Joe Cannon is defined by optimism, enthusiasm

Published: Sunday, Sept. 26 2010 12:36 a.m. MDT

Although Joe Cannon grew up in California, he was born in Salt Lake City and lived in Utah until he was 10 years old. By early 1987, Cannon already had been a rainmaking partner at the prestigious D.C. law firm Pillsbury, Madison & Sutro for two years. But much like how his father couldn't kick the thought of an improbable two-wheeled journey in 1964, Cannon became captivated by what some considered to be an equally irrational idea — buying a failing steel mill.

Under the umbrella of "client development," Cannon first investigated what would need to happen for the Geneva mill in Vineyard to comply with federal environmental regulations. Then he started assembling a group of investors. Finally, investment bankers informed Cannon he would be the CEO of his investment group if it acquired the Geneva mill.

Cannon's decision to leave a lucrative law partnership for a flailing enterprise flummoxed quite a few people in the legal community. A reporter from the trade journal American Lawyer came to Utah and spent 10 days interviewing Cannon's associates trying to wrap her mind around why a sensible fellow would do such a thing.

With a myriad of obstacles to Geneva's long-term viability and no working playbook, Cannon guided Geneva Steel to environmental compliance and, for a time, economic profitability. (The steel mill closed for good in 2002.)

"A lot of people underestimate Joe Cannon and do not recognize how persistent he is," said Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, who narrowly edged Cannon in the 1992 Utah Republican primary for the U.S. Senate. "I found that out in the campaign. He can be very persistent in pursuing things he wants to accomplish."

Despite unlikely triumphs and some of the public failures Cannon has experienced (18 years later, Cannon's failed bid for the U.S. Senate still stings), he ultimately is at peace with himself and the world around him.

He lives with his wife, Jan, in the house they bought 23 years ago.

He is of counsel to Van Cott, Bagley, Cornwall & McCarthy — the same firm he worked for in 1977 and where his son, Joshua, also works.

"I'm very committed to the mission of the paper, and I'm very committed to the mission of this editorial board," Cannon said. "I'm really very flattered that they asked me to stay on (in this capacity) after I left the paper."

He may not have all the details figured out yet, but he's sure he'll figure it out — since 1964 he's been making an art of figuring things out on the fly.

"We're talking as if Joe's career is over," Bennett mused during a recent interview. "I don't believe that it is in any way. I think Joe is going to find something interesting and significant to do and press forward with his whole soul."

e-mail: jaskar@desnews.com

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