John McManus Photo: Katherine Lambert

Ken Campbell is not your typical CEO. His friends and business colleagues speak of him as “cruelly pragmatic.” His former boss and longtime partner David Matlin introduces him to buttoned-down Wall Street types in board rooms with fasten-your-seatbelt caveats like, “if you can't take brutal honesty, better get up and leave the room now.”

A highly placed investment banking exec who's dealt directly with all of the public home building chieftains calls Campbell “a breath of fresh air.”

Campbell grew up in Hudson, Ohio. “The town was so small that when I went into the soda fountain for a milk shake, the owner knew whether or not I was allowed to have one that day,” he says.

Hudson provided Campbell with summer income that made it difficult for him to get his first job out of college. He hoped one of the fancy business consulting firms would hire him, but his background experience was a bit of a stumbling block. “I poked eyeholes in plastic green frogs every summer,” says Campbell about his job in the Hudson-based Little Tikes manufacturing plant.

Prior experience like that might translate nicely in a corporate environment, but for a guy who says he “wasn't big on studying in college” at Wesleyan University, he was lucky he had a college advisor who helped out. It turned out Wesleyan had an economics prize— the White Prize—which involved taking an exam for which no preparation would do any good.

“My advisor says, ‘Kenny, this is the only time you're ever going to compete on an equal footing.' I won that award, so he helped me get my first [non-eyehole in plastic green frog] job at Wharton.”

Campbell would go on to serve in restructuring roles for two decades with companies besieged by big-time operational or financial stress.

Just before his Standard Pacific mission, Campbell served as CEO at Ormet Corp., whose Hannibal, Ohio, smelting plant had been shut down amid a ferocious labor dispute as the company went into bankruptcy. For more than two years leading toward Campbell's appointment, labor and management were at one another's throats with little hope of resolution.

Head of the local steelworkers union, Local 5724, Loren Hartshorn recalls that as Campbell came in and worked with him on the issues, he felt his guard go down as Campbell lowered his own.

“I said to him, ‘Ken, you're going to make it much harder for me if you actually start listening and living by your word here, because that will be the first time management's done that in a couple of years,'” says Hartshorn. “He brought the sides together and kept his door open so that there were no secrets, and that's how we settled.”