Jim Renier’s daughter Jessica remembers being a high schooler, dreaming of getting a driver’s license and one day owning a car. Her fantasy? Maybe a sporty BMW. Her dad’s reaction? “That is flat-out treason!”
“His thought was, ‘Who are you?’ ” she recalled with a chuckle. Reiner, a Ford-driving “patriot and American absolutely would never buy a foreign car.”
The father of eight and former Honeywell CEO adored puppies, fishing, and the occasional “beer and a bump.” He died Nov. 26 from cancer, weeks shy of his 90th birthday and leaving a legacy of profound lessons.
Renier’s Belgian parents fled to America after surviving extreme poverty and the German occupation of 1914. Renier’s father joined the U.S. Army, fought for the U.S. during World War I before he and his wife settled in Duluth, where they ran a grocery store, brewery and started their family.
Born in 1930, Renier attended Catholic schools where the “nuns helped him figure out how to behave,” he often jested.
As an adult, the humble “never flashy” Renier told his kids about his mother and how she and her eight brothers survived WWI eating “anything they could, including the cat.” His parents’ gratitude for America, compassion and hard work were deep lessons for Renier. He graduated from the College of St. Thomas and earned a doctorate in chemistry from Iowa State University before joining Honeywell in 1956.
The senior research scientist went on to head Honeywell’s aerospace, defense, control and information systems before becoming CEO in 1987.
He was put off by any griping about high taxes or stories of firms shutting U.S. plants for cheap labor abroad. At Honeywell, he shunned corporate raiders’ hostile bids and instead cut millions in costs, sold partially owned ventures, spun off some defense businesses and improved profits. The moves kept Honeywell in Minneapolis and retained jobs, Reiner proudly noted in interviews.
But there were other points of pain. Learning that dozens of poor women in border towns in Mexico were being kidnapped, Renier hired busses to transport Honeywell’s female workers from home. He insisted Honeywell’s foreign plants only use safer U.S. electrical building codes. “He’d always tell us, ‘You have to be willing to walk confidently into a boardroom and tell them that you just lost a multimillion contract because it was the right thing to do,’ ” Jessica recalled.
As a kid, friends thought the principled Renier would be a priest. But a lakeshore meeting of his first wife, Elizabeth, dispelled such notions. He and Elizabeth Mitchell married and had five children. She died of breast cancer at age 43, leaving him a single parent.
“His time as a single parent had a huge impact on Jim and led to his work around education for single mothers,” said former Honeywell researcher Paula Prahl. “That is where so much of [his] compassion came from.”
Renier opened New Vistas — a combination public school for teen moms and a preschool for their toddlers — right inside Honeywell’s headquarters in Minneapolis.
He set up rides from home to school and classes that started at 9:30 a.m. so no teen would freeze at a bus stop at dawn with a baby in her arms. Such obstacles could force a kid to quit school, and Renier wouldn’t have it.
Renier tapped executives, teachers, unions and employees to raise $47 million for the United Way in 1991. After retiring in 1993, he started its Success by 6 early childhood education program nationwide. He was awarded the United Way’s Distinguished Service Award in 1997.
Renier is survived by wife Chriss; sons Mike, Joe, Dan, and Mark; daughters Beth, Jessica, Anna, Rebecca; and 17 grandchildren.