In Memoriam: John Ruan (1914-2010)

A man who’s been a prominent fixture in Iowa’s business, political and philanthropic communities has died.  John Ruan was 96.  He gave the “seed” money for the World Food Prize, which has been billed as a Nobel Prize to recognize leaders in the agriculture and food production industries.  One of the buildings in downtown Des Moines bears his name and he built two other multi-story structures downtown, including the Marriott Hotel. One of the state’s largest banks — Bankers Trust — is owned by the Ruan family. 

UPDATE:I had a chance to talk by phone with one of Ruan’s long-time friends — former Des Moines Register executive editor Michael Gartner, the current owner of the Iowa Cubs.  When I asked Gartner to recount his first meeting or to share what may have been his first impressions of Ruan, he told a great story. 

Gartner was in his Register office sometime in the mid-1970s and Ruan came “storming in” with a copy of the newspaper under his arm.  “The Register had written something about him which he didn’t like and he started yelling and screaming at me about it,” Gartner said this morning in our phone conversation. “When (Ruan) finally got through, I said: ‘Are you through John?’ and he said, ‘Yeah!’

“I told him, ‘Well, let me tell you something.  I don’t know anything about the trucking business.  I don’t know anything about the banking business.  I don’t know anything about building big buildings, but you don’t know anything about the newspaper business and I do.’  (Ruan) stopped, looked at me and he kind of smiled and said, ‘I think we’re going to get along just fine.’

“We became great friends.  I had breakfast with him every two or three weeks for the next 20 years, just the two of us, and I found that he was an unbelievably interesting guy.  He cared about the community.  He cared about his family.  He was driven to succeed.”

Read more about what Gartner had to say about Ruan here.  The Register has a story, along with a timeline, and a headline which calls Ruan a “Des Moines titan.”

The following information was provided by Ruan’s family.

John Ruan, founder of Ruan Transportation Management Systems (Ruan), passed away on February 13, 2010. Mr. Ruan was born on February 11, 1914 and died at the age of 96.

The employees of Ruan Transportation Management Systems extend their thoughts and sympathies to the Ruan family during this time.  His wife, Elizabeth Ruan, and his sons John Ruan III and Thomas Ruan, all of Des Moines, Iowa, survive Mr. Ruan.

“Our family is grieving.  We have lost our mentor and dear companion,” said John Ruan’s son, John Ruan III, Chairman and CEO of Ruan Transportation Management Systems. “My father’s influence in the industry and with his employees and customers built the strong foundation for the company that exists today.”

John Ruan was a man of considerable impact and influence on a local, national, and international level. His passing is not only a great loss to his family, but also to all of the Ruan companies, the World Food Prize, the city of Des Moines, the state of Iowa, and the transportation industry.

John Ruan was an innovator and a risk-taker.  His trademark bow tie and infectious smile were a daily part of life at Ruan.  He valued corporate citizenship and was an active leader of many community projects. He had a passion for worthy interests that launched many successful charitable projects and fundraising events that had an impact both locally and globally.

Nationally, Mr. Ruan was well-known for his transportation company.  He began in 1932 with only one truck.  This small business grew into Ruan Transportation Management Systems, which is now one of the nation’s largest transportation management companies.

“John Ruan was a recognized leader in business, education, and community,” said Thomas Donahue, president and CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “He was the visionary who formed the World Food Prize. But most importantly, he was a man of courage and conviction, a leader who made others stronger and better because they knew him.”

John Ruan recognized that hunger and poverty are the most compelling challenges of the modern world. In 1990 he established a foundation that assumed sponsorship of the World Food Prize.  The Prize is the foremost international award recognizing individuals who have advanced human development by improving the quality, quantity, or availability of food in the world.

“John knew what the Prize could become.  He knew it would be the centerpiece to help solve world hunger and bring glory to Iowa,” said Ambassador Kenneth M. Quinn, president of The World Food Prize Foundation.

Mr. Ruan has been widely recognized for many of his contributions to industry and humanity. In 1997, the American Trucking Associations’ Ruan Transportation Center building was dedicated in Washington, D.C., honoring Mr. Ruan’s more than 50 years of service to the transportation industry.

As Chairman and CEO of the Ruan family of companies, Mr. Ruan represented a diversified group of businesses with activities including transportation, commercial banking, financial services, international trading, and real estate development. Ruan Companies owns Bankers Trust Company, the largest independent bank in Iowa. 

“In John Ruan’s day they called them self-made men-individuals with guts, determination and an ability to anticipate marketplace trends. Today a man like Mr. Ruan would be called an entrepreneur, a visionary.  His spirit did not come from seminars or books, but rather life experiences and a belief in himself and the people around him,” shared Suku Radia, who met Mr. Ruan in 1975 when Radia was a 23-year-old auditor working for the accounting firm of Peat Marwick Mitchell. Mr. Ruan was a client.  Today, some 35 years later, Radia still serves the Ruans, but now as CEO and President of Bankers Trust, which has been owned by the Ruan family since 1964.

An Iowa native, Mr. Ruan was a major contributor in business and the development of the Des Moines metropolitan area. He built the 36-story Ruan Center, the Marriott Hotel and the 14-story Two Ruan Center.  He was instrumental in the development of the downtown Des Moines skywalk system, the Des Moines Convention Center and the construction of several city parking structures.  Ruan also contributed more than $2 million for the establishment of the Ruan Neurological Center (now the Ruan Rehabilitation Center) and the Ruan Neurology Clinic at Mercy Medical Center.

“John Ruan was a man of vision and impact.  He built best-of-class companies; he was the driving force that rebuilt the downtown and forever changed the face of our city; and he improved his world through the development of the World Food Prize,” said Steven E. Zumbach, partner with Belin McCormick Attorneys at Law and also a long-time Des Moines community supporter and leader.  In addition, he is attorney and friend to Mr. Ruan and the Ruan family.

Mr. Ruan shared his success with his wife, the former Elizabeth Jayne Adams, their children John Ruan III (Janis), Thomas Ruan, Jayne Ruan Fletcher (deceased), six grandchildren and seven great grandchildren. Condolences may be sent to Ruan Transport Corp., 666 Grand Ave., Des Moines, IA 50309.  The family asks that donations in memory of Mr. Ruan be sent to the World Food Prize Foundation, 1700 Ruan Center, 666 Grand Avenue, Des Moines, IA 50309.

Today, as Ruan celebrates its 77th year in business, we reflect on the impact and legacy of our founder, John Ruan. He was an inspirational leader to employees and customers, creating a culture committed to customer satisfaction and community involvement.

For more information on John Ruan’s life, please visit The Ruan Companies’ tribute site at 

Iowa’s governor issued a statement this morning as well.


Des Moines, IA — “On the behalf of the First Lady, the Lt. Governor and all Iowans, I want to express my deep sadness at the passing of John Ruan. Though a proud Iowan, his impact extends far beyond Des Moines.

“His generosity in raising funds for medical research, particularly to fight multiple sclerosis, has helped thousands of people to better cope with that disease. And his vision for downtown Des Moines has resulted in a vibrant urban setting, improving the quality of life for all who live and work in our Capital City.

“But Mr. Ruan’s legacy is perhaps seen best through his efforts to fight hunger. Working with another visionary Iowan, Dr. Norman Borlaug, he brought the World Food Prize to our state, the result of which has benefitted millions of people throughout the world.

“We will miss John Ruan. The thoughts and prayers of all Iowans are with his family on this sad day. We will also remember John Ruan with gratitude for his life, one he devoted in service to countless people worldwide.”

The following obituary was written by Bill Friedricks, a Simpson College professor who wrote a book about Ruan, and the obituary includes a bit more information about Ruan as a young man:

John Ruan, a leading business and community figure in central Iowa, died February 13, 2010 at his home in Des Moines, IA. He was 96.

Widely recognized for his success in the trucking industry, Ruan was equally well known for donning his trademark bow ties, short sleeve white shirts, and wire rimmed glasses.

Over his career, he built a diverse empire, which now includes trucking, banking, financial services, real estate, international trade, and a hotel. Most important of these are Ruan Transportation Management Systems (RTMS), one of the nation’s largest trucking and logistics firms and Bankers Trust, the largest independently owned bank in Iowa.

Ruan was long regarded as one of the wealthiest and most powerful people in Des Moines. He often attributed his success to hard work: “I am no smarter than a lot of guys in town, but I work harder.” Ruan possessed a hard-charging personality that led him to the office seven days a week and a business style that was often described as “sheer determination.” This work ethic and his willingness to take risks made him a quintessential entrepreneur.

Never completely divorced from his work, Ruan was always thinking about “ways to make a buck,” and he was fastidious about jotting down ideas on note cards. When out of the office, he carried a small leather address book, which included a pad of paper and pencil, in his pants pocket so that even when hunting or playing golf, he  could note possible opportunities so they would not “get away from him.”

He was born February 11, 1914, to a successful physician and his wife in Beacon, a small town outside of Oskaloosa in Mahaska County, Iowa. When his father lost most of his money in the 1929 Stock Market Crash, he moved the family to Des Moines the following year. Devastated by the loss, he died in 1931. Ruan had always been interested in following his father as a doctor, and he attended Iowa State College. After completing his first year, there was no money left for tuition, and he was forced to leave school and go to work.

On the advice of a friend, Ruan traded one of the family cars for a truck in the summer of 1932 and began hauling gravel for a local road builder. A year later, he owned three trucks and was hauling coal. A fellow trucker who knew Ruan at the timed noted: “He was aggressive, always moving. He pushed hard, and he never eased up.”

By the mid-1930s he began moving freight and later hauling petroleum. Ruan soon had the largest trucking operation in central Iowa. After World War II, his trucking operation grew rapidly, becoming the nation’s largest hauler of petroleum products by the end of the 1950s. Along the way, he acquired the taxi service in Des Moines as well as the city’s Avis Rent a Car franchise. The following decade, he expanded into truck leasing business. Today, RTMS operates a fleet of 8,700 trucks nationally.

The trucking magnate moved beyond transportation in 1964 with his purchase of a majority interest in Bankers Trust Company. Ruan eventually bought all the remaining stock and began branching into other areas including real estate and property management, the import-export business, and a securities firm.

In addition, Ruan was one of the most influential leaders in the revitalization of downtown Des Moines in the 1970s and 1980s. So significant was his role, that Robert Ray, former governor of Iowa, said: “John Ruan is the father of the renaissance of Des Moines. Because of him, the city started to prosper and grow and come alive.” His 36-­story Ruan Center, which was the state’s tallest building for 15 years, became the anchor for the new downtown. As general partner, he was the prime mover behind the construction of the downtown Marriott and soon thereafter erected Ruan Two, another office building adjacent to his original tower. While these facilities were going up, Ruan played a central role in the planning and layout of the skywalk system.

Ruan was also involved in many philanthropic undertakings. Over the years, he gave millions of dollars to his favorite causes. Most notable were his fight against multiple sclerosis and his support of the World Food Prize.

After his wife had been stricken with MS and shortly before his daughter was afflicted and would eventually die from complications of the same disease, he formed the John Ruan MS Charity. Its golf tournament quickly became the largest one-day charity golf event in the United States, and it began funding research in an experimental MS regimen at Rush Presbyterian-St. Luke’s Medical Center in Chicago. In the late 1980s, Ruan personally donated $1 million for the establishment of the Ruan Neurological Center at Des Moines’ Mercy Medical Center, which cares for patients with MS as well as other neurological disorders such as stroke and Parkinson’s disease.

Following discussions with Nobel Prize winner Norman Borlaug, Ruan agreed to back the four year-old World Food Prize, which had lost its corporate sponsorship. He established a foundation in 1990 to support the prize, “the foremost international award recognizing the achievements of individuals who have improved the quality or availability of food around the world.” Each year the organization honors the winner with a $250,000 prize in a ceremony held in Des Moines. In 2001, Ruan and his family pledged $5 million for buying and renovating the downtown Des Moines Public Library building to make it the permanent home for the World Food Prize organization.

He received numerous honors during his lifetime, but he was most humbled when he received the Iowa Award, the state’s highest citizen award, in 2001.

Because he was very private, few people actually knew Ruan well. To most, he was a distant, tough, and powerful businessman. Yet those close to him saw a different John Ruan. He had a passion for hunting morel mushrooms, a wry sense of humor, loved to play the piano and sing, and was tender hearted and generous.


He is survived by his wife, Elizabeth; two children, John III (Janis) and Thomas; six grandchildren, and seven great-grandchildren. His daughter, Elizabeth Jayne Ruan Fletcher, preceded him in death.  Donations may be to the World Food Prize the World Food Prize Foundation, 1700 Ruan Center, 666 Grand Avenue, Des Moines, IA 50309.

UPDATE II:  Senator Chuck Grassley becomes the first Iowa Republican to issue a written statement.

Senator Chuck Grassley today issued the following comment on the death of John Ruan.

“John Ruan lived his life with great purpose, vision and generosity.  He leaves many legacies, not only as a business leader and philanthropist in his own community, but in the global community.  He took on the most humanitarian cause of fighting hunger through the World Food Prize and establishing an organization to encourage and reward life-saving and life-enhancing developments in agriculture and food production.  He lived a life to be celebrated and honored, and Barbara and I join his family and so many others in doing so today.”

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
About O.Kay Henderson

O. Kay Henderson is the news director of Radio Iowa.