John Canning, the eldest of four, was born in Tucson, Arizona, in 1944. At the time, his father was serving as a captain in the U.S. Army Air Forces. When World War II ended, the Canning family moved to Bayport, New York, a rural town on the south shore of Long Island. Canning's father served as the town's only doctor. "My father was an ideal person who led an exemplary life," says Canning. "He worked hard and did house calls in the middle of the night. We lived in a poor community, and sometimes he was paid with corn or fish or clams. He did all the physicals at school, so everyone knew him. He was also an artist, a hunter, and a sailor. I guess you could call him a Renaissance man. He was bigger than life to me."
Canning describes his mother as a gentle woman with an upbeat personality. She was interested in art and encouraged her children to read. In fact, reading was so important to her that she set up a local library and served there as a volunteer librarian. Both parents emphasized the importance of education as a way for their children to set themselves apart in a competitive society.
Besides doing well academically, Canning also enjoyed the social and athletic side of school, where he played baseball, basketball, and soccer. He worked several summer jobs as a teenager, including one stint a camp counselor, where he taught children how to ride horses. "I'd never even been on a horse," he says, "but I learned how to saddle a horse and was able to bluff my way through the job." During the school year, he painted houses and delivered pizza, among other things.
Canning's main summer job was working 70 hours a week as a vegetable boy at the Seaview Market on Fire Island. Many of his customers were professionals, such as doctors, lawyers, and interior designers. Canning knew he wanted to one day be on their side of the counter. His goal in life was to make $1 million, and he spent a lot of time thinking about how he would make that happen.
His earnings from these jobs paid Canning's way through college and law school. He attended Denison University in Granville, Ohio, where he played on the baseball team. He majored in economics and graduated in 1966. During his senior year, two tragedies deeply affected Canning. His younger brother died in a car accident shortly after receiving his driver's license. "My father was the doctor called to the scene. He didn't know until he arrived that it was my brother who was involved. That was very difficult for him. My mother was devastated by this, of course, and I think she wasn't eating well. Six days later, she choked on some food when she was alone and died. So in the space of one week I lost two of the most important people in my life. It was very tough. But through the years I have shared this experience with others who have had losses because I think it helps them to know they aren't alone in their heartbreak."
Shortly before college graduation, Canning took the tests for business school as well as law school. He scored very low in business, but his law scores were so high that he was accepted at every school to which he applied. Canning chose Duke University because he wanted a school with a good basketball team. "I hated every second of law school," he says. "I didn't want to be a lawyer, so when it came time to find a job after I graduated, I applied only to large companies with in-house law departments with the hope that I would be able to escape into some other area in the company as soon as possible."
The only offer Canning received in 1970, which he accepted, was from First National Bank. He was relieved to discover that he enjoyed the deal-making side of law, and he worked in that capacity for First National for 10 years. In 1980, he took over the venture and private equity operations for First Chicago Venture Capital, a sister subsidiary to the bank. He served as assistant general counsel to the president and CEO of that group for the next 12 years.
In 1992, Canning and 13 associates left the firm and founded Madison Dearborn Partners (MDP), with Canning as CEO, a position he held until 2007, at which time he became chairman. MDP specializes in management buyout and special equity investing, and has raised $18 billion from investors to conduct its business of making private equity investments. Since its inception, MDP has invested more than $15 billion, achieving a compounded annual return of 20 percent. "I still go in every day," he says. "I am proud of our good reputation for integrity. MDP is the biggest private equity firm between the coasts, even though there are much larger ones on each coast."
Canning believes everyone goes through life with a certain amount of breaks and luck. He explains, "I think we all have the same amount of luck, but the key is recognizing it when you see it." His decisions to go to law school, to accept the offer of heading First National's venture capital subsidiary, and then later to form Madison Dearborn were all major choices he made without knowing in advance how well they would work out. Still, he saw those opportunities and had the self-confidence to trust his instincts, which put him onto pathways that ultimately brought him great success.
When Canning was younger, he believed that if he could make $1 million, he would be successful. "It took me a long time to change my perspective on success," he says. "In the end, it wasn't about how much money I could make; it was building a firm that is respected. I had a mentor, Dick Thomas, who told me, 'When you head an operation you can't manage it to be liked, but you can manage it to be respected.' So that is what I tried to do. I also believe that developing a family that is close and loving is a true measure of success."
Canning advises that education has never been more important. "Today, you have to specialize in your education," he says. "There is a high demand for jobs that require specific skills. The more education you get, the more opportunities you will have. I also tell youth that we may all have similar opportunities for success, but you have to understand that opportunities are open for a short amount of time. You have to see the opening and hit it."
Mentors have played pivotal roles in Canning's life. Stan Golder, a pioneer in venture capitalism and the man Canning replaced at First National, helped him to believe in himself. In encouraging Canning to head the venture capital business, he told the young banker, "You have been successful in your life up to this point. Your success isn't going to stop just because you are changing directions. As long as you keep plugging along, you will be successful."
Canning says that the importance of mentorship didn't occur to him until he was older. "Sometimes I realized the importance of someone's influence on my life well past the time I knew them," he says. "I didn't go up to someone and ask him to mentor me. Instead, I picked people I admired, people whose values were intact, and I watched them. Mentoring isn't someone telling you what to do; it's showing someone by example. Integrity and hard work are the values my mentors have had. It's not that these people were perfect. Rather, they were people who took responsibility for mistakes, who learned from their mistakes, and who were transparent and honest in dealing with associates."