ITW chief David Speer patient leader everyone liked
BY NEIL STEINBERG Staff Reporter email@example.com November 18, 2012 5:04PM
Updated: December 20, 2012 6:25AM
David B. Speer was a born salesman. At 11, he wanted a bike, so he sold greeting cards door to door until he had enough money to buy himself one.
“It was hard,” Mr. Speer, president and CEO of Illinois Tool Works Inc., recalled in 2007. “People weren’t accustomed to buying cards door to door. So I knew I could sell.”
Mr. Speer, 61, whose entrepreneurial energy and steady business sense brought him from door-to-door sales to become one of the highest paid executives in Chicago, earning $10 million last year, died early Saturday at Rush Medical Center of complications from cancer.
“From the moment he got diagnosed with his illness, he never complained,” said son Blake Speer, who said his father was ill for about a year. “He stayed focused on his family and the company, always positive throughout his illness.”
Mr. Speer worked at ITW for 34 years, becoming its president in 2004, CEO in 2005, and chairman in 2006.
“What David had is: He was constant,” said Michael Ferro Jr., chairman of Wrapports LLC, which owns the Sun-Times and its associated newspapers. “David never got mad. David was always patient.”
The Glenview-based ITW, which generated $17 billion in revenues last year, employs 65,000 people around the world, manufacturing a broad spectrum of components, equipment, devices and fasteners. Mr. Speer’s tenure saw a constant acquisition of smaller companies — some 200 under his leadership, or at a rate of one new company a week.
“He had a great eye for value,” said James O’Connor Sr., retired chairman and CEO of Commonwealth Edison. “He had it grow, and he had it grow profitably.”
Among the companies Mr. Speer purchased included a firm belonging to Ferro, who considered him a mentor and a friend.
“No one disliked David Speer,” said Ferro. “He was very, very level-headed, never down, always positive, always friendly.”
Mr. Speer took a medical leave from ITW in mid-October. He lived in Winnetka, liked the outdoors and was an avid golfer and skier.
“David was a private family man, a very healthy guy,” said Ferro. “His idea of a vacation was hiking in the mountains of Idaho.”
Mr. Speer was also active philanthropically: He was the chairman of the board of trustees at the Museum of Science and Industry, a trustee of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, on the boards of Rush Medical Center, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and other civic organizations. In 2007 he joined CEOs Against Cancer and chaired its ball last year.
David Blakeney Speer was born in Canada. His father, Richard N. Speer, was a metallurgical engineer, and the family often relocated — he lived in Washington state and in Alabama, where he attended middle school and became a lifelong University of Alabama football fan. Mr. Speer was also a proud Eagle Scout. The family settled in Barrington, and Mr. Speer attended Barrington High School, where he played football and met his future wife, Barbara Brugenhemke. They were married in 1974. He started college at Vanderbilt but after two years moved to Iowa State University, to be close to Barbie, and he graduated with a degree in industrial engineering in 1973. He later attended the Kellogg School of Management and got a masters degree in management in 1977.
Mr. Speer started his career at Precision Paper Tube in Wheeling, then joined ITW in 1978. He became general manager of ITW’s Buildex division in 1984, and continued to expand his roles and responsibilities.
Survivors include his wife, Barbara, and two adult children, Blake and Sarah (as well as her husband, Gareth Walter), a grandson, River Walter, a brother, Richard Speer Jr., of Hilton Head, N.C., as well as five sisters: Debbie Ruthhart of Rock Island; Daphne Turner, of Columbus, Ga.; DeeDee Williams, of Atlanta; Deane Price, of Dunwoody, Ga.; Diana Kesler, of Roswell, Ga., and his mother, May Speer, of Dunwoody, Ga. Survivors also include his mother-in-law, Dorothy Brugenhemke, of Raleigh, N.C., his sister-in-law and brother-in-law Howard and Mary Jane Jung, also of Raleigh.
“He was a terrific individual and an absolutely major presence,” said O’Connor. “He will be greatly missed in the Chicago community as a business leader and a contributor to the philanthropic community. He played a role and always did it in the nicest possible way. If you tried to find somebody as nice as David Speer, you’d have a hard time. He was just that kind of guy.”
Visitation is 3 to 9 p.m. Tuesday at Donnellan Family Funeral Services, 10045 Skokie Blvd. in Skokie. Funeral mass will be at 11 a.m. Wednesday at Sacred Heart in Winnetka.
“The best way for us to honor him is to enjoy our lives, because that is how he lived his,” said Blake Speer.