Much unknown about new Cook Group CEO

The new leader of one of Indiana’s largest private companies, Cook Group Inc. in Bloomington, is somewhat of a mystery in the business community.

Carl Cook was appointed CEO of Cook Group on Saturday, a day after the death of his father, Bill Cook, 80. The announcement about his appointment revealed little about the man.

And a three-sentence blurb on the website of Pittsburgh-based Cook MyoSite, a subsidiary of Cook Group, offers just a brief backgrounder on its now-former president.

That the bio only provides the most basic information—education credentials and his involvement in Cook, which amounts to a “variety of roles since 1988”—reflects a longstanding company policy to provide limited information about senior executives.

So it’s not surprising that the company isn't making Carl Cook, 49, available for media interviews.

“He’s definitely involved in the company,” Cook spokesman Dave McCarty said. “But he doesn’t want to be the public face of the company.”

Bill Cook founded Cook Group in 1963 from a spare bedroom of his Bloomington apartment and grew it into the world’s largest privately held medical device manufacturer. The company also owns and operates real estate, retail and travel-service businesses.

With $1.6 billion in revenue in 2009, Cook Group ranks as the fifth-largest private company in Indiana, according to IBJ statistics. The company has about 4,000 employees in Indiana and 10,000 worldwide.

Carl Cook, who resides in Bloomington and is married with a daughter, had most recently served as president of the company’s Cook MyoSite division and vice chairman of the Cook board. His role with the company will mirror that of his father’s, as an “overseer,” McCarty said.

“In terms of the actual day-to-day management of the company, this isn’t going to mean much of a change,” he said.

Steve Ferguson will stay on as chairman and Kem Hawkins will continue as Cook Group president.

Yet, McCarty said Carl Cook has been involved in every aspect of the company and had even been involved in large historic preservation projects with his father, a renowned preservationist. One of the most notable was the restoration of two historic hotels in Orange County in southern Indiana.

The $550 million project included refurbishing the French Lick and West Baden hotels as well as building a new casino, an event center, two golf courses, a tennis center, a swimming pool and other attractions.

Bill Cook initially partnered with Indianapolis developer Bob Lauth on the casino-resort project that opened in 2007. But the joint venture broke down and ultimately resulted in both sides filing lawsuits against each other.

Lauth’s lawsuit charged that the Cook organization, particularly Carl, was “incompetent."

“Carl typically sleeps, doodles or plays games on his cell phone during the project development meetings,” Lauth’s lawyers wrote in court documents. Lauth also accused Carl Cook of holding a secret meeting to vote Bob Lauth off the project’s board of directors.

In response, Cook’s attorneys noted that Carl Cook has an MBA and argued that he was on the project site more than Lauth’s executives and made significant contributions. Carl joined Cook Group in 1988 after earning an MBA from the University of Iowa and his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from Purdue University in 1984.

Carl Cook is a director of Indiana Landmarks, a not-for-profit devoted to preserving historic structures. President Marsh Davis said Cook attended the grand opening last Saturday of its new headquarters, the Indiana Landmarks Center, a day after his father died.

“I’m very happy to have him so involved in the board of directors,” Davis said. “He’s just not a name on the board; he participates.”

Bill Cook donated $7 million of the $10 million needed to renovate the former Central Avenue United Methodist Church in Indianapolis, also known as Old Centrum.
What contributions Carl Cook has made to Cook Group are largely unknown to outsiders. The website of Cook MyoSite, which works on cellular technologies, says he has performed duties as an engineer of cardiac pacemakers and Doppler blood flow monitors at subsidiary Cook Vascular in Leechburg, Penn., and has been involved in production at Cook Endoscopy in Winston-Salem, N.C.

Ron Walker, director of the Bloomington Economic Development Corp., said he doesn’t know Carl Cook well enough to provide any insight about him, though his organization works closely with Cook Group. Dan Peterson, Cook Group vice president of industry and government affairs, is board chairman.

Dan Dalton, former dean of the Indiana University Kelley School of Business in Bloomington and founder of the Institute for Corporate Governance, said he’s never met Carl Cook.

That’s not surprising, though, given Cook Group’s high level of privacy, he said.

“Because of that, most of us who study these things never had much of an opportunity to get a close look because they don’t have the reporting obligations that a public company has,” Dalton said. “For all we know, this succession has been planned for a long time.”

Indeed, in the biographical "Bill Cook Story" written by Bob Hammel and published in 2008, Bill Cook said his son "one day will run the family business" and recalled how it took nearly 15 years to transfer company stock to Carl, so estate taxes "wouldn't kill the company."

Carl Cook said in the book that his father never told him, "I want you to take over." But he did express that it was an option.

"I was the heir. I had to make the decision," Cook said in the book. "If I hadn't wanted anything to do with the company that would have led to one direction [selling]. But I wanted to see it stay private. I could take all this money and run, but that would leave everybody else in the company with the very strong possibility that they wouldn't have a job."

McCarty, Cook’s spokesman, attributed Cook Group’s strict privacy standards to an unfortunate ordeal that involved Bill Cook’s wife, Gayle, in the late 1980s. She was kidnapped by Arthur Curry, an Indianapolis native and Chicago investment broker who had fallen into near financial ruin.

After speaking to a group of Purdue University business students in March 1989, Curry stole a car and drove to the Cooks' home in Monroe County, aware that Bill was among Fortune magazine’s 400 wealthiest Americans.

With a net worth of $3.1 billion, Bill Cook ranked 101st on the 2010 list as well as first in Indiana.

Curry kidnapped Gayle Cook and bound her hands, legs, mouth and eyes with duct tape, and then called Bill Cook and demanded a ransom of $1.2 million in cash and $500,000 in gold.

FBI agents who had tapped Cook’s phone apprehended Curry 26 hours later as he made arrangements for the delivery of the ransom money.

A Monroe County judge sentenced Curry to 32 years in prison, but he was freed in October 2001, after serving 12-1/2 years.

“Ever since then the company has been very private,” McCarty said.

In Hammel's book, Bill Cook said Carl was given plenty of opportunities to learn about the company after college. He spent a year in France and Germany, was in Pittsburgh for 10 years, and then in Winston-Salem for nearly two years. 

He asked to oversee the renovation at West Baden and French Lick to learn more about "governance."

"I always told Carl it's a lot better to govern than it is to be part of operations," Bill Cook said in Hammel's book. "By govern I mean you set policy and you find good people to do the things that need to be done. … I think he has that sense for governing and having the vice presidents do the actual operating. Gayle and I have been very happy. Carl has grown up to be a well-rounded person."

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