John W. Brown

Standing Tall In the Field of Orthopaedics

Inducted in 2003

John W. Brown, a 1957 graduate of Auburn University’s chemical engineering program, keeps a good company. Early on as chairman, president, and CEO of Stryker Corporation, he enjoyed seeing its inclusion among Forbes magazine’s 200 best small companies in America. Stryker products are the highest quality available to medicine, leading to net-earnings growth of 20 percent annually on Mr. Brown’s watch. His medical and surgical products, notably orthopaedic implants, are found in hospitals worldwide. Quality of life is improved for millions of people everyday through Stryker Corporation’s products and technologies.

Great effort goes into achieving such success, as Mr. Brown well understands. He was born to a Tennessee farm family during the Depression. In childhood he tended fields, plowing at first with a mule, much later with a tractor. Such toil, and his early schooling, spoke to him of education as the means to reap clearer rewards from hard work. He began a pre-engineering course in 1953 at Freed-Hardeman College (from which he received an honorary doctorate of law in 1999), paying most expenses himself at the Tennessee school. What he learned there, and at Auburn in two more years, prepared him to master technical skills, certainly; he also learned that his could be a life embodying engineering’s highest ideal: the intelligent application of science for the good of humanity. That ideal today centers his vision for advancing medical products and policies.

To that end, this expert in knee, hip, and other implants, trauma systems, powered surgical instruments, arthroscopic systems, and patient-handling equipment has also made himself expert at advocacy. He strives for progressive public policy governing medical innovations. He studies medical regulatory stances far and wide, advocating proposals likely to speed delivery of new technologies to patients, and supporting trade rules fostering international availability of medical innovations.

In advocacy, he becomes more than the leader of Stryker’s twelve divisions on three continents (one division even broaches genetic engineering, with a protein designed to heal bone), he becomes a leader of an industry. Witness his active affiliations with organizations like the Advanced Medical Technology Association, Orthopaedic Research and Education Foundation, and American Business Conference.

In 1957, Mr. Brown took his first engineering job with Ormet, a joint venture of Olin Mathieson and Revere Copper and Brass. In 1961, he moved to rocket propellants with Thiokol. An industry slump prompted a move to pharmaceuticals and Squibb. Broad experience there ultimately landed him the assistantship to Squibb’s U.S. president. His work at Squibb culminated in the presidency of Edward Weck & Company, a struggling medical device manufacturer purchased by Squibb. His business savvy and his perspective on design and production — insights from his engineering training — perfectly positioned Mr. Brown to restore Weck. Doubling its sales and tripling its profits in just five years, he came to the attention of Stryker, a family-owned firm making cast saws and hospital beds in Kalamazoo, Michigan. He took over as Stryker’s president in 1977, took the company public in 1979, and took sales from 1976’s $17 million a year to $3 billion in 2002.

Mr. Brown resides in Kalamazoo, Michigan, with his wife, Rosemary Kopel Brown, a 1957 Auburn chemistry graduate. They have two daughters and four grandchildren. Mr. Brown serves on the boards of National City Bank, the Greater Kalamazoo United Way, the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, and Southwest Michigan First. He is a deacon at his church, and a life member of the Auburn Alumni Association.

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