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The times were tough for Roeslein & Associates in 2001. Sales had grown from just more than $1 million in 1990 to some $20 million in 2000. Now the volume of work was practically nonexistent.

“When you go without work for almost a two-year period and you use up every bit of retained earnings that you had, it starts to challenge your own beliefs,” says Rudi Roeslein, founder and CEO for a company that engineers, fabricates and constructs unitized modular industrial systems. “We were faced with this real identity crisis of was it all smoke and mirrors? Was I just delusional?”

Indeed, Roeslein and his company were in pretty dire straits. He let two members of his management team go and the six who remained each took a 30 percent pay cut. Roeslein and his partner, who only owned 25 percent of the 250-employee business, did not take any pay for 18 months.

“I said, ‘I’m not going to force you to do it,’” Roeslein says. “He had a family and both of us had kids at the time. We had the same bills that everybody else has. We just had to live on whatever we took out of the business previously in earnings. We tried to keep as many people as possible.”

As hard as he was working to keep the business going, Roeslein also had to fight the perception that it wasn’t ever going to get better. He had complete confidence that he would make it work, but it wasn’t shared by everyone.

“When people see that, how do you keep them enthused?” Roeslein says. “You start letting people go, and (others) want to bail out. They want to leave.”

As it turns out, Roeslein was right and his company did survive the business drought and emerge on the other side, growing to a $100 million organization today.

But Roeslein emerged a new man and a new leader. He was willing to look at himself in the mirror and ask the question that few brash, successful entrepreneurs ever want to ask of themselves.

“The big soul-searching that I did was, ‘OK, once I get out of this, even if we get the business, what am I going to do differently so I don’t get into this predicament again?’” Roeslein says. “That’s where you have to identify what are the necks in the hourglass? Am I the neck in the hourglass? I came to the conclusion that I was because of how I managed my business.”

The transformation began in 2002 with a realization that Roeslein needed to get his people more involved in guiding the business.

Empower your people

As Roeslein looked at his role in leading his company, he began to understand the problem.

“I wanted all customers to discuss their opportunities with me,” Roeslein says.

He had a CFO who handled the day-to-day personnel issues and Roeslein managed the engineering, business development and product management. But he also did selling and implementing and wanted in on every sales discussion.

He realized that had to change.

“You have to get over your own ego and really accept that maybe you’re the problem and not the solution,” Roeslein says. “Maybe the solution is right in front of you because you have all these brilliant employees and you’re just not releasing their talent.”

So as things began to pick up, Roeslein appointed the six managers who had been department managers and made them directors.

“I assigned specific customers and accounts on a regional and global basis, regardless of whether they were technical or nontechnical,” Roeslein says. “I divided it among them.”

The key to making this work was that Roeslein didn’t just call them into his office, tell them about the change and then expect them to figure out how to do it on their own.

“I said, ‘I will mentor you for a period of a couple of years,’” Roeslein says. “‘I will go with you to these customers, but ultimately, I’m turning these customers over to you. I’m turning these projects over to you. Then you guys figure out how to complement each other. Figure out who is best at construction, engineering and business development. One of you is going to become the president of the company.’”

It was a bold move, but Roeslein quickly knew it was exactly what his business needed.

“We quickly became a $100 million company, which under my leadership and style, probably never would have happened,” Roeslein says. “We would have been stuck at $20 million to $25 million because that’s what I could manage and that’s what I could keep my thumb on and have enough daytime hours to manage.”

If you feel like your company is stuck, it could be that you’re unwilling to let the people you’ve brought in to work with you and for you stretch their legs and use their talent. You’re only one person and if you keep all the important work to yourself, your company is severely limited in how much it can grow.

“You have to take the risk,” Roeslein says. “Put those people out there. Put them on the front line, put them in difficult situations and see how they respond. From that, you can start to formulate a plan as to who your leadership is and who your next generation is. That’s what I’ve challenged my six managers to do.

“Give guys an opportunity. Challenge them and push them beyond what you believe they can do and see what they can do. If you just keep them on the bench, they’re never going to be able to demonstrate their capabilities and you’re never going to know.”

Back up your words

If Roeslein had talked to his people about having a bigger role in the business or being empowered but continued to make the same decisions he had always made and lead the way he had always led, his company would not have grown.

“There are signals and indicators that employees read,” Roeslein says. “You say certain things. But it’s eventually what you do. What we did was we engaged them in a concept that signaled that we believed there was a future.”

That engagement was made with his six directors but also with every employee who had concerns about the company’s future during those dark days.

“Why would I have them working on all these improvements, cost reductions and things that work toward the future?” Roeslein says. “What I really focused on was let’s build and work toward the future. The future is confident, as far as I’m concerned. Why would I risk every penny that I have and everything I’ve worked for if I didn’t believe in it?

“That resonated with my employees and certainly with six out of eight managers.”

It resonated even more with those six directors when Roeslein rewarded their hard work and effort in getting the company turned around.

“These guys are going to sacrifice a tremendous amount of their lives to this company,” Roeslein says. “I told them a portion of their bonus each year could be applied toward ownership of the business. You’ve already made a huge sacrifice taking a 30 percent pay cut for two years to keep our business alive. Here’s your reward.”

The directors took advantage of the offer, buying out Roeslein’s partner and eventually reducing Roeslein’s share of the business from 75 percent to 51 percent.

“I don’t want to sell this business to outsiders,” Roeslein says.

Build for the future

Just as Roeslein mentored his six directors, he expected them to do the same for another group of leaders.

“If we want to grow the business to the next level, each of you needs to mentor six people,” Roeslein says of his message to his six directors. “That is the next step in the evolution of this company. You mentor six people, and you get the same level of confidence in them that I have in you.”

You’ve got to approach your business as though it were a team and you all make contributions to that team or you’re going to run into problems.

“It’s easy to be a really good guy and smile when things are great,” Roeslein says. “But when things are really bad, that’s when you find out your own character and your own ethos.”

So when failure occurs, approach it with the perspective of how the team can improve instead of focusing on the person who screwed up.

“Every leader needs to put their employees in a situation where they can succeed,” Roeslein says. “When they fail, they need to recognize they are part of the failure. You can’t have your people be so concerned about, ‘What are we going to do if we fail?’”

Roeslein says running a business is a lot like the whitewater rafting he used to do in Colorado and Utah.

“You’re just slowly going down the river and the sun is shining and you relax and your mind wanders,” Roeslein says. “Then, all of a sudden, you hit those rapids and those giant holes, and it scares the hell out of you. You wonder if you’re even going to make it through. It’s how you perform and how you treat everyone during those periods that really forms your character.”

How to reach: Roeslein & Associates Inc.,

(314) 729-0055 or www.roeslein.com

The Roeslein File

Rudi Roeslein

founder and CEO

Roeslein & Associates Inc.

Born: Salzburg, Austria. I was born in 1948 and came to the United States in 1956. I remember seeing the Statue of Liberty. One of my most lasting impressions was the train ride to St. Louis with my face plastered against the window looking out at the countryside. I didn’t speak a word of English.

Education: Bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering, Saint Louis University.

How did your childhood shape you? All of us had this work ethic where we believed no one was going to take care of us. We had to take care of ourselves. Kids can be cruel. Me and two of my German friends, instead of the three Amigos, we were the three little Nazis. So we went through some tough periods.

But I think the great equalizer for me was always sports. I started playing soccer at an early age and when you’re very good at something, kids accept that you’re good at that and a lot of that other stuff goes away.

Did the tough times then help you deal with them better now? I didn’t look at it as leaving long scars. Did it toughen me up and make me more able to take ups and downs in life? I think so. But I’ve never looked back and said, ‘Gee, those kids that held me down and tried to carve a swastika in my forehead were bad kids.’ It was just a sign of the times. Things were going on and you just fought your way through it and just keep on going.

Who has been the most influential person on who you are? My father. He’s the example of a completely selfless person. His whole life was focused around us.

Takeaways:

Let people put use their talents.

Mentor leaders through growing pains.

Reward employees who help you meet goals.

Published in St. Louis
Tuesday, 22 February 2011 14:50

Sowing the seeds

Walter Yager could see what was happening, and he knew he had to stop it. He was becoming a micromanager, a behavioral change that was hurting what he and his business partner, Jose Sanchez, had built at Alpine Fresh Inc.

“There was a specific instance where I got into a disagreement with one of the sales staff over a particular sale and I realized, ‘You know what, that’s not my role,” says Yager, the 4,000-employee fruit and vegetable grower’s co-founder and CEO. “That’s not what I’m here for. I need to take a step back.’”

Yager removed himself from “The Situation Room,” the 3,000-square-foot nerve center that housed most of the key leaders at Alpine Fresh. He was then promptly reminded that there was a good reason why he had hired these people to fill key positions in the company.

“I find they handle 90 percent of the things just as good as if I were there dealing with it myself,” Yager says. “The other 10 percent, they walk it over to me and we’ll discuss it. As a CEO, you have to be really careful not to micromanage because it really limits your ability to grow. It kind of stifles you and you’re also stifling the people you’ve hired to help you grow.”

Yager had rediscovered the value of his people. They help keep him up to date on the status of his farming locations across the globe. They help him gauge the potential benefits and risks of new opportunities that may come about. And they help him prepare for the unexpected challenges that are always looming when you’re in the agricultural business.

Yager needed to build solid channels of communication so that his top leaders would be ready for all of these things and not playing catch-up or asking a lot of questions because they hadn’t been kept in the loop.

Here are some of the ways he cleared these channels to help Alpine Fresh always be ready for the next challenge.

Set the tone

Asparagus is one of four items that Alpine Fresh is known for selling, along with berries, grape tomatoes and mangoes. When a change was made several years ago to the sanitary requirements to import products into the United States, asparagus was affected and Alpine Fresh had to respond.

“There were different vital sanitary requirements to import the product that significantly affected the quality,” Yager says. “It was a big disruption at the time. It was being able to adapt to that change and being able to decide what logistics you were going to use to sell a quality product. We had to make some quick changes to adapt and survive and thrive in that market.”

Whether you like it or not, you’re a role model for your people. Your employees and those on your leadership team look to you for cues on how to act and how to respond to things that happen in your business.

“If you show patience and don’t panic, everybody around you will have the same feeling,” Yager says. “If the leader panics and is erratic, then the people around you are going to get nervous. What I try to communicate is that there is a solution to every problem.”

Yager has grown used to dealing with sudden changes and being forced into a position where he has to respond quickly. But that doesn’t mean it’s always easy.

“We’re dealing with perishable commodities,” Yager says. “Your factors are changing almost minute by minute. You may have a vision of how you want things to go, and all of a sudden, it changes because climates are changing in certain areas of the world or demand curves change or political situations change. It’s difficult when at any given moment, I know what my vision is, but it can change. Trying to offer a stable vision is the most difficult part.”

The key for you is to reinforce a can-do spirit. Encourage and recognize those individuals who offer solutions to problems over those who are content to wait for you to provide a solution. Give those people a real chance to be part of the solution and to feel like they can truly make a difference for your business.

“I tend to talk more to people that are part of the solution,” Yager says. “They are problem solvers on their own and that tells me they are thinking on their own and I value their judgment. They are not afraid to make a decision. They are not afraid to think.”

Again, it’s your reaction to a problem that will go a long way toward determining how your employees respond to it. Of course, there may be times where you don’t even need to respond at all.

“What type of problem is it?” Yager says. “Is it a spot problem or is it a systemic problem? If it’s a spot problem, then I would expect it to already be fixed and be done with it. If it’s a systemic problem, I would look at what we’re doing wrong that is causing this problem.”

Maybe, in the case of the asparagus situation, you haven’t done anything wrong. Whether that’s true or even if it is a problem that you caused, you need to keep your cool.

“There isn’t a problem that can’t be solved,” Yager says. “We just have to think about it and think it through and we’ll find the solution for it. There is nothing, short of the sun not shining, that is going to put an end to our existence. We just have to keep thinking and keep adapting.”

Engage through goals

Yager is not a big believer in burning the midnight oil to get the job done. Rather than praise an employee for doing so, he would more likely wonder why the employee wasn’t able to complete the task during regular work hours.

One of the ways you can help employees prioritize their workload is to give them a means to set and pursue goals. It provides a venue to discuss what they are doing and gives them a chance to feel like they’re making progress in their work.

“What we’re trying to inspire out of them is the thought process and how they view themselves and how they view their role in the company,” Yager says.

One of the keys to making the goal-setting process work is to make sure the goals are able to be objectively measured.

“We’re trying to get more eco-friendly with paperwork reduction,” Yager says. “So one of the goals for somebody is we want to have it where all the documents are electronic. We need to get an electronic scanning system so we can scan everything and reduce the amount of paperwork. So that was one of their major goals.

“It has to be something that you can objectively measure whether they did it or didn’t do it. You don’t want it to be subjective, because then it’s going to be a gray area and they’re going to argue that they did it and you may argue that they didn’t do it. Make sure that they keep it objective.”

Employees should have someone to meet with and review the goals they’ve come up with. It’s not that you’re trying to censor their goals. You’re just trying to make sure they are helping both the employee and the company.

“The supervisor will review it, and depending on the employee, I’ll review some of them,” Yager says. “There might be a little back and forth where I get back to them and say, ‘Listen, this one is good. This one isn’t good. We need to look at something a little different.’ It may take a month before you come to a consensus.”

Make sure both the supervisor and the employee get a copy of the goals. Monitor the goals throughout the year to check on the employee’s progress toward achieving them.

“At the end of the year, we’ll whip it out and say, ‘Hey, you did it or you didn’t do it,’” Yager says. “The key is you have to be objective. It can’t be, ‘I want to increase sales.’ It could be, if I was one of the salesmen, ‘I want to get X customer to start contracting one of the items that he is not currently buying.’ It has to be something that anybody can measure objectively.

“You really find how people view themselves in the company and how lost some people are and how focused other people are. By doing that, you’re helping them to get focused on what you want them to do. But it’s coming from them, so they’re clear on what they want to do.”

Yager believes there is also benefit in giving employees personal goals to pursue through their work.

“A friend of mine in the industry, he told me about a book that he wrote,” Yager says. “The gist of it was that it was a cleaning company with a tremendous turnover problem. You can imagine a cleaning company. People don’t want to be in the cleaning business for the rest of their lives. So they hired this business guru to figure out how to prevent people from leaving. To make a long story short, they went in and they interviewed the employees and they set this program: ‘What were the employees goals and dreams? What did they want to do in life?’

“Obviously, you have to be realistic. My dream in life is to have a G5 and a 100-foot yacht, but I have to be realistic. You try to get them to have a realistic goal. How can we as a company help you achieve it? It’s a personal goal. It’s not a company goal. I want to get a new car in a year. I want to be able to buy a house. Whatever it is they want to do, you set out a plan. This is how we’re going to help you achieve your goal. As a consequence of that, their turnover rate went to zero because everybody felt better about where they stood and where they were headed in life.”

One of the results of this goal-setting process at Alpine Fresh has been a clearer identity of purpose for employees.

“People are working toward their goals,” Yager says. “They are not working toward them every day, but you have a year.”

The benefit of giving employees goals to pursue has been most clearly evident at the middle level of the company.

“At the top level, people are at the top level for a reason,” Yager says. “At the midlevel, they have a better understanding of what their role is in the company. Those are the people that can make a difference. A great quarterback needs linemen to protect him. Those are the people doing that for you.”

How to reach: Alpine Fresh Inc., (800) 292-8777 or www.alpinefresh.com

The Yager file

Walter Yager

Co-founder and CEO

Alpine Fresh Inc.

Born: San Francisco, Calif.

Education: Bachelor degree, finance, University of Florida

Who has been the most influential person in your life?

Jesus Christ. He’s a guiding light in trying to do the right thing. Our director of sales is John Lyons. Years ago, when he was with us, we were relatively new, and we were having some logistical issues. He came to me and he said, ‘We have a problem. We don’t have any product, and I don’t know what to tell the customer. What should I tell the customer?’ And I said, ‘Tell them the truth.’ He looked at me like I was talking Chinese. ‘What do you mean? In business, you tell the truth?’ (Jesus is) just a guiding principle to try to do the best we can and try to be as truthful as we can in what we’re doing.

What’s the best advice anyone has ever given you?

One of our first bankers who we went to get financing from to work on this project, he said there will always be another deal of a lifetime.

We argued that there wasn’t and that this was the deal we had to do. Of course, we did it and lost money at it. Usually, when you lose money is when you learn your best lessons. You tend to not listen when things are going well. We didn’t learn it right then and there. It may be a deal of a lifetime that you pass up on. But there will always be another one.

Published in Florida

The past couple of years have been stressful for most businesses, and Marko Mrkonich can relate — in some ways.

While the past two years have been crazy for him as president and managing director of the employment and labor law firm Littler Mendelson PC, it hasn’t been because the economy has been hurting his firm. It’s been a result of staying ahead of the growth that has taken the firm from $240 million in revenue in 2006 to $370.5 million in 2009.

“Growth simply to say you’ve grown is not necessarily a good thing,” he says. “When you find yourself in a position where the best reason you can come up with to undertake a new initiative is because it lets you grow, that’s not enough. That’s missing the point. Growth is an indicator of success, and it shows that there are positive things going on.”

He says that if you are an average company with average people and you add more average business and average employees to what you already have, then it’s not going to be the success you likely envision. You have to make sure you’re making your firm better with the people you add and the new projects you take on.

“When you’re on a growth curve, every once in awhile, you need to take a deep breath and assess what you’ve done and where you’re going and try to see the pattern and the trend of the line that you’re on and if you’re going where you want to go,” Mrkonich says. “You can get caught up in the excitement of the moment and start on a path without realizing exactly where it means you’re going.”

To make sure he’s stayed on the path during the past few years, he’s focused on hiring better people, creating the right environment and making sure he prioritizes what matters.

Hire better people

As Littler has grown, one of the keys to making sure the firm stays a strong organization has been hiring people into only the top half of the firm in terms of talent.

“If you’re average to start with, and you add people no better than what you were, you’re going to remain average,” Mrkonich says.

To make sure he gets people who will only move the firm forward, he goes beyond their experience. Littler has such a niche focus, experience is a given. He goes further and looks to see if they’ll fit in.

“When you’re looking at whether someone would be a good fit, focus on the person’s long-term goals and ambitions and see whether they align with your organization and if they fit with your organization,” he says. “So often, short-term goals dominate.”

He says you have to look at what their motivations are for leaving their current position. For instance, is someone interested in moving on because something unpleasant happened in his or her current company or is the person simply looking for a better opportunity? If it’s the former, that could happen anywhere, and you don’t necessarily want your people looking for a new job each time something unpleasant happens.

“You sort of start to focus on what the person’s ambitions are — what they hope to do professionally, what they hope to do personally, what they hope to do financially,” he says. “You sort of see and explore paths within that would bring that person in.”

You also want to make sure that the main reason someone leaving another position is not simply for more money. Sometimes a person may have specific needs that require looking for a position with a higher salary. But you have to distinguish between that and just chasing the next dollar, and the only way you can do that is to make sure you’re not enticing them instead of focusing on the attributes of your company.

“Generally speaking, people want to know that economically, they can, in the long run, do better,” Mrkonich says. “However, it’s our general practice that we don’t go buy people. Ultimately, if you recruit someone because you’re willing to pay them more today than someone else is, that can change tomorrow.”

Once you get past a person’s ambitions, you also have to look at his or her personality and who he or she is as a person.

“Get to know the person at a more human level,” he says. “What are their hobbies? What are their interests? What do they like to do in their nonwork time? What do they like to do within their work time? What part of the practice do they like the most?

“Once you break down a barrier or two, then you start to go beyond the interview-speak and hear what people are really thinking and feeling.”

This also helps you learn about not only why they’re interested in coming to your company but also what barriers they face in leaving their current position. For some people, they may only make one or two major career moves in their life, and if you’re a possibility, you have to understand that about them.

“If it’s someone who moves a lot and all the time, it’s not that we won’t find someone that’s a great fit, but that’s a … warning signal that you want to make sure it really is a great fit,” Mrkonich says. “If it’s someone considering the one move they might make in their career, you say, ‘Well, they’re more likely, if they find the right place for them that solves their long-term aspirations, to be a long-term team player for you.”

When you have someone like that, you need to be respectful and careful in what you say in your attempts to recruit them.

“One rule is, I never bash the place they are, because they’ve devoted a fair amount of their professional career and their personal time making that firm and that place all it can be, and that doesn’t get you very far,” he says. “To me, I like to focus on the future and the positive things that we bring as a firm.”

Have the right environment

When a lawyer in Los Angeles came forward with the idea of opening an office in Orange County, he wasn’t shot down. He explained that while working in L.A., he saw a huge market opportunity in the neighboring county and that the firm would benefit by having a ground presence there. He got the OK, and now there are about 15 lawyers in the office. A similar situation occurred with Minneapolis, which now has about 30 lawyers there.

“It’s building a business case for the idea, making sure there’s sufficient number of others that buy in, and it’s developing a budget and plan,” Mrkonich says. “If it makes sense, we do it.”

Empowering employees to bring forward new ideas has been one key to Littler’s growth, and doing so creates an environment of teamwork and collaboration.

“They believe that if they have an idea and they can articulate a reason to pursue it, they will never be told no,” he says.

If you haven’t had that kind of environment in the past, you clearly can’t just start implementing a bunch of ideas, but you can start somewhere.

“I don’t think you can take someone else’s system and graft it onto your own,” he says. “It starts with looking at your own values system, your own culture, your own business model and see where opportunities exist for new ideas and new ways of doing things, and then trying to work and focus on that aspect of the business.”

He says you have to look at what you’re completely committed to and what you’re completely not committed to in order to make decisions.

“If you’re committed through hard cost investment to a particular business model, and someone wants to come in and say that business model is wrong, that doesn’t help you much,” Mrkonich says. “You want to focus on the areas where, from a structural standpoint and a values standpoint, you’re open to new ideas, and then build systems that are compatible with your culture and understand and reward people for taking chances and identifying opportunity.”

Another element to having the right environment that promotes growth is making sure you are fostering and encouraging collaboration and teamwork.

“You have to have a rewards system that includes your ability to work together and how well you work with others,” he says.

This can be a series of metrics that are specific to a department or set of people, or it could just be one super metric. Either way, as the leader, you have to demonstrate this.

“If you or the people at the top are always claiming credit for good things and passing blame for the bad things that happen, it’s never going to work,” Mrkonich says. “There has to be a culture of accountability at the top, a culture of sharing and a culture of teamwork at the top. … If you do it at the top level, there’s some hope that it will filter out and be seen by those trying to work themselves into positions where they’re part of the leadership team as the right way to do things.”

And lastly, you have to make sure you’re communicating in an honest and fair manner with all of your employees.

“When there’s bad news, you can’t hide it,” he says. “One of my colleagues says bad news does not taste better served cold. That’s very true. It’s being realistic and being honest, making sure communication is frequent and also personal.”

Prioritize

Mrkonich is an avid fiction reader, and while he doesn’t read a lot of business books, Stephen Covey’s “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” resonated with him when Covey spoke about prioritization.

“Obviously, if something is urgent and important, you’re going to do it,” Mrkonich says. “If something is neither urgent nor important, you’re only going to do it if you need a break — like playing solitaire on your computer — and then you have that, ‘What if it’s urgent but not important versus important but not urgent?’ How you balance those two things determines the effectiveness of your organization and you as an executive.”

And those decisions can also determine how well — if at all — your organization can grow. So when the phone is ringing, he has 10 e-mails to return and an employee is about to celebrate his or her 30th anniversary with the firm, how does he prioritize what to do?

“It’s time for you sit down and write a thank-you note to the person who just reached their 30th anniversary with the firm,” he says. “Which one is more important? This is a time when each is more important, but in the end, if you don’t get around to thanking the people who have been here for 30 years for their loyalty and commitment, you’re missing the boat.”

He says you have to develop a system for determining what’s important versus what’s urgent and weighing how tasks fall into those buckets.

“Make sure you don’t fall into the trap of doing things that are urgent but not particularly important at the expense of those things that are truly important but don’t have the immediacy that other things do,” Mrkonich says.

“You sit down, and you devote the time to planning and deciding. There’s no one answer. Sometimes things are urgent for a reason — even though they’re not important, they have to be done. Other times, you have to make sure you have time to do those things that are important but may not be urgent.

“Think of it as Saturday date night with your spouse or partner. That’s important. It may not feel urgent each Saturday night, but you recognize that if you don’t do it, you’re not investing enough into your relationship. … You start running around and saying, ‘I have to have this done, and I have to finish this and finish that, and you have to look at, ‘What if I’m a day late with that? What am I giving up?’ You have to know. It’s all about prioritization.”

How to reach: Littler Mendelson PC, (888) 548-8537 or www.littler.com

The Mrkonich file

Marko Mrkonich

President and managing director

Littler Mendelson PC

Born: I was born in a town called Thief River Falls, Minn. The nickname of the high school sports teams is the Prowlers — which today sounds like a felon in waiting, but it’s a nocturnal cat that was sort of the logo. I don’t know that a school would knowingly pick that these days. I grew up in Duluth for most of my childhood.

Education: Undergraduate and law degrees, Harvard

What was your first job as a child?

My first job with a paycheck was cleaning schoolrooms and desks in the summer time for the Duluth School Board. I was 16. I learned, to a certain extent, no matter what you’re doing, showing up on time and prepared is important.

As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?

I wanted to be a professional athlete. I wasn’t even picky. I probably wanted to be a pro football player.

What has been the best advice you’ve received?

It’s interesting, because over the years I’ve been fortunate to have had many people share many pieces of wisdom. There are two I would say — one is from my father, which was, ‘Work hard every day, and people may not agree with you, but they’ll respect you.’ And [the other is,] ‘Worry about yourself and what you’re doing — don’t get caught up in looking at what other people are doing, because that’s a recipe for disaster.’

What’s your favorite board game?

Trivial Pursuit, because I think that it’s social and I just have a fondness for trivia.

Published in Northern California