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An Entrepreneur's Legacy

“Hey Lance, do you have a moment?”

It was my friend Chad Kreutz. We’ve known each other for five and a half years, been good friends for most of that time and he recently moved down to Portland to take a job. We started working at the same company, QualitySmith (then RBS Interactive), within a couple of days of each other back in 2005.

I had just dropped off my wife at work and was heading back home. I had messaged him about some Blazers tickets earlier that week so I had suspected it might be about that.

“I have some sad news out of Walla Walla today. Are you sitting down?”

Am I sitting down? This call wasn’t about Blazer tickets.

“Rob passed away yesterday.”

* * * * *

I had known about Walla Walla for most of my life. My dad and step-mom were both born and raised there. My grandparents were from there too. My dad relocated to the Portland area in high school but after my parents divorce in the late 80’s, he went back to Walla Walla in 1993.

The place was a hick town in my teenage estimation and forced summers there in triple digit heat didn’t help that at all. After a few years though, I figured that my Dad wasn’t going to be coming back to Portland and learned to appreciate the town for what it was: fine for a visit or even an extended stay, but not more.

After high school, I chose to go to college about two hours from there in another small hick town with far too much snow and summer for my Portland blood. When I moved back to Portland after graduation, I had a retail management position that was very unfulfilling.

After the busy holidays, I started looking around for HR positions and saw that a company out of Walla Walla was hiring a recruiter. I had never heard of RBS Interactive and I wasn’t sure that I wanted to live in Walla Walla (much less my fiancee). I applied though, got a call, drove the 254 miles to Walla Walla, and got hired.

* * * * *

“I’m tired of walking.”

The words escaped my lips and we both kind of laughed. It was my fourth month on the job and Rob Schmidt, the President of RBS Interactive, and I had just completed what had to be dozens of laps around the building over the last 90 minutes. We had talked, argued and gotten animated about who knows what. I finally convinced him that we needed to go get some coffee otherwise I was going to crash at my desk this afternoon.

Rob got it. Who knows how much money he spent at the Starbucks that was a brisk one minute walk from his desk to the counter but it was enough that everyone knew him there and knew what he wanted.

I knew entrepreneurs had different personalities but Rob’s energy was as exhilarating as it was exhausting, even for a guy that considers himself pretty good at this stuff.

His boundless energy, competitiveness and curiosity caused numerous “problems”: tangential meetings, interviews gone horribly wrong, poor feedback to employees and ever shifting priorities depending on where his mind was wandering that day. But those problems also caused him to take risks in a critical area to me: staffing. Walla Walla wasn’t the most desirable place to attract candidates so he signed off on risky hires in order to make it work.

And risky they were. My own hire was risky (my experience level wasn’t there) but I had other things going for me (ties to the area and the willingness and ability to put in major time). It fit with how I thought HR and recruiting could be run: flexible, risk taking and ultimately rewarding.

* * * * *

We were opening gifts at my Dad’s house on Christmas morning and I kept thinking how weird it was that we were up there. We decided to stay home for Christmas because the fall was brutal work wise. Jen had worked her first harvest at a local winery and it was busy at QualitySmith (RBS Interactive changed their name halfway through my tenure). Home was now officially Walla Walla. I was closer to my Dad than ever before, I had made new friends and I was enjoying work. I had learned to love a place I previously doubted I could stand a week.

Was Rob directly responsible for any of this? Both directly and indirectly. We had a great working relationship and he was fun (and challenging) to work for but the people he put into place and the ideas he dreamed up changed my life. We worked hard for him when we believed in his vision and we worked hard for him when we didn’t quite see it because you always wanted to give your best for him and you always thought you’d warm up to it. Countless days after everyone had gone home, I sat in Rhonda Donnelly’s office (our VP of Operations) and we would just half laugh, half shake our heads at some of the crazy ideas he would come up with.

Ultimately though, his team would put together a plan to try to bring his ideas to fruition. That gamble in staffing paid off at times and led to some amazing things. Other times, we had mud on our face and we got a bad beat. That was reality. I can’t tell you the number of times I said sorry to him. He wouldn’t allow it though. There wasn’t enough time to Monday Morning Quarterback.

When he called my cell phone at nights and on weekends, I paced with him. I tried to keep up with his frantic vocal pace. Somewhere along the line, I would figure out I was the third or fourth person he was calling about a particular idea. It was my turn to poke at it with my stick and see if I could find any holes.

I wouldn’t have changed it though. Not the location nor the people I was working with. And even when I go back to see my dumpy little rental house on 822 St. John Street or the offices we moved out of on Main Street, I feel nostalgic. This was home. At least for a while.

* * * * *

My phone rang and I saw the picture of my wife come up on the caller ID.

“I got the job in Portland.”

My wife had interviewed for a job in Portland. She was also looking for a job locally too and had only interviewed for one job in Portland. She got it and she wanted it. Saying no wasn’t an option.

People at work understood. Rob understood. They even worked with me and let me work my HR job remotely for six months. The company grew quite a bit while I was there (from 32 people when I started to over 160 at one point) but it wasn’t all fun and games. When we had our second sets of layoffs, I was working remotely. It would have made sense to cut me (Rhonda had most of my skill set, just limited time). I flew up there though and assisted with that. We closed two remote offices as well while I was working for them.

It wasn’t tougher on anyone more than Rob. It would have been crass at the time to mention to the people being laid off how much personal money he invested to give them another couple of months hoping for some business turn around. He’d pace, he’d stress and he’d ask for who we’re looking at again to dismiss.

When it finally came time for me to leave, it was tough. But every time I came to visit, he always had time to talk. He wanted to talk about QualitySmith, flying, farming and his family. He wanted to know how I was doing and would always ask me when I was moving back to Walla Walla. It wasn’t ever “if” I was going to move back, it was “when.”

* * * * *

A couple days after Chad called me to tell me Rob died, my step-mom e-mailed me an article from the local paper. His death had been ruled a suicide. That was the first time I cried about it. The shock had warn off and I was now just beyond sad about the whole situation.

I think a natural instinct is to ask yourself what you could have done differently. I just wish it were as simple as that. I had stayed in semi-regular contact with him. When I left QualitySmith, we had a great talk about how much I admired him and was thankful for everything.

Then I remembered that Rob didn’t allow us to spend too much time discussing hindsight observations. So I started thinking about the legacy Rob will leave. I was overwhelmed with how big of a swath of influence he left behind. Then I remembered a post I received on my Facebook wall a few months ago:

“Hey Lance, just wanted to say THANK YOU for hiring me 5 years ago.  Today is my 5th anniversary at QualitySmith :-)”

It was one of my first risky hires. In a less risky environment, one without him setting the pace, I don’t know that we would have hired her. We took a chance though and it made a difference for her, her family and us.

We always think about legacies after people retire or die. The final lesson Rob Schmidt taught me is that when you involve your life with people, your legacy is right now. When you’re in the employment game, you make business decisions with very personal consequences. His impact on me was immediate, cumulative and will last for the rest of my life. He had an impact on hundreds of lives directly and thousands of lives indirectly because he put his money where is mouth was consistently when it came to business. He made those decisions one by one and he’s one of the few people that understood the gravity of every situation.

Whenever I start to get involved in debates about interviewing techniques, risk assessments, performance review calendars or benefits brokers, a little voice inside me whispers me back to reality. Focus on the people and take the business personally.

Thanks for the reminder, Rob. Always.

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