In mid-year 1999 (with about 15 months under my belt at the Indiana Chamber), I learned that Bill Cook had been selected as the organization’s Business Leader of the Year. Despite 15 prior years of newspaper and other interviewing experience, I was one nervous guy heading to the office of the Bloomington entrepreneur and community stalwart.
You see, Cook was not especially fond of doing interviews. He was a little reluctant this time also, but agreed with the coaxing of longtime friend and business partner Steve Ferguson — a true Indiana Chamber champion for many years. Before getting down to the business of discussing business, we talked about some of his passions. These included the drum and bugle corps championships (Cook used to drive the bus for the Star of Indiana group that he founded), flying planes, owning a basketball team in Manchester, England and more. I think the casual conversation relaxed me more than him.
The news of Cook’s passing last night was a shocker. I pulled out that November 1999 article. You can read from many sources about Cook’s long list of accomplishments, but some of the words he shared with me a dozen years ago still resonate. Asked what it takes to build a business or restore a historic building, he said:
"It’s a matter of risk taking and being prepared to make decisions and make them quickly. Our approach to business over the years has been that we believe in trying almost everything if it involves medicine. We found out you can’t second guess whether any product is going to be essential."
As for the decision-making, Cook added, "I found you can’t do that with a committee; it has to be done personally. My personal belief is that many people use committees as a cop-out. I just never believed seeking a consensus was the best way to go. You have to have enough of an ego to believe you’re right some of the time. I don’t think I’m different than anyone else. I do like to take risks and the potential benefit that means."
At the time, Cook was in the process of making twice-a-week or so trips from Bloomington to oversee renovation of the historic West Baden Springs Hotel. That, of course, eventually became part of the French Lick Resort complex that attracts visitors from near and far for golf, gaming and more.
In 1999, Cook called the project "fun" but admitted he had questioned what he had gotten himself into.
"It was a labor of love. It was also an ego trip. The scope of this thing was so big it challenged my comprehension … I didn’t really think I wouldn’t complete the building though."
The late Myles Brand, former Indiana University president, described a familiar scene at board of trustees meetings that involved Cook.
"Bill would sit back, listen, think, scribble things on his pad and then come up with an idea no one else thought of. Bill goes right to the heart of the matter. When he speaks, we all listen."
They listened for a long time and the legacy of Bill Cook will carry on for many years to come.