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John Crean, the multi-millionaire Orange County, Calif., businessman known as much for his extraordinary philanthropy and his rags-to-riches story as he was for the signature Fleetwood recreational vehicles and mobile homes he designed and manufactured, died Thursday (Jan. 11).
The Orange County Register reported that Crean, who was 81, had been ill with heart disease and died quietly at his Santa Ana Heights home, better known as the Village Crean, about 1 p.m.
He built his fortune on the belief that success comes when you put customers and employees first. He and his wife, Donna, traveled around the country asking RV owners what they liked – and disliked – about their roving homes. He then incorporated their wishes and ideas into his new models.
At the same time, he was among the first to offer profit-sharing programs, reasoning that if workers had an interest in the company, they would strive to ensure its success.
When he founded Fleetwood Enterprises Inc. in Riverside in 1950, he vowed to stay out of debt and keep his overhead as low as he could.
He stayed true to those goals and by 1998, the year Crean retired, Fleetwood, a $3 billion-a-year Fortune 500 company, was operating 18 recreational vehicle and 38 manufactured housing plants in 17 states and Canada. That year the company sold 69,494 RVs, 65,544 manufactured homes and employed 19,000 workers.
While he built his business on a foundation of fairness, customer satisfaction and sound financial management, he and Donna built their lives around the words of a Lutheran minister who urged his congregation to tithe 10%, saying that if you give without expecting anything in return, you’ll get a tenfold return in blessings on your investment.
Crean said he thought those were “damn good odds.”
From then on, he and Donna started giving away part of whatever they made, starting with 10% and eventually donating half of their annual earnings to charity. Many of their donations were made anonymously and Crean deftly sidestepped queries about how much money they gave away.
One of the couple’s most valuable donations was the use of their 18,000-square-foot mansion for fund-raising events.
Crean was born in 1925 in Bowdon, N.D., on the Fourth of July, which, he says in his self-published autobiography, “The Wheel and I,” “can give you a pretty warped idea of your own importance when you’re a kid.”
He was 4 when his family moved west and settled in Compton, Calif.
His father was in poor health and the family barely scraped by financially. Crean started early keeping his eye out for ways to make a few dollars.
After serving in both the Navy and Merchant Marine during World War II, he lived with his mother in Compton and went to college briefly.
But he dropped out after reading an essay in which publisher William Allen White said he’d done a lot better by being out in the working world.
So, Crean followed his brother Leonard, known as “Speed,” into the trailer business.
Good with his hands and full of ideas for what would make a marketable trailer, Crean kept coming up with better ways to do things.
After working for a Venetian blind salesman, Crean designed blinds for use in trailers and started Coach Specialites Manufacturing Co., with his wife, Donna, stringing the blinds by hand.
Six months later, in 1951, he founded Fleetwood Enterprises. He sketched the familiar kangaroo found on the back of his popular Fleetwood RV, the Bounder, himself on a napkin at Denny’s, one of his favorite breakfast spots.
The Fleetwood brand brought with it quality construction, a quiet, smooth ride and lots of new, state-of-the-art features for the time, such as sub-floor water tanks that wouldn’t freeze in cold weather and a storage basement so owners didn’t have strap their luggage to the roof.
Crean was a man with big ideas, a bigger heart, a great sense of humor and a zest and appreciation for life.
He raced sports cars and dune buggies, collected cars and built and flew model airplanes.
He also entertained lavishly at his four-acre estate and aboard his $7 million 125-foot luxury yacht, the Donna C.
He had to buy a second home on Lido Isle largely for the oversized boat slip.
“Well,” he explained somewhat sheepishly. “You have to park (the boat) somewhere.”
In 2001, the then 75-year-old Crean re-entered the RV manufacturing arena, teaming with his son, Johnnie Crean, who had founded Alfa Leisure Inc. The company developed the Alfa See Ya diesel pusher, a mid-priced coach that emulated the Fleetwood Bounder.
Crean also loved to cook, although the results were dubious, according to his longtime friend Barbara Venezia. Still, he and Venezia co-hosted, from 1992 to 1998, a popular cable-TV cooking show, “At Home on the Range,” filmed in his 5,000-square-foot garage on a set he made himself.
The show was as much comedic banter and culinary mishaps, from fires to dropped omelets, as it was recipes. And most of his concoctions came from a Bisquick or other convenience-food box or can.
Together they published a cookbook, “At Home on the Range – The Cookbook for the Deranged.”
After selling his stake in Fleetwood and retiring in 1998, he built a 130-home tract, Crean Acres, in Hemet, with affordable houses designed for people 55 and older, with wheelchair-accessible doorways and, of course, an RV parking space.
John Crean ended his career as he began it – thinking of his customers first.
Services will include private family internment at Crystal Cathedral Gardens. Plans for a public memorial service at the Crystal Cathedral are pending.