Lura McBride’s passion is infectious. It’s a high-energy aura, a magnetism common to people who’ve risen to levels of organizational leadership. But when Ms. McBride, president and CEO of Van Meter Inc., is asked about her career or her role with the company she’s led since 2016, she adamantly strives to direct attention away from […]
- Unparalleled business coverage of the Iowa City / Cedar Rapids corridor.
- Immediate access to subscriber-only content on our website.
- 26 issues per year delivered digitally, in print or both.
- Support locally owned and operated journalism.
Lura McBride’s passion is infectious.
It’s a high-energy aura, a magnetism common to people who’ve risen to levels of organizational leadership.
But when Ms. McBride, president and CEO of Van Meter Inc., is asked about her career or her role with the company she’s led since 2016, she adamantly strives to direct attention away from herself.
“One of the greatest things that I’ve learned over the years is that it’s a real honor and privilege to lead,” Ms. McBride said recently in a wide-ranging sit-down interview. “And as a leader, I’ve learned that it’s not about me. It’s definitely about others, and it starts with me. It’s about having my own personal self-awareness, having a purpose and a vision for myself and my future, being able to have (a vision) for the company, and then being able to rally the team around that. This whole gig is about other people.”
Ms. McBride’s leadership has led Van Meter to a position of prominence in the electrical component distribution industry. But to truly understand how she’s achieved her current success, it’s valuable to know where she’s come from, and how she’s become a fervent advocate for Van Meter and for Cedar Rapids, the city she and her family call home.
Rooted in Cedar Rapids
Born in Charleston, South Carolina, Ms. McBride moved with her parents and three brothers to Cedar Rapids when she was two years old, attending Franklin Middle School and graduating from Washington High School in 1990.
“I was very active in sports, music and theater in high school and did not know what I wanted to do,” she said. “For the longest time, I thought I wanted to be a school teacher. I wanted to help people. I love children. And my dad said ‘if you don’t know for sure what you want to do, a great degree to get would be a business degree.’”
So following her father’s advice, Ms. McBride attended the University of Iowa, graduating in 1993 with a double major in finance and marketing.
“I still didn’t know what I wanted to do,” she said.
Her father, a physician, then provided another piece of career advice.
“He said ‘if you don’t know what you want to do, just go get a good job,’” she said. “A good job meant that I could pay my bills, a job that I loved and I could enjoy meeting people. I was one of four (children), and I was the only girl of three boys. My takeaway from that is to be financially and emotionally independent. Don’t rely on other people for your well-being and your happiness. Take matters into your own hands.”
Ms. McBride launched her business career in 1994 with Anderson Consulting, then a sister firm to Arthur Anderson, living in Chicago’s Lincoln Park on the lakefront and commuting to work downtown. She began her career in systems integration, programming and coding the systems to operate automated teller machines, considered a technological breakthrough at the time.
“The concept was to automate processes, so that people like bank tellers could spend more time on value-added activities,” she said. “I was coding away in the basement of a bank, thinking ‘this is kind of boring. How am I making life better for somebody?’ I wanted more of a connection to people.”
So she moved into a new role at Anderson, focused on change management practices. “That was all about helping to make sure that the systems integration implementations were successful by including the people on the change that was about to take place for them,” she said. “Train them, teach them and get them involved. So I really engaged more on the people side of change and consulting.”
As Anderson Consulting and Arthur Anderson went through a highly-publicized and bitter split in 2000, Ms. McBride’s position was transitioned to the newly-formed Accenture.
But after Ms. McBride and her husband Ryan had their first child in Chicago, she said her priorities began to shift. So the family moved back to Iowa – first to Iowa City, then to Cedar Rapids – as Ms. McBride continued to work remotely for Accenture through 2008. It was challenging in many ways, she said. >
“When I decided to move back to Iowa, they said, ‘why don’t you just stay on and work virtually?’” she said. “I had a small office inside my house, and I had four little kids. I was lucky to have a sitter to get them to and from school. I would be on a conference call with a headset, working on a presentation and AOL Instant Messaging. At the time, I thought I was so connected, but ultimately, I think I became a little bit disconnected. Multitasking isn’t all what it’s meant to be, especially when all you ever wanted to do in real life was to be a mom and be connected with your family.”
Then Ms. McBride’s next career change transpired – virtually out of the blue.
Recruited to Van Meter
Job transitions often happen in unusual circumstances, but as Ms. McBride describes it, her opportunity with Van Meter literally came out of the blue – and didn’t happen immediately.
“One day I got a phone call, and the voice on the other end of the phone said ‘Hi Lura, this is Barry,’” Ms. McBride recalled, referring to longtime Van Meter president Barry Boyer. “He said ‘you don’t know me and I don’t know you, but I heard we should meet. Would you like to go to lunch?’”
Ms. McBride said she later learned that part of Mr. Boyer’s recruitment strategy was to scan the Corridor Business Journal’s annual “40 Under 40” issue for potential new employees, and as a 2006 recipient of that award, she popped up on his radar.
“He would just cold-call people and take them to lunch to see if he could figure out how to make it work,” Ms. McBride said. “So Barry and I went to lunch. I learned a lot about Van Meter, and I continued to think ‘electrical distribution. What do I know about that? What can I contribute to that?’ At the time, I didn’t really think (I could contribute) much. But we kept in touch over time, and at one point there was a position opening that I put my name in the ring for, and I was lucky enough to get the job.”
That job, which Ms. McBride accepted in September 2008, was vice president of organizational effectiveness, a role well-suited to her skillset.
“Really what I was responsible for was people and process,” she said. “At this time, Barry and his leadership team were focused on happiness, being more of a people-first company, less about the numbers and the metrics and the profits and really helping to fuel (growth) through people. There was a concerted effort to make sure we were hiring the right people and putting a leadership development program in place, to put a more holistic program around the people side of the company and to partner that with our continuous improvement efforts.”
In October 2010, Ms. McBride was promoted to chief operating officer, a role that included supervising distribution and logistics, fleet inventory, pricing, technology, marketing and the sales division.
“I was really just finding my way around the organization to engage with our people,” Ms. McBride said. “Now remember, I’m not an IT or technology expert. I’ve got a background in systems integration. Probably what I’m more suited to do is understand the lay of the land, what we’re good at, where we may need some focus and then make sure that I’m building my best team, hiring the right people, putting people in the right spots. I say I’m more of a generalist than a specialist. I’m a facilitator, a navigator, a coordinator.”
In May 2016, Ms. McBride was named Van Meter’s new CEO, replacing Kevin Powell.
“‘I believe that Van Meter is not just a place to work. It’s a place to grow and learn. It’s a place to make a difference,” McBride said in a 2016 news release announcing her appointment.
“Lura is a true change agent,” added Mr. Boyer, who had retired from Van Meter in 2012 but remained chair of the company’s board of directors. “She is a ‘doer’ and makes things happen. I know Lura will take Van Meter to new heights. She has a keen mind for strategy, a deep commitment to company culture, and a critical understanding that people are the engine that power progress.”
Though Ms. McBride steers the ship at Van Meter – a ship with an ever-expanding crew – she said she’s keenly aware that the company’s success doesn’t entirely depend on her contributions.
“A big part of the growth of Van Meter is that in this employee-owned company, the very best ideas come from the people,” she said. “They don’t come from the CEO. How do we make sure that we’re building a culture, an employee-owner experience, an environment where people see things that they think we can do better? That little voice inside their head, asking the question, ‘why do we do it this way? What if we did it that way?’ If we can capture people’s thoughts and ideas from a continuous improvement standpoint, we can help people understand that their voice matters, it’s their perspectives day in and day out, it’s the little things that can incrementally change and grow the business and be better for our customers. That’s what it’s all about. People and process together (is) all about organizational effectiveness.”
Another key aspect of Ms. McBride’s leadership style is understanding strengths and limitations.
“We say at Van Meter all the time, your job as a leader is to build your best team and to live our culture,” she said. “But building your best team is a huge part. As a leader, you don’t have to know it all. You don’t have to do it all. You need to make sure you’re putting people on the team and around you to make sure that you’ve got the right people to (execute) whatever needs to happen.”
Ms. McBride also points to Van Meter’s longtime status as a fully-owned ESOP company for spreading leadership roles across the company.
“Every person in this business owns a part of Van Meter, not only financially, but emotionally,” she said. “People are stepping up every day. They’re accountable to their roles, to live in our culture, to serve our customers. The bottom line is, this takes a huge team. Of course, the buck stops somewhere. But at the end of the day, my job is to help cast a vision, to think years ahead about where the company wants to go, based on what our employee-owners say they want.”
Back in late 2016, Van Meter developed a company vision, dubbed Van Meter 2025. That vision is currently being updated to form Van Meter 2030. That visioning process also helps define Ms. McBride’s role, she said. >
“A big part of that is my responsibility to help cast that vision, in connection with everyone in the company, then to make sure I’ve got the best team of leaders that’s aligned to the vision,” she said. “It’s important that each of us understand our gifts and unique abilities. I didn’t grow up in sales. I didn’t grow up in this industry. I grew up in strategy and vision and aligning people, process and technology. I’ve got a strength in building relationships and connecting people. I have to make sure that I’ve got other people around me with other strengths to fill in the gaps that I don’t bring to the table.”
On being a woman in corporate leadership
While Ms. McBride admits she’s often been the only woman in meeting rooms filled with men throughout her career, she said she doesn’t feel her gender has been an obstacle – or an advantage.
“I’ve said this before – someday I hope we aren’t talking about gender,” she said. “But I do believe that men and women are better working together. We inherently are wired with different complementary skill sets … I think women have a different kind of type of emotional intelligence and empathy. Men factually just have more confidence than some women. So we tend to talk more with women, how do we grow that confidence? How do we continue to grow our voice? Sometimes the way we think about things is just different. When you really study the male brain and the female brain, there are differences. We have to work together to continue to support more women in our industry, in our business and in leadership.”
Ms. McBride said her childhood experiences in Cedar Rapids played an important role in building her confidence and assertiveness.
“Growing up with three brothers, I was around a lot of guys all my life,” she noted. “Whether it was Tonka trucks in the dirt piles in the backyard or bike riding through the neighborhood, I personally have a comfortability (with men).
“I have never thought about gender being a hindrance,” she added. “But I’ve recognized my ability to be a strong advocate and support for other women in business. Our industry is about 25% women. We’re working hard, and we’ve made strides across the industry and in our company. We’ve got to continue to make sure that women understand this is a great place to grow a career, even if you don’t know a lot about electrical products or electrical distribution. There’s some pretty incredible women engineers, women in finance, women in HR, women in sales. We need to continue to advocate and recruit them to our industry.”
Still, Ms. McBride added that many of the biggest supporters in her career have been men.
“When I think back to mentors, people who supported me, advocated for me, believed in me more than I believed in myself and gave me opportunities – many more of them were men than women, and whether it’s the confidence or the knowledge, or the belief or trust, I’m forever grateful,” she noted. “I’ve learned a lot from both men and women in my career, and I want to continue to pay that forward. There’s a lot of skills we need that don’t necessarily pertain to (a specific) industry, and may not even pertain to gender.”
On a different note, Ms. McBride speaks often of her love of parenthood, and admits that being a mother has occasionally been at odds with her professional endeavors.
“I would say work-life balance is probably not something I’ve always achieved,” she said. “Sometimes the teeter-totter is up for work, and sometimes it’s up for family. But my commitment over time has been one who tried to be a great role model for my kids and my family. People always say, can you really do it all? And I always say, yes, but maybe you can’t do it all at the same time. Have there been things for my kids or my family that I’ve missed? Absolutely. But in the balance, it’s family first for me, and it’s taken other people to help hold me accountable to that. It’s not easy to set boundaries, and when you’re driven, when you love your job, when you’re an achiever and you want great things in all areas of your life, it’s not always going to happen. You’ve got to pick and choose sometimes, and just make sure your kids and your husband know you love them.
“When Barry Boyer hired me, I said I want to do this, but I’ve got to make sure that I can keep family first,” she added. “Family doesn’t always win out. But in the balance, I’m really committed to my work family, and I’m really committed to my (home) family. It’s something that I’m always working at and advocating for my teams and all the people in our company … We know when people are their personal best, they have a much better shot at being their professional best. And a big part of being your personal best is making sure you’re not spending 60 or 80 hours a week at work all the time. You can’t sustain that. What do you want to do outside of work that makes you happy? It’s not just about moms and dads. It’s about everybody. Find ways to have a good work-life balance.”
Maintaining personal relationships
Ms. McBride thrives on personal relationships, often spending time with company employees at their worksites. And she admits that as Van Meter has grown, she’s found it challenging to remain connected at that level.
“The people on the ground floor know how to run this business,” she said. “They know how to serve our customers. My job is to be working at a more strategic level in the company, but there’s never anything that I wouldn’t or don’t love to do in this company, whether it’s doing ride-alongs with our delivery drivers or getting on the plant floor of a customer talking about the application of our products, how we’re helping to solve their business problems, be their competitive advantage and grow their business. I love to be on the construction site, looking at how we bring value, make things more efficient or safer for electricians to pull wire in on a hyperscale data center. I love being with our customers and our people, but they don’t need me to do their jobs.
“The best part of my job is building relationships with as many people in our company as possible,” she added. “When I first came to Van Meter, we had 180 people here, and we were $180 million in revenue. It was pretty easy to know everybody, to know their families and engage at all levels. We’ve grown exponentially over the years, through starting up branches where our customers or our > manufacturers have needed us or we have purchased and acquired businesses in different markets. I’m still on a mission to connect with everyone in some shape or form. But it definitely is getting harder and harder.”
As a Cedar Rapids native, Ms. McBride’s roots in the community run deep, and she’s served key roles with several community organizations – United Fire Group, Tanager Place, the Hall-Perrine Foundation, UnityPoint Health – St. Luke’s Hospital and the University of Iowa Tippie College of Business, to name just a few. She’s frequently consulted for participation in local initiatives, and she said she wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I care a lot about this community,” she said. “I love to give back and find areas in the community where I can add a little value. And I get value, too. I meet new people, I learn new things, I get different perspectives. Whether it’s working with our nonprofits, with our school system or with other businesses, I learn things to help make Van Meter better.”
Ms. McBride has been a strong advocate for local education, and she doesn’t hide her Hawkeye fandom. She also stresses the importance of physical and mental health, both in the workplace and community overall.
“Contributing to this industry has been really important as well,” she added. “Van Meter has given a lot to me and this community has given a lot to me, and if I can give a little bit back, I will.”
Goal and vision
As a high-energy leader, Ms. McBride said she’s always focused on what can make Van Meter a better and more successful workplace. And she said she’s now focused on leaving a lasting legacy for the company.
“Someday when I’m not at Van Meter, I hope (this company) flourishes,” she said. “Leave it better than you found it, set it up for success. We talk a lot about succession planning and what people want for their company. What are the anchors that we’re building our plans around?”
Most importantly, Ms. McBride said she continues to enjoy her work.
“It’s an honor and a privilege,” she said. “I’m having a lot of fun. I love our people, and I love what I do. We like to say this is our ‘get to’ job. I get to get up and come to work every day. I get to work with amazing people and amazing customers. We don’t make anything. We’re just the conduit between the manufacturer who makes some great products and the customer who needs (them). The bottom line is, I feel this is a special place. We say we’re creating magic, we’re helping to change lives. But probably the most important thing is we’re all doing it with a common purpose and a common vision for the future.”