When the Davey family decided to sell its venerable tree company to employees in 1979, they picked John W. Joy to play a pivotal role in the transition, promoting him to president and chief executive officer.

He successfully navigated the change in ownership, and today Davey Tree Expert Co. is the fifth-largest employee-owned company in the country.

Mr. Joy — simply “Jack” to family, friends and co-workers — died Sunday. He was 90.

Davey Tree was founded in 1880 and Mr. Joy spent 44 of his years working for the company before becoming board chairman in 1983.

He was an inspiration to the company’s current CEO, Karl Warnke, who shared the following story with the Beacon Journal when Warnke took the top job in 2007:

Warnke wasn’t having a particularly good day during the summer of 1980 as the young Davey employee wrestled a hose over a mound of fertilizer to reach newly planted trees in a west Cleveland neighborhood.

“I was thinking, ‘Why am I doing this? It’s hot, and it doesn’t seem to be real rewarding,’?” Warnke recalled.

Then a kindly customer interrupted him.

“You know Jack Joy used to work in this very territory,” she said. “Someday you could be CEO, too.”

Warnke took 27 years to rise from landscaping laborer to chief executive officer.

In a letter to employees this week, Warnke said Mr. Joy was “well known for his empathy and understanding of the workers through his many years of experience as a field employee and as part of operations management.”

“Of Jack’s many outstanding qualities, his ever-present broad smile, irrepressible strength of character and uncompromising commitment to the Davey Company will continue to define our culture for many years to come,” Warnke said.

Today, Davey has more than 7,000 employees throughout North America, including about 500 in Northeast Ohio. Last fall, the National Center for Employee Ownership ranked Davey as the fifth-largest 100 percent employee-owned company in the United States.

Warnke said Mr. Joy’s legacy was “an opportunity to build an enduring institution from the $55 million company that was entrusted to the valued employees in 1979. Having the privilege of working with Jack for many years, I am confident his aspirations and dreams for the Davey Company are being realized.”

Calling hours for Mr. Joy will be held Monday from 2 to 4 p.m. and 6 to 8 p.m. at Bissler’s Funeral Home, 628 W. Main St. in Kent. The funeral service will be held at 11 a.m. Tuesday at United Methodist Church, 1435 E. Main St. Burial will follow at Standing Rock Cemetery in Kent.