April 21 2008 12:00 AM



If Jon Carlson wasn't the president of Jacobsen, a Textron Company, he could be a professional motivational speaker. His personal philosophy and outlook on life is brimming with a certain vim and vigor that is contagious and inspiring.

"My philosophy is to go for it because life is short," says Carlson. "Go fast every day. If I had to do it over again, I'd go faster and take even more risks."

From his days racing snowmobiles to heading up one of the largest turf and lawn care manufacturing companies in the world, he's not afraid to move rapidly and take risks to win. It's not unusual to see him with Jacobsen customers, assertively tuning into their needs and then aggressively launching products based on what he's learned.

"Fear doesn't fit in," he says. "If you live a balanced life, and you measure risk and reward, you build self-confidence and don't have fear. It's the same with business."

Carlson adds clout to his leadership position and opinions with the kind of innate industry knowledge that only those who've grown up in it can claim. Both his father and grandfather worked for John Deere in Moline, Illinois. At Deere, Carlson's father spearheaded the company's agricultural turf-equipment division.

"Every night at the dinner table we'd all sit around and talk turf equipment. And my dad used to take me to the office all the time. When you've grown up with the industry like that, its part of who you are."

It's not surprising that at the ripe age of 16 Carlson followed in his forefather's footsteps and began his career at John Deere. During his 12 years there, he completed a business degree from the University of Minnesota, as well as an advanced degree from Harvard Business School. Next, he was recruited as senior VP by Case Corporation to oversee the company's North American agricultural equipment business. He came to Jacobsen in 2001 and works out of the company's Charlotte, North Carolina offices.
Carlson's ideas on what makes his job interesting are food for thought for anyone in charge of a business.

"The most interesting aspect of what I do is to make our customers and our employees more successful than they already are," he says. He does this through his leadership skills: listening, empowerment, measuring and communicating, and then really acting with purpose. "If you make the customer successful, all of the stakeholders in the relationship will prosper."

"There isn't a big scientific equation to business leadership and success," he says. "It's simply understanding how the customer is using what you're selling."

"Listen more than you talk, be accountable, empower others and let them lead. And always remember that the customer is the most important person in the business. Sometimes we get caught up in the idea that we've got to increase revenues and make the business more successful. But if you really stop to look at the customer and how he's using the product (or service), the answer lies back with what you do with that customer."

As president of a Textron Inc. company, Carlson's position is multi-dimensional. Jacobsen manufactures a full range of vehicles and turf maintenance equipment for golf, turf, professional lawn care, sports fields and municipal and industrial applications. Carlson especially enjoys developing a whole product profile that starts with listening to the customer and continues through design and engineering, product positioning, marketing and finally performance. As busy as he is, one of his main interests is design, both at work and in his free time.

"One of my favorite hobbies is architecture. I've designed and built (as general contractor) five homes, and I really enjoy the whole process. Everybody has a creative side and for me it's taking a clean sheet of paper and being able to create something beautiful and functional on it."

Just as Carlson's job encompasses multi-dimensions, he believes the industry as a whole must move to a total solutions approach. He cites a combination of all aspects of the industry agronomy, mechanical equipment, irrigation, chemicals and human manpower as being integral to success.

"I see Jacobsen as more than a turf-equipment manufacturer. The people in our company sometimes have to be agronomists and water managers, and also be concerned with chemicals, etc. When we take all this into consideration, the biggest win for the customer happens when we provide a more complete solution. This kind of total solution thinking is what makes the future very exciting for this industry."

As for Carlson's future, he says as long as he's helping customers be more successful and has a chance to take in a NASCAR race now and then, he'll be happy. He is also enjoying settling in Charlotte with his wife, Jan, son Nik, 18, and daughter Jordan, 14, after years of job-related relocations. He and his family have lived in practically every state east of the Mississippi, as well as on the river, in the case of Moline.

"It's been great to experience so many different places, but we're at the end of that. There's a point when you want to slow down," he says.
Of course for Carlson, slowing down is probably the equivalent of a NASCAR driver coming off the throttle out of turn 4 at Daytona with the lead before taking it home for the win.