Beyond the Boardroom: Cornbelt Fire Protection District Chief John Koller – Champaign/Urbana News-Gazette

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john koller

John Koller, chief of the Cornbelt Fire Protection District, at the station house in Mahomet.

As rewarding jobs go, it’d be tough to top the one JOHN KOLLER has held for the past five-plus years.

“In my profession, we get to be the solution to the problem every single day,” says the chief of Mahomet’s Cornbelt Fire Protection District. “There is nothing more satisfying than serving those I get to work with and those in our community.”

That includes being named state Fire Chief of the Year, a distinction bestowed upon Koller earlier this year by the Illinois Fire Chiefs Association.

The father of three and Western Illinois grad took time out to to answer a few questions from Editor Jeff D’Alessio in the 72nd installment of our weekly speed read spotlighting leaders of organizations big and small.


My one unbreakable rule of the workplace is … be honest and be nice. Both take very little to no real skill or work. Just very basic human qualities.

My business role model is … Robert Greenleaf. Mr. Greenleaf is known as the “father” of servant leadership. There are so many forms of leadership but I truly believe that servant leadership far exceeds all others.

I’m frugal … because my wife Debbie is. It’s actually a great quality that I admire very much.

My philosophy on meetings is … pretty simple: Make them as small as possible; when you are at a meeting, add value to it; and no frequent meetings.

When it comes to the hardest thing about being a leader … honestly, when you are in a great place professionally and personally and work with amazing people, leadership is not hard.

It’s actually extremely rewarding each and every day.

john koller

John Koller oversees a department that encompasses 96 square miles with about 18,000 residents. Last year, the department, which also includes an ambulance service, responded to a little more than 1,300 emergency calls.

The biggest business risk I ever took was … going from the Normal Fire Department to the Champaign Fire Department.

At the time, I had been with Normal for quite a while and really loved it there. The opportunity at Champaign was a chance to advance and grow, so I took it. I met many great people at the city of Champaign and grew tremendously.

Ultimately, it prepared me for my move to the fire chief position at Cornbelt Fire Department. In the end, it absolutely paid off. Never be afraid to take a chance.

The last luxury in which I indulged was … recently, when I received a 1979 Olds Cutlass Hurst that belonged to my wife’s brother, Jeff. Jeff was killed in an accident 20 years ago and this was his car. Having it means the world to me.

The most beneficial college courses I took were … several psychology classes. Being able to understand why a person is displaying a certain behavior is very beneficial.

I’m up and at ’em every day by … 5 a.m.

As far as my exercise routine goes … I work out six days a week doing a modified form of CrossFit mostly. My workouts last about an hour or so and help me with my mental wellness as much as my physical wellness.

I can’t live without my … family — and my phone.

The worst job I ever had was … at an apple orchard when I was 13-14 years old. It was owned by a friend of my parents. I had to be there each day at 5:30 and my job was to paint — by hand — the bottoms of the trees white so they did not split.

It was early and it was boring, for sure.

On a 1-to-10 scale, the impact of the pandemic has been … absolutely a 10. Not only due to my job but also the impact I saw it have on my three sons.

Not having a good answer to give them day in and day out was so hard. As I mentioned earlier, people in my profession are fixers and problem solvers. When you can’t fix something on the spot, it’s just a sinking feeling.

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