Burton Peek was a bridge between the 19th and 20th century versions of John Deere. He connected founder John Deere to William Hewitt, the last Deere family member to serve in the company’s top position. When Peek joined the company, it was achieving sales of $2 million, and the corporate office included 20 people. At his retirement in 1956, company sales reached $314 million, and plans for a new world headquarters housing 900 people were well underway.
But looking back, Peek rarely talked about the company’s success or its growth. He talked about people, the many relationships he built, and the many life lessons learned along the way.
Lessons from Mr. Deere
A year after John Deere arrived in Grand Detour in 1836, Deere’s wife and children arrived by wagon. With them was Burton Peek’s grandfather, William, and other family members. John and William had both married women from the Lamb family.
When Peek was 12, an elderly John Deere visited the Peek family farm near Oregon, Illinois. Great-uncle John handed a quarter to two of Peek’s brothers, and Burton did his best to get John Deere’s attention so he too could cash in. A quarter was the most money young Peek had ever had, so the prospect was euphoric. As he worked to get Deere’s attention, his mother “took in the situation and very quietly called me aside and said, ‘My son, if you ever get a quarter from John Deere you will have to go to Moline and work for it.'”
Peek first arrived in Moline, Illinois, in 1888. At the age of 15, he started law school in Wisconsin, but after only a year accepted an invitation from his uncle Charles to join the family business.
He began in the shipping department at a rate of $35 a week, “probably grossly overpaid,” Peek later admitted. He said his boss, who fired him after a month, thought so. But Peek came back the next day as if it had never happened and continued with his work. His boss let it slide.
Peek was soon moved from manual labor to bookkeeping, then worked as a clerk. Deere gave him a leave of absence to return to school. Uncle Charles loaned him money for tuition and living expenses, first at the University of Iowa and then Harvard University law school.
In 1895, Peek returned to Moline to open his own law office. Deere & Company was his chief client, and he set to work immediately. Soon, he drafted a non-contributory workman’s compensation system, adopted by the Deere in 1902. The state of Illinois passed its first workmen’s compensation law ten years later, modeling it after Deere & Company’s program. In 1908, Deere introduced a pension system under Peek’s guidance.
From 1907-1912, Deere consolidated, entered the harvesting business, and acquired companies such as the Dain Manufacturing Company and the Syracuse Chilled Plow Company. With the addition of the Waterloo Gasoline Engine Company in 1918, Deere had successfully created a full line of agricultural implements. In that pursuit, Burton Peek was front and center.
Shortly after Charles Deere’s death in 1907, Peek closed his law office and was elected a director and treasurer of Deere & Company. In 1911, with the initial rounds of consolidation complete, Peek was named vice president.
Peek’s cousin, Charles Deere Wiman, was named Deere’s third president in 1928 upon the resignation of William Butterworth (the title Chief Executive Officer was first given to William Hewitt in 1955). Wiman resigned in June 1943, accepting a commission as colonel in the Ordinance Department. In January 1944, he was appointed as director of the Farm Equipment and Machinery Branch of the War Production Board.
Who would manage the company in Wiman’s absence was never in question. Peek seamlessly stepped into the role. When Wiman returned from serving the country, Peek was named Chairman of the Board of Directors, a position he held until his retirement in 1956. He was 84 years old. Sixty-eight of those years were spent in the employment of Deere & Company.
“As I look back over the years,” wrote Peek, “it is my great satisfaction that my life has been identified with a company that played a part, not inconspicuous, in providing better means and better methods for carrying on that industry [agriculture].”
Peek’s love for golf began in early adulthood, just as the game was beginning to gain a following in the United States. He remembered being introduced to “a new and strange pastime” called golf. “It was explained that this pastime consisted in driving or otherwise propelling with instruments, ill-contrived for the purpose, a small ball across the pastureland and into a hole formed by sinking something that looked like a tomato can into the ground.” Peek was himself a tennis player, and initially thought golf was a “high-hatted” game. Then, “one by one, my tennis friends were weaned over to golf,” he wrote. He finally recognized that “you can’t play tennis alone.”
Not only did he soon join his friends, but in 1897 helped organize the Rock Island Arsenal Golf Club. It was only a few years after the first golf club in the United States was established in Younkers-on-the-Hudson, New York.
Peek played a lot of golf. In a history of Augusta National golf course, it was suggested that “Burt Peek is our top candidate for top honors as the man who hit the most golf balls in one lifetime.”
Peek joined Augusta National in 1934, a year after its opening. He played 18 holes whenever possible, often 36 in a day, and was friend to golf legends such as Bobby Jones and Gene Sarazan, winner of the 1935 Masters. Peek’s enthusiasm for the game was highlighted in an anecdote told by a friend, who addressed a letter to Peek at a local hotel. On the envelope he wrote: “If not found at the hotel, please look in the first bunker of the first hole at the Augusta National Golf Club.”
Still today Burton Peek is remembered at Augusta National. Peek’s name adorns a cabin he built along the 10th hole, now called Cottage Row. It is one of only ten remaining cabins, and shares company with the cabin built for Dwight D. Eisenhower. The cabins are still used by club members, their families, as well as guests of club members when visiting the course.
Wit and Wisdom
Peek recounted a story he once heard. He said that a wise man once said, –“Never prophesy unless you know.”
Peek recalled a trolley ride that came to a sudden stop. The conductor said there was something wrong at the powerhouse, and so they waited for an hour. Finally, someone walked around the trolley, telling the conductor that the trolley had come off the tracks. “I have often thought of this incident when I started to blame somebody else for something that had happened, and I have stopped to ask myself whether it was the somebody else who was to blame, whether there was something wrong at the powerhouse, or whether my own trolley was off,” Peek told an audience late in his career.
“I remember that during my first interview with C.H. Deere, he asked me if I wrote shorthand,” Peek told an audience. “I replied, ‘No, and I don’t want to!’ He asked, ‘Why?’ and my reply was, ‘Well, once I learned to milk a cow and then I had to do it.’”
“So much for the past,” an 81-year-old Peek offered, noting that Deere’s “best days are still ahead of it. It is good, I hope and pray and believe, for at least 116 more [years]. If it isn’t, I’ll come back and haunt somebody.”