ST. LOUIS – A man who had never run for office before was in a strong position to win the republican nomination for United States Senate in 2012 until “attacks” on Todd Akin from incumbent Senator Claire McCaskill helped defeat him. With less than a seven point difference, John Brunner’s campaign ultimately yielded to Todd Akin, who went on to lose to Claire McCaskill.
Brunner is back, almost, with a gubernatorial exploratory committee that now seems all-but-certain to result in a full campaign. Former and current campaign staffers with and outside the campaign repeatedly state that the 2016 “Brunner for Missouri” campaign will be more prepared, more diverse and more raw than what was presented in 2012.
The father, husband, grandfather, and former CEO said he learned a lot from 2012. But, everything before 2012 is what Brunner talks about while campaigning to be Missouri’s next governor.
He holds some similarities to Missouri’s last governor who was elected without previous office-holding experience – like the late governor Lloyd Crow Stark, Brunner is a businessman and a veteran. This self described “self-made man” was called by one longtime friend and colleague the opposite of yet another millionaire in the political spotlight based on his humility and generosity alone.
One former campaign staffer called Brunner an “exceptionally talented and decent person,” while another said he has “elements of greatness.” The overarching themes revealed a man, who in business, gave employees raises from the bottom up as the multi-generational family company grew from 60 to more than 1000 employees during his tenure as CEO.
Vi-Jon, a company started in 1908 by Brunner’s grandparents – John and Viola Brunner, started as a hydrogen peroxide specialty company. The company struggled in the 1970’s and 80’s, to be gradually turned around under Brunner’s tenure as a company whose products, including the manufacturing of Germ-X, are seen in almost every retailer across the United States.
“Every day Vi-Jon ships 2,000,000 bottles. We supply over 50,000 retail stores with 1,500 different products.,” Brunner said. “It was a long, hard haul with a lot of competition, a lot of ups and downs. We joked that we’d never have two good years in a row.”
Brunner started at Vi-Jon in high school, but had been immersed in the business starting as a child sitting at the dinner table.
“It was a dinner conversation,” Brunner said. “We would talk about employees that were sick or ill or new opportunities. In 1958, we lost the mouthwash business. We lived and shared those experiences.”
During high school summers, Brunner worked in the warehouse loading trucks by hand – in an age when all the bottles were glass. He said he was engaged in every aspect of the small company – from loading trucks to driving forklifts to cleaning out trashcans.
“One hot summer, it was my first introduction to conservative thoughts and ideas. I remember my paycheck, after taxes, was $42.38.”
At the time, Vi-Jon had between 30-40 employees and one major product was affordable, high quality cosmetics – a theme Brunner said carries through today with Vi-Jon products.
“Everything you have and everything you own is on the line,” Brunner said. “I believe you do the right thing and work together as a team and a family. I took my principles from the Marine Corps – you take care of your troops, and they’ll take care of you. In business, you take care of the employees and they’ll take care of the business.”
Brunner wasn’t the only family member to work at the company at a young age. His wife, Jan, who he has been married to for 38 years, worked on the production line while she was in college wrapping paper and elastic ribbons around aftershave bottles. Brunner laughed that Jan complained about the exhaust from the forklifts, which ran on propane at the time.
He had met Jan in his church youth group several years before. At the time, he was 17 and Jan was 15. Brunner was leading the group.
“John was the president of the youth group, so I was quite impressed,” Jan laughed. “I was impressed with the older guy – he played a mean guitar.”
On Jan’s 16th birthday, Brunner got Jan a poster that said “The Best is Yet to Be.” Last year, Brunner found that poster in a trunk and had it framed for her birthday.
After Jan had graduated from college, he proposed.
Brunner remarked that she was a great Marine Corps wife. He kept ascending in the military, but his father kept calling and telling him he needed him at the family business.
“We found a duplex in Webster Groves,” Brunner said. “It was what we could afford. We didn’t have any furniture, but I brought in some ammo boxes – why spend money on furniture?”
The apartment also didn’t have air conditioning, a stove or a fridge, but Brunner found a stove for $10. Jan requested a fridge, but Jon was less inclined to fill that request just yet – it was January and they had a styrofoam cooler. Eventually, Brunner found them a used refrigerator.
“The first 20 years out of college, I made less than $30,000 a year,” Brunner said. “We had 3 kids. We had house payments. We had car payments. We kept on moving down the road.”
Jan witnessed Brunner’s career from the start in what Brunner calls a “slow crawl.”
“It was very difficult,” Jan said. “I never had any grandiose expectations. Everyday you get up and put your feet on the floor. It was amazing to watch it happen.”
The night their first child was born, Brunner was at the factory, where an underground storage tank had broken.
Brunner’s father wanted him to start selling, but he couldn’t see how he could sell until the factory was fixed, though he eventually obliged. He bought a suit at a flood sale and after being on the factory floor for the day, he would put it on and go to Chicago for a meeting with Kroger or Cincinnati for CVS. They never saw the flood stain of the suit liner.
“I’d still be in my work boots,” he said.
Brunner made risks that seemed to always reward, and the company grew and grew and grew. Eventually, Jan got her furniture and air conditioning. One former campaign employee said that the biggest impression Brunner gave was that everything he touched turned to gold.
After decades at the company, Brunner left. The year he left – 2009 – was their best year yet. An employee shared that the company brought in $600 million in sales that year.
When asked, friends and former colleagues stated that Brunner is running because he “genuinely wants to do good.”
“I’ve always volunteered to serve,” Brunner said. “This is a real opportunity for Missourians to have a governor with real world, Main Street-tested experience. I’ve literally brought millions of dollars back to Missouri. Fortunately, there are a lot of well-meaning politicians who want to help, but very seldom do you find someone with real world experience.”
A governor without previous lawmaking experience hasn’t been seen during the lifetime of most Missourians. Brunner said, if elected, he hopes to bring business to Missouri and focus on fixing problems with schools and infrastructure.
“I believe we need to bring efficiency into government,” Brunner said. “Leaders attract other like-minded people like them. I can go to other CEOs and say, ‘Come to Missouri, we’re doing some good things in Missouri.’ After you’ve worked hard, you need to share your experience. My mother, who’s 91, asked what I was going to do with all these experiences. There’s a lot we can do and I’m excited for all the opportunities. I’m tired of Texas and what they’re talking about. I’m tired of entry level teachers being paid 48th in this country. In business, especially in a family business, you don’t go month to month and quarter to quarter. You make decisions that are longterm. Not just for now, not just for the next election, but for the next generation. It’ll take 20 years to rebuild our roads – I’ll be gone then! We could be number one again.”
Friends and former colleagues said that a Gov. Brunner would be accessible and open if elected, while bringing in the right people to focus on problems. “He never thinks short term,” said one former colleague. “He doesn’t make decisions for the day, but for the future. That’s how he’s different, even as a business man. It’s always been from the bottom up.”
“I’ve been a bridge builder in building teams,” Brunner said. “We’re going to need a team to win. We’re going to need help from those who feel disenfranchised. When your common principal is freedom, it connects people. I’m qualified [for governor] because that is who I am.”
In fact, Brunner, who is allegedly worth more than $100 million, has donated over $80,000 to Missouri politics and several millions more to federal candidates in the last 5 years. The close friend remarks that the reported donations could not begin to touch the non-reported charitable donations.
“I guess it’s always been a part of us,” Brunner said when asked about the charity. “As long as I can remember, there have always been people who need a helping hand and we always did what we can. We were involved in our church, built a church in Zimbabwe, Christian missions, a youth camp for abused kids, organizations for the physically challenged. Of course, I’ve always had a soft spot for the troops. When we didn’t have any money, we were grateful for what we had. A lot of our personal care products go to the homeless. We always had product overrun.”
Jan had one mission she was particularly excited for. “We’ve been working with the Missouri Baptist Hospital,” said Jan. “We provided funds for a new center for maternal health and awareness. New moms can go there if they have questions. Dads can come in because they have questions too. For me, that was a very gratifying personal gift to be able to do.”
“Personally, knowing John’s personality and how he treats people, I don’t view him as a traditional politician,” said an executive colleague and friend. “I don’t believe John will change [if elected]. He’s a team player, but that won’t change him.”
After an interesting race in 2012, Brunner’s strategy for the Governor’s Mansion has changed. Weeks ago, the exploratory committee released a statement that the campaign would be staffed with the cream of the crop. Donations have been diverse and primarily in-state.
“The best businessmen are the ones who lose at least one account,” Brunner said. “When I’d lose an account, I’d double down and figure it out. First thing, we have to build a great team. We built a great team with tremendous resources. We have a great team leader. We’ve built a robust fundraising team. One of the first things I’ve learned from the last campaign – it’s boots on the ground that will make a difference. …We’re good to go here and ready for surprise attacks like what happened last with Claire McCaskill and Harry Reid. We will rewind that business and get us back on the shelf.”
Brunner is doubling down on data, employing information talent to understand Missouri voters better. The team includes some from Mitt Romney’s gubernatorial days, as well as the in-state talent of Barklage & Knodell. But, he’s also brought his business principals to his campaign.
“We have a great cross section,” Brunner said. “They operate as a team. I did the same thing to build my business by bringing in all the different assets. David [Barklage] is just one part of the team. Megan Munson helped raise millions for Romney. We have the team that helped run Charlie Baker’s race. I’m proud of all these people who are coming to join the organization. No one person is more important than another member.”
Missourians can expect to see jobs, schools, and infrastructure as common campaign themes from Brunner. Brunner believes the message is hitting home with Missourians as he sees his donor base grow – which he says is vital.
“That’s why the donor base is building,” Brunner said. “They are very motivated and very excited. Everybody who makes a contribution will be an advocate to their 10 best friends. Most donors are from Missouri. Where it is coming from is critical. I’ve seen a lot of businesspeople interested in supporting this campaign. [Businesspeople] are under the same regulations, and I’ve lived it. They want an advocate.”
Brunner spoke of meeting voters in 2012 and today who switched from being Democrats all their lives to voting for him in a Republican primary.
The weirdness of the 2012 primary has given friends, former employees, and former colleagues an impression that this is a campaign that Brunner will run on his own terms. That campaign saw hits on Brunner for a contribution to the Humane Farming Association, which was made by one of Brunner’s children from the family foundation, but also received an endorsement from Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) and a favorable advertisement paid for by the United States Chamber of Commerce. Brunner was also attacked when he reached across the aisle in donating to former St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley. Brunner responded that Dooley was a friend who “understood what the issues are for the minorities and jobs in that area.”
“I don’t mean to sound trite at all,” Brunner said. “I have strong values in faith and God and in the family business and in free enterprise and in terms of love of country. I was in office as a young Marine. Some of our products have expiration dates, but my oath to protect the Constitution as a young Marine does not.”
It is expected that Brunner will make a formal announcement of his candidacy for governor in the next few months.
Pictures courtesy of John Brunner.
Rachael Herndon is the editor at The Missouri Times, and also produces This Week in Missouri Politics, publishes Missouri Times Magazine, and co-hosts the #moleg podcast. She joined the Missouri Times in 2014, returning to political reporting after working as a campaign and legislative staffer.
Rachael studied at the University of Missouri – Columbia. She lives in Jefferson City with her husband, Brandon, and their two children.
To contact Rachael, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or via Twitter @TheRachDunn.