distinguished itself.
As chief executive officer of Herman Miller, Inc., he helped keep the Zeeland-based manufacturer of office furniture in the vanguard of innovative, enlightened, and compassionate corporations. Under his direction, the company nearly tripled its sales and was frequently cited as “most admired” by Fortune magazine.
Herman Miller also regularly appeared in lists of the “best companies to work for” in the U.S., partly because of De Pree’s advocacy for innovative employee programs, such as a “Silver Parachute” (a program designed to protect all employees in the event of a hostile takeover), profit sharing, and employee stock ownership.
De Pree’s books and lectures brought worldwide attention to his original and articulate explorations of business, civic, and personal leadership. De Pree’s first book, “Leadership Is An Art,” received almost unprecedented critical acclaim from people as diverse as management philosopher Peter Drucker, President Bill Clinton, and businessman Sam Walton. Praised for its humanitarian and spiritual insights, the book was described by the Washington Post as “small and soulful enough to be carried around like a prayer book — and in some respects, it is.”
Among De Pree’s original insights, couched in eloquent language: “ The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality.
The last is to say thank you.” He advocated for “inclusive capitalism,” based on a “concept of persons” rooted in his Christian faith. In 1992, De Pree published a second book on leadership, “Leadership Jazz,” which took its title from De Pree’s observation that “jazz, like leadership, combines the unpredictability of the future with the gifts of individuals.” De Pree was also author of three other books, “Dear Zoe,” “Leading Without Power” and “Called to Serve.” De Pree’s books have sold more than 1 million copies and have been translated into more than a dozen languages.
Born in Zeeland in 1924, Max De Pree graduated from Zeeland High School and attended Wheaton College before joining the U.S. Army in 1943. His World War II military service consisted of a year and a half with the Third Army in the European Theater and study at the University of Pittsburgh, Haverford College, and the Sorbonne. Upon discharge, De Pree entered Hope College in Holland where he graduated.
In 1947 he joined The Herman Miller Furniture Company, a small, family-owned business bought and renamed by his father in 1923. Early in his career, De Pree developed an interest in architecture, working with Charles Eames on the design for a house in 1954 and with George Nelson in 1958 on the company’s headquarters.
After serving in various roles in operations, sales, and marketing, he moved to Europe to manage the company’s European andinternational operations in 1968 and to direct the company’s building of facilities in Bath and Chippenham, England.
Subsequently, De Pree led Herman Miller, Inc., to work closely with prominent architects to build widely acclaimed corporate facilities.
In 1981, the American Institute of Architects honored the company with its AIA Gold Medal for “dedication to design excellence.” In 1991, the Los Angeles chapter of the American Institute of Architects gave De Pree its Presidential Commemorative Award, and he was named an honorary member of the Michigan chapter of the AIA.
In 1971, De Pree was elected chairman of the board at Herman Miller.
Under his leadership, the Board began to include people from many disciplines and became a truly diverse and professional group. In 1980, De Pree became chief executive officer and advocated participation and “inclusiveness” at Herman Miller, two qualities for which the company was widely admired.
De Pree held seven honorary degrees and served on the boards of Hope College and Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif. After 40 years on the Fuller board, the school established the Max De Pree Center for Leadership in 1997 in his honor. In 1992, he was elected to Fortune magazine’s National Business Hall of Fame.
He also served on the Peter Drucker Foundation Advisory Board.
Once when a financial analyst asked him what problems faced Herman Miller and its leaders, De Pree replied, “the interception of entropy.” He saw corporate deterioration as a constant threat, signaled by “a dark tension among key people,” “manuals,” “leaders who rely on structure instead of people,” “a loss of graceand style and civility,” and “a loss of respect for the English language.”
In his talks to groups from the University of London Business School to the American Institute of Architects to students at Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, De Pree stressed the importance of organizational history, innovation, the need for leaders to be “vulnerable” to the talents of others, and the “authenticity of individuals.” He also became interested in mentoring, wrote about the subject, and mentored business, church, and nonprofit leaders. He wrote, “I believe this give-andtake relationship is the most effective way to guide people with leadership gifts toward their potential,” and “ Try to remember mentoring is a process of becoming, not an unimpeded march to perfection.”
He is survived by his wife, Esther, his indispensable partner. His sons, Charles and Kris, his daughters, Jody and Nancy, their spouses, 23 grandchildren, and 13 great-grandchildren also survive him.
A service to honor the faith and life of Max De Pree will be held at 11 a.m., Saturday, Aug. 12, in the Sanctuary of Christ Memorial Church, 595 Graafschap Road, Holland MI 49423. Visitation will be Thursday 5-8 p.m.
and Friday 3-6 p.m. at Third Reformed Church of Holland, 111 W. 13th Street, Holland 49423.
Private interment will be in Zeeland Cemetery.
Memorial contributions may be made to Affordable Housing Min-istry C/O Third Reformed Church Holland, or the Student Scholarship Fund at Fuller Theological Seminary.
Arrangements by Langeland-Sterenberg Funeral Homes.