Executive Chairman of Sellen Construction
Bob was the CEO of Sellen Construction for 10 years and recently moved into the role of Executive Chairman. In our conversation today we discuss the 60 window failure that almost ended his career, the back of a napkin calculation that moved him into leadership, and the heart attack that helped a healthy man plan his next move.
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Bob: Yeah, I grew up in California, in the Bay Area near San Francisco and, you know, that was late '50s, so it was pretty traditional stuff. My mom didn't work. My Dad had an interesting job. He couldn't talk about it. He worked at what's now known as Lawrence Livermore Lab, used to be called Lawrence Radiation Lab. I think they rebranded it after they realized radiation wasn't the best thing to communicate. But he was a mechanical engineer and he designed and tested atomic bombs, but could never talk about, you know, what he did.
And I always found that fascinating and I always tried to pull the info out of him, but you know, he would never do it. He actually witnessed some aboveground atomic testing and then when that stopped, he would go to Nevada a lot to do the underground testing. He's kind of a low key, kinda laid back guy and you know, probably in terms of influence, he was my biggest influence, and you know, he was a guy who'd never...he didn't really pontificate, right. He didn't tell you about how to be a good person or how to live your life or all that, but he just kinda led by example and lived it and I find myself, you know, all the time to this day just like, "Oh, I'm kinda like my dad," that way. And you know, let's say it's your parents, the people you spend all that time with, that's pretty obvious but...And my mom was a real, oh, I would say dynamic woman and kinda lit up a room and, you know, was a little bit on the crazy side, my dad always just kinda took care of her and tempered that and it was an interesting upbringing, but pretty traditional.
Eric: Clearly as a CEO of a company and a leader of an organization, you have the ability to speak in front of groups and light up a room. Is that something that you get from your mom?
Bob: Yeah. I don't know that I would go so far to say that I light up a room but I definitely have some of my mom's flair for the dramatic. You can ask my kids about it, you know, I overdramatize things, you know, if I have a little cold or whatever it's kind of a big deal. But, well, they made a pretty good pair.
Eric: Because of the nature of the work, your dad was not allowed to talk around the dinner table about work. Is that something that you continued on in the tradition or did you bring work home with you and talk about it at the dinner table?
Bob: Oh, yeah. You know, and then the work I have done for all these, you know, 40-ish years, it's so obvious what I do kinda, I mean, you know, get these buildings that you sort of leave in your trail. And I remember trying to get them, my girls, really interested in what I did and driving around Seattle area and pointing out buildings and stuff and that got pretty old at about age six or seven for them so...and they definitely weren't gonna follow me into the business. They've done very well and they're super great kids but no, construction wasn't their thing. So I think it kinda bored...their dad...I have two girls, so dads are pretty boring generally and through a certain phase. But I'm sure they appreciate what all I've been doing the last 40 years, they just didn't wanna do it themselves.
Matt: What do you think were some of the greatest lessons you learned from your dad were?
Bob: I guess, and maybe this is just cliché, but integrity would be a word that would first come to mind. I mean, he was pretty low-key guy until something, you know, that was just plain wrong would occur. You wouldn't see much of in the way of anger or temper or that kinda thing until, you know, something like that happened. I remember one time, and I don't know the details of what happened, but it sounded like it was a bit of a scene. My parents were at a party, I guess maybe I was 12 or 13, and the next day, I remember my mom talking to him about what happened the night before and I was just getting kinda little bits and pieces of it. And apparently, some of the other gentlemen at the party were talking...let's see, how would I put it?
You know, the Me Too movement, I think they were the originals and they were talking about, you know, something to do with women and disparaging and that kinda thing. And then my dad just would have none of it and I think he kinda let them know it and, you know, a social situation, which a lot of people would just sort of you know, back away or back off or whatever. But when he thought something was important, he just took it. And so I remember that kinda thing on occasion and, you know, maybe to a fault, I've done similar things over the years where, you know, damn it if it's not right and maybe the best short-term solution is to sorta smooth it over and brush it off, but in the long run that's not what he did and I hope that's not what I do.
Matt: Do you have an example of a time where you had to endure a temporary discomfort but in the long run you were happy when you stood up for a principle?
Bob: Yeah, I've got a real current example of that. And really it's the first time in my career, so I'm leaping way ahead, and I'll sort of be discreet about it, but you know, the work that we do is so much based on trust and relationships and all of that. And in the 40 years I've been doing this for, I finally came across a client that can't really do that with, can't really...you know, the trust thing is broken and I've just reacted in a way that has surprised a lot of people and we're never gonna work for this client again and we're gonna power our way through this. But whereas relationships are just so key to our long-term success and, you know, business and life and everything else. But when you finally have to come to the conclusion that someone is just not trustworthy, then for me there's no going back. And I'd love to go into more detail on that specific one, but it's a current one so I won't do that.
Eric: How about any stories from your mom? What types of things did you take away from her growing up?
Bob: Yeah. My mom, you know, it's funny when you grow up and you think until, I don't know what age you sort of figure out what's really going on, but you think whatever your life is, "Oh, that's normal. That's like everybody." Right?
Eric: Yeah, right.
Bob: And my mom was a handful, so...and I just remember my dad...I guess the real lesson I learned is, you know, if you love somebody, you need to balance each other and you need to kind of fill in where there are gaps. I remember seeing my dad do that all the time with my mom where something was a big deal but it really wasn't a big deal, you know, and he'd have to kinda work through that and smooth it but I saw that so many times. I mean, the lesson from my mom I guess is how my dad handled her. I mean, she was wonderful, really, I mean, you know, like I said, light up a room, kind of a gal, but also, you know, a little bit of a handful. And so I just sort of watched that over the years. Probably watching that has helped me in terms of just interpersonal relationships and relationships at work and just, you know, making things work when nothing's perfect, you know, nobody is. And so, you know, spending years and years sort of watching that is probably the takeaway.
Matt: Yeah. Do you view the role as an executive of a construction firm as oftentimes tempering very strong emotions or reactions out of people around you? Or is it more driving, leading the way into something that other people are afraid of?
Bob: Oh, it's definitely both. Definitely both. There's no playbook for the human dynamic piece of it and you either kinda relish that challenge or you shy away from it, and I've always really loved that. I love kind of figuring people out and I really...in fact, as I sort of move on to the next chapter in my life, I'm thinking about mediation as a little side thing because I love bringing...yeah, I love bringing people together that have, you know, issues and kinda tamping it down a little bit and working through it and just making it work and figuring out what individual agendas are and what drives people and what motivates them. And that's something that I probably picked up a lot of that from my dad and sort of watching my mom and kinda, you know, he sort of worked his way through it, but I've found that I really enjoy the people side and figuring it out, getting to a solution that works for everybody. You know, they say if you can solve something so that everybody is equally unhappy, that's pretty good solution so I end up doing that a lot.
Matt: Siblings growing up?
Bob: Yeah, I've got three older brothers and an older sister and I was the baby. My oldest brother is 18 years older, so the only sibling I really remember at home is my closest brother and he's five years older than me and the others were pretty much out of the house at that time so not a lot of influence from them, but my closest brother was just an amazing guy. He was a world-class swimmer. I think he was top 20 in the world in like 4 or 5 events, swam at USC and had the fastest 100 freestyle in the country as a senior in high school, and I was a swimmer too, sort of trailing behind him. In fact, one thing I remember about my mom constantly saying is, "Oh, Bobby, don't compare yourself to your brother. Don't compare yourself..." I'm like, "I'm not, I'm not." After a while, "Okay, I guess I am."
But that never bothered me really. He had this unbelievable discipline and dedication and, you know, I watched that and I was very much the opposite. I was, and still am, it's like, well, why do it that way if you can do it easier this way? And you know, I chalk that up to being lazy, but that really has influenced my life, it's like, how do we do this better? How do we make it easier? How do we not work as hard, but you know, work smarter? But you know, to become a world-class swimmer, man, you gotta just work your tail off. And I watched him do that, and over time, I picked up a lot of those habits so he was a pretty big influence.
Matt: Did your parents make you guys work as kids? Did you have to hold jobs through high school?
Bob: No, no. I had friends whose parents did that. My folks' focus was school and then we're always doing sports and so, the time for work, they thought would come later and I'm grateful for that. I love sports, I mean, that's what I would do all the time.
Eric: So summers were spent at the pool?
Bob: Oh, yeah. I mean, I would say growing up from about age 8 to 16, sometimes it was 2-a-day practices and summer was incredible. I can imagine the kinda shape I was in, you know, I'd ride my bike, you know, eight miles to the pool and we'd swim for two hours and ride it back and then I'd get together with friends and we'd play tennis, and we'd play football, and golf, and just constant movement. I get a little antsy when I have to like sit still or do the same thing for very long, so the sports is a great outlet and I still play competitive basketball and love that, just passionate about that.
Eric: So did you play like varsity basketball as well as swimming or was it a hobby?
Bob: No, yeah, it was more of a side thing and, you know, swimming was a full-time thing, especially in California, you know, these weekend meets, it's big deal there. And actually, I kinda regret that in a way because I love football, baseball, basketball, and, you know, I wish I would have sort of been in that mode more. Actually never played organized basketball ever, you know, started with rec leagues, intramurals and all that kinda thing. Swimming was pretty much everything.
Matt: It's interesting because so oftentimes you see people who have honed at these like leadership skills as playing a lot of team sports competitively in their early years and that's a big part of just team sports as a whole. Like what you talk about, you know, running a group, mediation, dealing with different personalities on the court, but I guess you can experience that stuff outside of the varsity, you know, dynamic.
Bob: Yeah. Oh, for sure. And you know, the swimming wasn't that way. It was very much an individual thing. Actually, what I really enjoyed about swimming was when I got to high school, you'd have these dual meets against, you know, one school against the other and, you know, that sorta gets you fired up as a team but it's nothing like basketball. I mean, even today, I'll play a game and if just for one moment I get a little bit lazy or a little bit too tired to do what I think I'm supposed to do and then I get burned, you know, where my head goes immediately is, you know, dammit, that's...the same thing happens in work. Take a moment and you don't do what you gotta do or you're not diligent or disciplined, you know, somebody is gonna dunk on you. So lots of parallels obviously with all team sports, but the other big parallel I draw, it's so much about team chemistry and not every player is gonna be the center or the guard, but you gotta have a good mix. And that's the same thing, you know, with an executive team. You don't want three or four people who, you know, are all kinda cut from the same cloth. You need to be able to sort of balance it and challenge each other and entertain different points of view, that kinda thing.
Matt: In the classroom growing up, was school an important thing to you? Were you good at school? Did you struggle with school? I assume if your dad was a mechanical engineer, you were strong in math and science, is that accurate?
Bob: Yeah, pretty strong. You know what, it goes back to my...let's just...there's an easier way to do it. And I went through this evolution, and it kinda flipped about my freshman year in college, but my mantra was get by with the least schoolwork possible. And so I motored along with, you know, B-plus, you know, A-minus kind of a thing. And I remember several teachers kind of figuring me out and challenging me to, you know, "I know you can do better." And I remember there were three or four teachers like that and I did in their class, I mean, I really excelled, you know, you feel like somebody believes in you and that kinda thing. But at the end of the day, all the way through high school, it just like, okay, you know, just enough to, you know, not flunk out or at least to get by.
A switch flipped for me about my freshman year in college and I decided, you know, I was into this construction management program and I wanted to go to Stanford to get an MBA. And immediately my grade point went from like 2.5 to, you know, my last couple of years was like 3.9 and so I had it in me all those years, right, but just never applied it. And even in swimming, I remember just, you know, if I could loaf it through then that's what I wanted to do. And it was something that happened. I don't even know what it was other than, "Well, if I wanna get into Stanford, get an MBA, I gotta do a little bit better than I've been doing." So from that point forward, I got really serious and much more disciplined about pretty much everything.
Eric: High school, Livermore, California, then you decided to go to college at the University of Washington.
Bob: Yeah, my parents moved. I was the baby of the family and my dad retired pretty early. They were looking all up and down the coast, you know, the West Coast. Of all places, ended up on Whidbey Island, Washington, which from the Bay Area, California to an island in Washington State was real culture shock. I was just turning 16 at the time, so I was between sophomore and junior year and I was getting to be a pretty good swimmer and they had no swimming. So I dabbled a little bit in some other things but...Whidbey Island is a couple hours from Seattle and, you know, I applied to mostly state schools and so that's how I ended up close to where I ended up graduating from high school.
Eric: Brother was out of the house, you moved from California to an island in Washington State and new kid in school. Do you remember like that being a catalyst for anything in your life? How did you deal with that situation?
Bob: I had never moved once, same house on Bernal Avenue in Livermore, and 16 years, you talk to kids who moved every two years or every year with the military, whatever. And so what I found, and I think it's just sort of my personality style, is, you know, that my strength is not walking into a room of strangers and figuring it out. Even to this day, you know, the last thing I wanna do is, you know, cocktail in hand in a room where I don't know anybody. Some people get energy from that and other people, you know, it drains them and I'm in the latter category for sure. Where was I on that?
Matt: That transition to high school and making new friends at the new school.
Bob: Oh, yeah, yeah. No, so that took a while and a better part of, you know, the first half of the school year and then I kinda got into a group of friends that was pretty good, but that's not my forte. And I think a lot of people would think that a CEO is gonna be the type of person who is out there and is comfortable in those kinda situations. I think there are a lot of CEOs that aren't and you just gotta adjust yourself and, you know, I can be really on for about three hours but then that three-hour thing hits and it's just about like clockwork. It's like my energy is sapped so...
Matt: Yeah, or you're just kinda crash after you've been with people for that long.
Bob: Yeah. Yeah. I love people. I mean, I do, but it's like that being on part, it takes energy for some people, other people, it energizes them. So, you know, you gotta recognize who you are.
Eric: Did you feel like that component of your job, you had to practice some to get better at? Do you ever feel like, "Oh, I was deficient in, you know, this thing and I need to get better at it"?
Bob: Yeah, just being more aware of, you know, in situations where got a lot of people and you've got a lead or guide or, you know, show up in a certain way. You know, I had to kind of get my game face on a little bit and still do at times. You know, over time I think any sort of personality style can work in a leadership or a CEO role, you just have to recognize where the gaps are and kinda focus on those and so I would do that. The one big, big, big area, and I think it's common for pretty much everybody on planet that I had to overcome, was public speaking and, man, that was...you know, you probably ask anybody on the street, you know, "What's the worst thing that you can imagine?" It's like, "Well, standing up in front of a group of strangers and talking." But that was something I really did force myself to do. And just, there's no way to get better at it if you don't do it and you can't read a book about it and think you can get better. So...
Eric: How did you train it?
Bob: I remember one of my first interviews for a project, you know, pretty much all of our work is negotiated, so you know, we do a written proposal and then we go in for an interview presentation and I just remember being so bad at it on my first one that I just swore, "This is not gonna happen again." And so I would just put in the homework, you know, when it's sort of something I know is coming up and I've got certain things I want to, you know, messages and things I wanna say is I just prep and over prep and I've always...or I have never carried notes with me. I want it to feel like it's natural and, you know, I'm not reading to someone and because it's so painful for me to have someone read to me. So I always just made the commitment to my audience, whoever that is, that I'm not gonna have notes, I'm not gonna read to them. So I just spend the time thinking through what I wanna talk about and then it flows, and now I love talking to groups. No problem, open it up.
Matt: All right, so University of Washington, you go into a construction management program and then you said, "I wanna go to Stanford Business School." Do you remember what prompted Stanford in your mind, or did you have a prof who was inspirational or...?
Bob: No, not really, but I had over time sort of figured out, well I don't wanna just come into this business with a construction management degree, I wanna run a organization and whether I start my own or it's someplace that I go to work for and work my way up, and it's like Harvard, right? That's like the gold standard and on the West Coast it's Stanford and so I just sort of got to a point where, well, whatever the best is, that's where I wanna aspire to. And I probably could have gotten into Stanford but ended up working...anyway, that's sort of a different story. But that was a big motivator. I remember, you know, for two, three years, saying that's my goal and that's what I'm working towards, and boy, it sure made a difference in my grades and in my just overall approach to getting stuff done.
Matt: You knew you wanted to run an organization from a young age.
Eric: Do you remember why you went through that thought process or how you got there?
Bob: You know, that's a good one. I've given this a lot of thought over the years, but I remember my first day at Sellen, 1981, and I'm sitting across the desk from this guy, Bill Scott who was a CEO at the time and like a legend in the business and, you know, I'm meeting him for the first time. He's got this white hair and, you know, I'm intimidated and awestruck and all that. But I remember sitting across from him on my very first day, I'm like 23 years old, and I'm thinking to myself, "Well, I want his job." Obviously. I mean, isn't that what everybody wants, you know, everybody wants to work up to lead, you know, wherever they are, whatever it is. And you know, I learned over the years that that's not the case. Not everybody wants that and even those that think they do, don't.
But what sparked that for me, again, I guess I go back to the Stanford thing and it's like, I didn't really think of it this way back then, but people have accused me of being an overachiever and striving for things that maybe were a little too far out of reach, but that's like never give up, never give up, go for it. I see it in young kids coming out of school that I can...within a pretty short period of time, you can pick out the leaders and, you know, I mean, they're not leading a big organization, but you can just...there's something almost intangible about the way they carry themselves and I think it's a real...they bring a balance of a technical side, but also the people side. I mean, that's really where the big difference is.
But then there's also that drive to take a group and a team and lead, you know, and craft a vision and lead it towards you know, whatever that is. And so there's a little intangible thing there, but I think, you know, are leaders born or made? I think mostly they're born. Certainly, other influences happen in life and that kinda thing. But I think it's just something in the DNA with some folks and other folks don't have it at all. I remember talking to people about sharing that story about my first day at Sellen and hearing back, "Oh my God, I wouldn't want that." I was like, "What do you mean you wouldn't want that? Doesn't everybody want that?" And so, no, that's not the case.
Eric: Yeah. How did you decide to go into construction management? Did you know that going into University of Washington?
Bob: You know, it's funny how just funny little twists and turns can create a path for your whole life. So between my senior year in high school and college, I knew I was going to U-Dub and I'm looking through the catalog of all the courses and the majors and, you know, the coursework and all that stuff. So I was thinking business or economics or engineering or something like that and I came across construction management as a major. U-Dub had a program for several years and, oh, that's interesting. That's pretty specialized but, you know, something I might wanna check out. So about my third week at U-Dub, I wandered into the construction management office and said, "Hey, I'm a new freshman. I'm kinda interested in maybe looking at the program and what can you tell me?" And it's very different now. Almost like shoved a piece of paper in front of me saying, "Here, sign up, sign up for the program." Unlike today, it's like you apply when you're a sophomore and they take one out of four, junior year and you've gotta have way better grades than I probably did, but back then if you could fog a mirror, they'd take you in.
So I'm like, "Well, jeez, if that's easy, I'm not sure I wanna do it." Anyway, long story short, I did and what I really liked was the broad range of you got into physics and some math but not engineering level, but then you also got into law and business and it's just a real broad range of coursework that I found interesting and I like that variety versus kind of that laser focus on design or something, and just did it and got through and did really well and I ended up, hey, the rest is kinda history. I had a couple of great internship during my sophomore, junior year and junior and senior year, that I learned that I love that, God, we're building something, you know and if you're gonna leave it behind and you can drive by it later and, you know, versus a lot of careers where it's much less tangible than that. That was a big attraction for me, was that fact that hey, you're leaving stuff that's gonna last.
Matt: As undergrad, instead of going to grad school, you decide you're gonna just land a job first, so let's walk through that part in your life.
Bob: Yeah, well, I'd interned two summers for a company called SJ Groves & Sons and they were a big national kind of a competitor to Peter Kiewit. They did a lot of interstate highway work and dams and bridges and that kinda thing. And towards the end of my sophomore year on the bulletin board, there was a little posting for internships for jobs out at a nuclear plant that was being built about 60, 70 miles from Seattle. And so anyway, I got that job and worked the summer, worked my tail off. It was like harder than I'd ever worked, it was six days a week, which was to me it's like crazy, "What do you mean? I'm gonna work on Saturday?" But I did and it was...they had the site prep contract for this nuclear plant that ended up getting mothballed by the way. But anyway, so that was a great experience with the company.
And then the next year I worked in their office here close to Seattle in estimating and that kinda thing. And I remember the guy who, you know, ran the northwest division, flew me down in their little private plane to Bonneville Dam, which they were expanding at the time. So, you know, this is big stuff. They're diverting the Columbia River and they're, you know, building these big powerhouses and stuff, and I'm like 21 years old and he's having me tag along and I was just like, "Wow, this is just amazing." So they offered me a job out of school and I went to Idaho Falls, Idaho on Snake River doing smaller dams and powerhouses at three different sites and man, that was really interesting work, that heavy civil stuff because, you know, they would divert the river with these big sheet piles and then they would blast the bedrock, you know. I actually got into blasting techniques and, you know, figuring out how much and how the sequence of the blast, you know, you don't just do it all at once, it's gotta be in sequence, and fascinating stuff.
But what I realized is, you know, I worked for them for about a year-and-a-half, is that if I did that, if I sort of kept on that path as a career, I would be moving every year-and-a-half to two years my whole career because I was looking at people who at the time were the age I am now and they hadn't settled down anywhere for more than a year-and-a-half or so and always in these little, tiny towns. I called up a friend who I knew at U-Dub and he worked at Sellen and said, "Hey, I'm thinking about, you know, coming back to Seattle," and he said, "Oh yeah, they might be looking for somebody here," at Sellen, so they hired me over the phone and I drove out and started work.
Matt: So the main thing that moved you out of the job that you were in was just the idea that you wanted to stay put in one place?
Bob: Yeah. And also be closer to my family. You know, my parents still lived here and were getting up in age a little bit and, you know, the opportunity to kinda be closer to them and not having to move every year-and-a-half or two to these little, tiny towns and that just didn't seem like something I wanted to put a family through ultimately. And so anyway, it all worked out pretty well.
Matt: Yeah. What do you think the biggest lesson you learned from that very first job was?
Bob: That I didn't know anything. You know, you come out of school and you think you've taken all these classes and that, you know, you're a college graduate and all that and you learn really fast that none of that really matters. I mean, you have some broad-brush knowledge on a few topics, but I guess the lesson I learned is you don't start learning until you get on the job and that, if you can, seek out a person or a few people who you can build a relationship with and learn the business from and talk about mentors and all that and I guess that's what I'm talking about. But I think I learned that that's a really important part of getting better at what you're doing and understanding the big picture more than, you know, a dumb college kid coming out thinking he knows more than he does.
Eric: Do you have a story of the first time you realized you didn't know anything? Was there some veteran on the job site who really kinda made it a point to show you that you didn't know anything?
Bob: Oh, I remember one. You know, I had the responsibility, we had these three sites that were maybe three or four miles apart and so they head guy told me I had to get something done at this site that was furthest from the main office that we had and I needed a backhoe to get this done or I can't remember what the heck it was. I think it was doing a concrete pad for something or other, a really simple thing. Actually, yeah, there's a couple lessons here. And we'd have these morning meetings and coordinate between the three sites and equipment and this and that. And I remember like three days in a row, it's like, "I need a backhoe. I did this backhoe." This one old, grizzled guy kinda looked at me and I can't remember exactly what he said, but it's basically it's like, "You pipe down, kid, you get the backhoe when you get the backhoe." Oh, okay. And so I think from that point I took my lesson was, okay, you gotta be a little smoother. You gotta work around the edges and, you know, so yeah, he took care of me right there. And yeah, in a way that is funny, I still remember that.
Matt: Is that something that you try to teach young people who join your organization these days or do you just kinda throw them in the field and say, "Hey, they'll learn the lessons that they learned"?
Bob: Well, you know, it's you're gonna learn the lessons on the job and what we try to cultivate here and is an environment where people feel supported and there are resources and people to help. And I meet with new employees after they've been here a little bit of time and the consistent feedback I get is how people are surprised at how everybody in the company is willing to spend time with them or to help them or if they have questions or that kinda thing, that sort of supportive environment, and so we definitely don't throw people out there. We used to, you know, it was sort of a sink or swim kinda thing when I started, but I think we have a culture now that really is better for business and, you know, people do feel like they've got folks who are watching their back and kind of on their side and that they can trust. We don't have any formal mentoring but, you know, so much of it is happening in an informal way that I think that's how you create a place where people wanna be and they feel like they can learn and grow and back in the day, it wasn't quite that way around here.
Matt: Compare and contrast the work environment today. If you were right outta college today at Sellen, how different is the construction industry than the way it was?
Bob: Well, I'll tell ya, one big area is safety and the focus on safety from the very top of...you know, I meet with other CEOs a lot and it is a consistent...that is the first thing, the most important thing. If we can't do that right, then we shouldn't be doing this, you know, getting people home at night and back to their families in the same condition they arrived. And I think the whole industry has changed, especially over the last 10 and 15 years in that regard. Back when I started, I was taught...we had our company annual meeting last night, I was talking a little bit about this, that people used to ride the headache ball on the crane or ironworkers didn't use to tie off up on those high rise steel buildings and the stuff that we would do and think was okay back in the day is so far from acceptable anymore. That's one really big change.
You know, technology is another one. I was actually telling this story again last night, but that first job that I had in Idaho, I remember seven or eight of us gathering around this machine that we had just purchased and I was sitting on a desk and all of a sudden a piece of paper started coming out of it, thermal paper, right? It's like a fax machine, wait, you can send a document from somebody to somebody? But anyway, you know, now we're at the speed of light, right? A whole different world. And I think it's also different world in terms of, you know, back in the day it was, you got things done by screaming and threatening and sort of fear, I think, was a pretty common way to run work in the construction world. Man, that doesn't work, you know, and that's been cleared out pretty significantly, completely over the years. Yeah, totally different environment.
Eric: The guy who told you that you're gonna get the backhoe when you get it, he doesn't quite have that same kind of informal authority these days that they used to, right?
Bob: Right, right.
Eric: Kinda a little bit more formalized.
Bob: Yeah. Tell me what you mean by formalized.
Eric: Well, I guess I view it as like an informal hierarchy, you know, on a job site and sometimes the oldest, crustiest person, you know, back in the day maybe held some sort of authority that was informal. He yelled the most or...yeah.
Bob: Right. Sure, sure. And I think that's still the case, it's just we don't have the yelling that we used to have or the, you know, sort of domineering approach, and you know, that just doesn't resonate. Now maybe there's some baby boomers it still resonates with but the rest of the gen X and Y and millennials, that's just not gonna fly. And it shouldn't, I mean that's...my thing is treat everybody with respect and treat them the way you think they wanna be treated and you're gonna build a good organization.
Matt: Kinda while we're on that topic, what do you see about current, recent grads coming out of school and into the construction industry? What are they strong in? What are they weak in? Is there enough of them?
Bob: Yeah. Well, there's definitely not enough, especially in the Seattle area and I think across the country too. I mean, most of these schools are 100% placement, that's been the case except for, you know, a few years after the crash there in '08. I would say what's missing, for the most part, is strong communication skills. You know, they'll take the structures in physics and law class and some business stuff, but reading and writing and speaking and communicating clearly and concisely and to the point, that's where I would...and as we talk to, you know, the universities that we recruit from. But my ideal is like, you know, maybe a construction management major with a minor in history or English or, you know, something that shows that they're a little more broadly thinking and qualified than just that focus on, "Hey, I took construction management to get a job." It's almost sort of a trade school approach. And you know, and ultimately, that's what separates the folks who I think really rise in an organization from those who don't so much is communication. And not just the skills of how to write and speak, but how to understand human nature and what motivates people and all that kinda stuff.
Eric: Move from Idaho, you get the job at Sellen, 1981, and been there ever since. Do you have any good stories from your move to Sellen that told you about the nature of the firm or...?
Bob: Yeah. Yeah. I can't remember exactly one specific example of this, but I figured out really quickly and, you know, now I look back on it as, hey, I was just lucky because, you know, a lot of people would take potentially years. But I really felt, I guess what I would call shared values very, very quickly and I could tell that the leadership of the company is Bill Scott and John Sellen was still here. He passed away a couple years later, but...and some of the other sort of senior leaders at the company. Just it sort of goes back to kinda how I think my dad was, which was...I have a great story around this phrase, actually heard it uttered several times, but we do the right thing, do the right thing and whatever that is, you can't define it, it's...you could end up all kinds of different situations but at the end of the day, what's the right thing to do? And I felt that from the day I started and so that feeling that, "Okay, this is a place where I think I could really excel because I feel this connection and I share what the important values that these guys are exhibiting," that resonates with me.
I think that's a really important thing for a young person coming out of school to be looking for is, you know, is this a place where the leadership doesn't just talk about it but their behaviors exemplify that? So that was a big important thing to me, and the early example of that, and I've probably shared this a thousand times around here, but it was really formative for me. And we had a project, I was a young project manager and this was maybe 1985 or '86, and we had a job at a flourmill on a working river called the Duwamish River, it flows into Puget Sound here in Seattle. And we'd been doing some...stripping some concrete floors with pretty toxic material and some of that residue ended up getting into this river and somehow the EPA caught wind and became a really big deal. The U.S. attorney was involved and, you know, charges were being pulled together, including some criminal charges, that kinda thing, yeah. This was a big, big deal.
And I'm just, you know, the young project manager, and this was not a purposeful thing that we did, it was just kind of...you go back that many years, it's like, "Well, yeah, you know, we just kinda put stuff in the storm drain," right? Wherever it ends up, it ends up. Hey, I used to change the oil in my car, and I can't even believe I'm saying this, but, you know, dump it in the backyard. I think it was that kinda thing. But anyway, obviously that's not acceptable. So this was like a major thing in our company and I remember being in a meeting with Bill Scott, the guy I mentioned before, and Rick Redmond who followed him as CEO and a couple of other folks. And I remember Bill saying, you know, "This is a big deal and there's gonna be a lot of investigation and a lot of questions asked and depositions. And what I wanna tell everybody in this room is we're going to do the right thing and we're gonna be honest and we're gonna tell the truth and we're gonna be direct and let the chips fall where they may." And that just, even to this day, just I tell that story to as many of the youngest people here as I can.
And I think that sort of do the right thing is what defines this company and that's what, you know, we have as subsequent leaders have tried to exemplify as well, and again, not just in words but in actions, standing behind your work and taking care of your people and taking care of your clients and knowing that at the end of the day, it's all gonna come back and be good for you as an individual. I've done a lot of the, I haven't done it for a while, but a lot of the college recruiting. I used to go out to the various schools and my last slide was kind of around this topic and it was, you know, after showing all the cool projects we do and everything, the last slide was, you know, the qualities of people who do well at Sellen, people who are humble and people who are competent and those kinds of things. But really, the most important one was people who have an outward focus. People would sort of read that, you know, and I could see kind of you know, what does that mean?
And what it means is to me is if you, just sort of a philosophy I guess, but if you take care of your clients and your family and your friends and your coworkers and, you know, that whole universe of people and relationships around you, if that's your focus, then good things are gonna happen and it's sort of that goes around, comes around thing, but if you're always thinking about, well, what's in it for me, and shouldn't I have another 50 cents an hour, or everything is a transaction where, you know, I've gotta get something if I give something, that's short-term thinking and we're very much long-term thinkers. And so that outward focus is, hey, if we've got people here who don't have that, they pretty quickly wash out after a while.
Eric: You kind of credit some of your predecessors as building this honest, good ethic. But I guess my question is, surely people enter the firm and act in a way that is counter to that ethic and then how do you as a leader maintain the ethic or deal with those situations?
Bob: Quickly, without hesitation, and in a way that...you can go into...I've had thousands of one-on-one conversations with folks on hard subjects and you can have a person leave the room feeling like they're dragging their knuckles getting out of the room and they're just beat down or you can have 'em feel like, "Oh, okay, I kinda get it and I've got something to work," on and it's a little bit more get your shoulders back and your head up kind of a thing. That would be my approach is, you know, have sometimes hard, direct conversations but don't let things linger. The longer it goes without dealing with it the worse it gets. And, you know, every organization deals with this because people don't like hard conversations. But you know, it's being honest and it's being direct and it's with their best interests in mind and the best interest of the company.
And so I like to say and tell our supervisors and hiring managers and such that if it's looking pretty obvious early on with a new hire that this is not gonna work, make every effort to make it work and maybe put them in a different position, or don't give up. But at some point, and it's gotta be sooner than later, you gotta sort of pull the plug and that's better for them and it's better for us. And you know, a lot of times it's just a cultural thing where we're not a good fit. I can't tell you how many times people have finally, you know, said, "Okay, I gotta let this person go," the next day it's like, "God, why didn't I do that two years ago?" So recognize it early and try to, you know, affect it and change it but if you can't, you know, it's always better for the individual to go find another opportunity.
Eric: Yeah. You mentioned cultural fit. Do you have a specific culture that you strive for at Sellen and how do you kinda push that from the top down?
Bob: Boy, you know, culture is a hard one to say, "This is what our culture is." But I think it starts with that, you know, we talk about the "Sellen way" and we don't have that written down anywhere, but the first thing it would say is, "Do the right thing." You know, I think actually Nordstrom has an employee handbook and that's essentially their policy. It's use your good judgment. We're trying to hire people who you know, have good judgment and we gotta do the right thing. I guess that would be where it starts, but really our organization is focused around probably, first and foremost, our people and creating an environment where people can feel supported and that they can learn and grow and have opportunities in training and support and all of that. We came up with something several years ago, we called "the promise" and actually we survey on this every year and it's basically, you know, everybody in this organization, we owe certain things, like you know where the company has been and where the company is going, you know what your role is and how it fits. You know you're mentored and coached every day. You have growth options and opportunities.
I think we have seven or eight things that just kind of came from somewhere and that probably, for me, if I had to say, well, you know, how do you define the culture, it's around creating an environment where people can do their best and that, you know, I talk to other folks in the business who have a little bit different approach to that and it's like, to me, it's the right thing to do, but it's also good for business. When you have people who are doing the right thing when nobody is watching and taking care of their customer and taking care of...making sure their work product is good for whoever that customer is and that there's opportunity and support, who wouldn't wanna work in that kind of environment and do well and multiply? So, that's probably the best way I would describe it.
Matt: Going back to your early career move back to Seattle, started working for Sellen, you bought your first boat as a young, working man in Seattle. What does boating teach you about life?
Bob: That's a good question. I guess you gotta be prepared for anything. You know, you're out on the water and, you know, I'm not a boater...like I was talking to somebody about this just the other day, a couple of people who've worked here over the years have done really serious sailing adventures like, you know, around the world are halfway around the world where you're literally, you know, thousands of miles from anything. But on a smaller scale, I think boating teaches you that you gotta, you know, be ready for things that can happen and, you know, you can't just pull off to the side of the road and get some help, especially back in the day when cell phones weren't even available. I remember some situations where it got a little bit hairy and scary and you had to figure it out on the fly and quickly.
Eric: Do you have a good storm story?
Bob: A lot of corollaries.
Eric: Yeah. Do you have a good storm story?
Bob: Oh, yeah, oh my God. Yeah, I wasn't sure I'd ever get on a boat again, but we were probably five or six friends on a boat, we were coming back from, you know, one place to another and all of a sudden we get into this stretch of water and the wind starts kicking up, and this is about a 31-foot boat, sort of cabin cruiser kind of thing. And then the wind starts kicking up some more and some more and pretty soon these waves were like crashing over the bow, water is coming into the boat, there's no place within several miles to pull in or pull off or, you know, I remember one of the people on the boat said...everybody's getting nervous, people are putting life jackets on and I'm nervous as hell and one of the people on the boat looked at me and said, "Well, as long as you're okay and not nervous, I'm okay." And I'm like, "Holy hell, really?"
You know, it's kinda like when you get turbulence on an airplane, you look at the flight attendant and if like they're cool, okay, it's probably nothing. Man, I was anything but cool, and in fact, I said, "We're gonna be fine. There's a place to pull in and sort of a little very, very sheltered bay. We're gonna go in there," and we get to it and the tide is so low that you can't get in. And so I was like, "Holy hell, we got another two or three hours of this." And we just powered through because you couldn't turn back and you couldn't...you know, you just had no choice. And then I finally got off the boat, and honestly, I wasn't sure I'd ever do it again. So I am much more tuned into weather and not taking any undue risk.
Matt: So what was your next major role at Sellen after being a project manager?
Bob: Yeah. You know, I was a project engineer, so you know, on job sites for just about two, couple of years or so, when I started at Sellen we had like six project engineers. I think we, you know, have 50 or so these days. But as a project manager, I kinda worked my way up into some larger projects and I think the thing that got me into sort of busting out of just pure project management was...gets back to what I said earlier about I think I'm just inherently lazy and I'm always looking for kind of a better way, an easier way, a smarter way to do things. I hate waste and anything that seems wasteful in terms of motion or energy or cost or whatever, so where I got that, I'm not really quite sure. But I started getting noticed by, you know, the more senior management here because I always looked at sort of, okay, what's my job description? I have to do that and I have to do that really well and no compromise, but I always was looking for where else can I contribute and add value to the company?
And in one little example that I sort of was recalling is we're doing this, you know, a small, relatively small job and we had to rent a backhoe for a pretty long period of time, 9 or 10 months or something like that. I'm like, "Well, so why would we rent that? We're gonna have it for nine months." And I did a little, a very simplified sort of net present value thing on buy versus rent and I showed that to, you know, some of the top guys and they're like, "Huh, yeah." So we ended up buying a backhoe and so I was always sort of looking at, well, how can we do it better, faster, cheaper, safer? And so that got me a little bit recognized and I started just getting into more, getting more exposure to sort of the bigger, broader business and we had at the time, well, actually, we still do, what we call management committee. And I remember the day they asked me to join that committee. It was the CEO and the president and you know, three of the most senior guys as they were five or six people. And that is probably the single most...I guess the biggest leap in my career from sort of where I was to the next step was, "Holy hell..."
I remember going home and just putting my head in my hands like, "Oh my God, Oh my God, Oh my God," you know, this, the management committee. To be able to have a voice and to, you know, be part of the team that's kinda directing the company was just like huge. And so I got in that group and started, you know, kinda contributing and I'm terribly bashful about sort of sharing my opinion and that kinda thing in a constructive way. So that then led to...I think I became a COO, so at some point after that, and so I would work on the larger projects with a project manager and just help with various parts of the business. My thing was always more about doing something today that's gonna make my job and our job easier next week or next month. And there were other people here who...and this is where, you know, a good management team has a little bit of everything...other folks here who it's like roll up the sleeves today, and what's the issue today, and let's kinda work our way through this gnarly issue or whatever.
And I was always trying to avoid gnarly issues so as I became sort of more a leader in the company, my focus has been on sort of building the business long term, making sure we have great teams and looking at system and process improvements that are gonna make people's jobs easier next month and next year. And we had other folks here whose real focus was on just that real day-to-day operations and getting into the real detail of current tough issues. And not that I don't get involved in that stuff too, but I really love the longer-term planning and the people element and the culture and that kinda thing so. Yeah, so I became COO, that was probably back in late '90s and moved into the president role in I think it was about 2001.
Matt: Okay. So then after you moved into that president role, what was the first thing that struck you where you're just like, "Wait a minute, I didn't know this was part of the job description?"
Bob: Wow, I hadn't actually thought about this for a while. That's a great question. Within a week of becoming president, I had to call in 10 project engineers and tell them they no longer had a job, one by one, one by one. And let me tell you, that was formative. But what I learned in that it was just a time where the local market had turned and you had to make some tough choices and that happens in this business. All the other businesses as well, but ours is especially cyclical. One thing I remember is in about three-quarters of the people ended up saying, "Gosh, this must be really hard for you." I'm like, "Hard for me? How about you?"
But one thing it taught me is that, and this is something I just live by and have as long as I've been at Sellen but especially in a leadership role, is the test for every decision I make is, is it in the best interests, best long-term interest of Sellen Construction, the health of this org and the long-term? And if I can answer that in the affirmative, you know, I do not agonize over decisions and so I've been able to do that. And the one thing I learned in that, laying off 10 people, you know, it was the right thing to do for the organization and you've gotta put your game face on and you just gotta do it. And you know that it's not pleasant, but you know, a lot of things you gotta do as you work your way up through leadership, a lot of it is not pleasant, but if you know in your heart that that's the best thing for the organization and the long term, then you do it and you move on. Sometimes it's not fun.
Eric: Do you have a biggest mistake you've made in your tenure and what did you learn from it? One you could have back.
Bob: Yeah, I'm making mistakes all the time. Let's see. This was almost like a career-ending mistake, and I was a still a project engineer out on a big job for a hospital client that we've been working for, for 60 years now. I remember checking the shop drawings for the windows on one side of this structure, and anyway, so I got the shop drawing approved and the dimensions and all that and the architect who I'd developed a pretty good relationship with, you know, we send the drawings on to the architect to check, and the dimensional stuff is really not their job to check, that was my job. And he said, "Hey, Bob, I'm noticing that, you know, this detail shows this dimension, this detail shows that, blah, blah, blah." Anyway, long story short, if we had gone with what I had approved and stamped and signed, 60 windows would have been built wrong, built too small so that it's hard to grow them. To this day, I'm guessing I probably would have gotten fired for that and, you know, that taught me that as much as I kind of like to think of myself as a generalist and I'm not the analyzer personality style, the real, you know, in my mind, I've got to be disciplined in how I look at really everything.
It was a close call and I remember it to this day, probably could've ended my career after just a couple of years at Sellen. But as I think about as I've sort of come up through the organization, what some mistakes I've made, actually, I just think about everything at the end of the day comes down to relationships and communication. And you know, I just remember times where I'd like to kick myself and take back, you know, how I dealt with a specific situation, with the dynamics of the situation and the individual and how I could have handled that better. And I think I'm always looking at that and always trying to kind of refine those skills because that's, to me, what leadership and, you know, running an organization is about is, you know, how do you manage the challenges that come with the human dynamic piece of it? Anytime I lie awake at night agonizing about something, it's something to do with people and how do you do that well?
Eric: So you talk about some leadership lessons. If you had someone just getting into the company who had the aspirations to get into upper management, what would you tell them to focus on over the next couple of years?
Bob: First and foremost, it's, you know, knocking it out of the park on the job that you're...your job description. And a lot of people that come into our company coming out of college, start as a project engineer. So you're on the site, you're working with superintendent PM, and really, you boil it down to your job is to get the right stuff to the job at the right time. And man, there's a lot to that. So, you know, I'd say you gotta make sure you do that piece of it. That's where I was always focused, is I gotta do my job. But look for places to contribute outside of that and keep your eyes open and look at the people on the job as almost like as a faculty. I mean, you guys, there's so much to learn from pretty much everybody. You know, create a relationship with the guy who's you know, responsible for all the mechanical systems as a subcontractor and have him walk you through the job so you understand that, you understand their challenges.
And if you always kinda work in that piece of it and trying to better understand, you know, from other people's perspectives, you're gonna create better solutions as, you know, you get more and more opportunity to lead. And so I think it's maintaining that curiosity and that desire to learn, and while you go through it, be humble as well. I would say that's one of the real foundations of our culture is humility. Probably if there were mistakes I've made over the years, I might've been a little too brash at times and it kinda came back to bite me and I don't like to put my foot in my mouth and I've done that a couple of times.
I do remember sitting down with an ironworker, a guy who ran a big steel erection company and, as a project manager, I had sent them a change order for something that had impacted us on, so it was a deductive change order. So he called a meeting with me and the president of the company and he sat, and he was a very intimidating guy, and he said, you know, "What is this?" You know, he really just kinda read me the riot act and I'm like, "You know, he's right." And I did not like that feeling. So make sure that, you know, if you're gonna take a stand in a position, that you've really researched it carefully. I can still feel that washing over me, that feeling of, damn, you know, I just stepped out and stepped in it and I don't wanna do that again.
Eric: Yeah. If you had to put your finger on the best project that you've done while you've been at Sellen, do you think you could put your finger on one of those?
Bob: Yeah, for sure. And I've shared this many times. It's a client that we've worked with, it's the hospital systems, Swedish Medical Center. That was the second job I went on as a project engineer and I've pretty much been involved with them ever since in different roles. But anyway, so kind of our biggest most important client, and this was about 10 years ago, they hired us to do a new campus for them in a Seattle suburb. And I knew the CEO pretty well and so we had pretty high trust relationship. And what I remember about this job, it was a $250 million, it was a big job with a lot of different players. And there was a developer involved on the medical office building, but the hospital is the owner on the rest of it and some interesting contractual arrangements and all that.
But what I remember, and it started with the relationship I think that I had with the CEO that was a high trust and we created a team that if I look back on it, and any successful project that I've worked on, and this is an overused term but trust is the foundation. And if you can find an owner who hires an architect and, you know, the rest of the design team and the contractor and then pulls themselves into the mix and develops a really high trust relationship amongst all of those players, it's unbelievable what you can accomplish. And we're striving for that on every project and, you know, I sort of call it setting the table, but, you know, we spent a lot of time early on creating shared incentives, shared goals and shared incentives. So you know, if we did well, the project did well, we did a little better and the architect did a little better and the owner did a little better and we shared...we created a risk pool and really aligned our interests.
But at the end of the day, that's all good and we've done that on other projects, but that there was such a high level of trust that, hey, I know the architect, he's doing his job and so let him do it. And the owner was supportive and kinda kept the thing going and trusted us to do our job and it was hands down the most successful project I've been a part of. In fact, I went back and we've done several sort of ground-up hospitals, maybe 3 or 4 in the 5 or 10 years prior to that. And I look back and I'm looking at different metrics, cost per square foot, which, you know, we kinda blew out of the water but the metric that I was amazed at, I never really looked at a job on this basis was square feet put in place per month. So you know, 500,000 square feet and, you know, in a two-year job or you know, whatever the numbers were. And this project beat all the other three or four that we had done by a factor. I mean, it was a half, it was twice as fast is what I mean.
It was unbelievable and I'm asking some of our senior guys, you know, our senior members of our team, "How are we doing this? And came down to that trust and that trust went down into the subcontractors and, you know, that's really where we started doing what we call full planning, where we bring in...we don't just hand people a schedule, we have an outline that we then bring in people and then we work through the detail together and they're all bought in and it didn't hurt to have shared incentives of, you know, we're gonna make a little bit more if we can beat some of the metrics that have been set for us. So you know, first of all, it's creating a team where you have competent players, but that the trust levels are high and the goals are aligned. So we're trying to replicate that wherever we can and it's not always so perfect but that one was out of the park for me.
Eric: Yeah. Well, all right, so we have kind of a different section here in the middle where we kind of do rapid fire and quick overrated, underrated questions. Overrated, underrated, The Willows Inn on Lummi Island. The Willows Inn...
Bob: That's interesting. I would say underrated.
Bob: I haven't been there but I've heard all about it.
Eric: Oh, okay. I figured with the boating, you'd have found your way up there at some point in time.
Bob: No, no. Lummi Island is a hard place to dock and such, but my daughters have been there and it's like, yeah, I would say it's underrated. Anyway...
Matt: Building a building for Amazon.
Matt: Pike Roast.
Eric: Are you a third wave coffee person?
Bob: I'm not sure, I go for the like the artisan Italian mix kinda stuff, not the big high batch stuff.
Eric: What is the best book that you've ever read?
Bob: "Team of Rivals" about Lincoln and how he created his cabinet of folks around him and he pulled in people who had been his rivals, and it was the most fascinating book I've ever read.
Bob: Talking about leadership and that guy was brilliant.
Matt: How about your favorite restaurant?
Bob: A little place called La Fontana. It's a little Italian spot in Seattle. It's got a courtyard and just kinda low-key and they're all Italian in there and they're just warm and cozy.
Matt: Is it downtown?
Eric: How about the websites that you visit every single day? Kind of routine of you get up in the morning, these are the first things you kinda check every day.
Bob: "New York Times" and Politico and "Seattle Times." I'm kind of a news junkie, so that's where I spend about 90% of my time.
Eric: Do you listen to any podcasts?
Bob: I don't, but my daughter is trying to talk me into it. I just haven't connected with any.
Eric: Did they recommend any?
Bob: Yeah, my daughter did, "Pod Save America" or something like that...
Eric: "Pod Save America," yeah, okay.
Bob: Yeah. So I've listened to that a few times, but no, for the most part, I'm reading all the news and absorbing things that way.
Matt: What's something that you believe in that very few people do, an unpopular idea?
Bob: Well, you know, actually, I think about what I had said earlier about this outward focus. You know, I think that doesn't resonate for a lot of folks that, you know, that sort of what goes around comes around and you're...if you don't think about yourself first, you're actually gonna come out ahead and I think a lot of people that takes a while to figure out.
Matt: Yeah. Do you have a favorite quote that you always find yourself coming back to?
Bob: Oscar Wilde said that, "God gives us our families. Thank God we can choose our friends." Really not a business thing, but that really resonated for me. Everybody could relate to that.
Matt: Yeah. That's good. So, all right, so let's change gears a little bit. You were pretty open about the heart attack that you had. Can you kinda tell us about that story a little bit?
Bob: Yeah, that was March 4th, 2011 and, you know, I'm active. I'm playing basketball two, three times a week and in the weight room and doing other things and very physically fit. I was 52 at the time and I was in a basketball tournament at the Washington Athletic Club playing a team from Portland, Multnomah Club. You know, normally we don't have spectators watching us because nobody really gives a rip. There were people, you know, lined around the gym and it was this tournament that, you know, the athletic clubs game and everything so it was kind of a big deal. So I'm playing the first half of that game and I come out with a couple of minutes left in the first half, I felt great. Yeah, I had a nice little reverse layup and a nice jump shot. Anyway, I think I had 8 points or 10 points the first half.
But so anyway, I sit down and within about a minute, all of a sudden, and I think I...I'm sure I did. I said, "Whoa," because I all of a sudden felt really dizzy just like out of nowhere and I'm sitting. And then within about a second, I remember just going, "Oh," and like really dizzy and I knew I was going down. And so I ended up sort of in the lap of the guy next to me, and he's like, "What the hell is going on?" And you know, and another guy grabbed me and a couple of people and they laid me down and nobody knew what was going on, thought I was having a seizure or something and I was out cold. And a guy ran across the court, guy named Dan Baggett, he was the athletic trainer for the club that we were playing. And he runs across the court and he says, "Get a defibrillator. Is there a doctor in the house?" and called 911.
You know, nobody...everybody else was kinda like, "What's going on?" And this guy, apparently he'd done this like three times before so he knew what was happening. I actually saw the video clip of this very kinda grainy, but they got the security cameras in the gym and I saw the scorer run across the gym, got a defibrillator, which gyms these days generally have, so talk about the right place at the right time, brings it back. And I kinda did the timing so this guy runs across, he lays me down, he gets the defibrillator, puts it on my chest, it took 45 seconds between the time I passed out and the time that this kid had a defibrillator by my side. And then they put the paddles on, you know, the pads within 90 seconds, a minute-and-a-half of me passing out, they did the first shock.
So, you know, the machine is pretty automatic and it's evaluating, and what was really funny is...not a lot funny about this, but some of my teammates were kinda gathered around as this was happening and the machine says, you know, "Shock coming, everybody stand clear." And of course, you couldn't hear this on the video, but you could see all my teammates just scatter back. So anyway, so within 90 seconds, they do the shock and I still didn't come back and then they did about a minute of chest compressions. I remember this like it was yesterday, I just kind of took a deep breath and I'm looking straight up in the air and this guy, Dan, is in my face, I don't even know him and he's saying, "Bob, are you with me?" And I'm like, "Yeah," like, you know, "What happened?" So actually, literally, my very first thought was, "Oh, I fainted and it's the end of the first half, so I should be fine going into the second half." That was my absolute first thought.
So I was focused on that. But anyway, so long story short, I had a blockage in my...what they call the widow maker, had no symptoms, nothing. I think I played two games the night before or played that day and everything, you know, not a thing other than when I sat down, I got dizzy. So anyway, they got me to the hospital, they put a stent in that artery and, you know, I started kinda working with the cardiologists over the course of the next year and I remember him telling me, he goes, "You know, because you probably should just not play basketball for about a year." And I'm not a guy who's prone to, you know, deep, dark places, but I mean, right away, I can't, I just can't do that. So long story short, I negotiated at a six-week layoff.
Eric: Oh, my, down from a year.
Bob: Down from a year to six weeks. But yeah, so big shocker. So I ended up about a few weeks later sending out an email to our whole company email mail, it was probably about 6,000 people. Basically, my message was, "You'll never believe what happened to me...and out of nowhere, not a single sign, I'm 52 and I'm fit and I eat well and I do all the good things that you're supposed to do. But if it can happen to me, it can happen to anybody and you gotta be doing certain things, you know, I mean, the hardest one is eating right and being physically fit." But when my cardiologist highly recommended this calcium scan that he has all his patients do and it shows basically plaque within your arteries and it'll indicate whether you've got potential problems and, you know, by the time you're 40 or so, you should be doing that. So I really sort of preached that in this email.
Anyway, this email went viral and just all over, I've heard from people all around the world and people went in and got this test taken and they ended up having issues and getting stent or drugs or whatever. I probably heard from 150 or 200 people from as far as Dubai and Australia and places like that. And probably two dozen who did this calcium test and ended up having to do one thing or another because they had some potential issues. So I felt like, you know, I had a message to give and it got out there and it was you know, partly because of being the CEO and partly because we had a 6,000-person list but it got out there and it impacted a lot of people. So I felt like I, yeah, made a little difference there so that was...you know, periodically I still hear from people on that seven years later, hard to believe.
Eric: Other than the focus on fitness and health, did that event change anything in your life view or worldview or the way you approach things?
Bob: Yeah, you know, my initial answer to that was not really. I mean, I was living my life, I thought pretty well and making good choices. And people did ask me if I saw Jesus or saw the light or, you know, any of that. I never did. I don't think I was out long enough. I was out for about 2 minutes, 45 or something. But, you know, as I've had more time to reflect, I would say, yeah, it has. And I've mentioned to you guys in earlier conversations, passed on my CEO title just two weeks ago. Part of that was...and I'm 59, so, you know, I could have gone another 10 years or 8 years or something if I'd wanted to, but I kinda decided life is short, you know, you could get hit by a bus anytime and you don't wanna have regrets.
And so you know, I decided I wanna kinda try another chapter and I don't know what that's gonna look like, but I would say that sort of that experience definitely colored that view in certainly making sure that this place was in a good position for me to do this and we've been working on that for three or four years and I wouldn't do it otherwise. So it got me thinking in a broader way about, well, what is it about my life that might need some changing and, you know, not directly related, but I got divorced in the last few years and, you know, sort of made some life changes that were positive and you only get kinda one shot as it turns out. But for being in the right place at the right time, you know, I'd have been gone. Lots of examples of people I know and friends of friends that just weren't in the right place and...with my deal, it was a cardiac arrest, so if you don't have paddles, if you don't have that electric shock, nothing is gonna bring you back. And so having that defibrillator literally 45 seconds away, kinda made me realize, you know, I might have...who knows? So make sure you're living your life the way you want to and should be a good reminder to all of us I guess.
Matt: Going onto the succession plan, what was your process for that and what things did you learn going through that process and would recommend to other people looking to go through it?
Bob: I recommend to start now. Wherever you are, you should always be succession planning. Our now current CEO is in a peer group of other contractors and one of the contractors asked to come and talk to us about our succession planning process, and these guys walked in the room and I swear the youngest guy was 76 years old, ranged up to 82. The first thing I said is like, "Well, you should've started this like 20 years ago." I guess one point is I think to really be doing it right you should always thinking about it. And you know, succession isn't just replacing the top two or three or four people. It's leadership development and it's, you know, grooming and nurturing the people who, you know, have the potential to someday be leaders in the company, so there are lots of things you should always be doing. But sort of this finite process that we've been going through for about the last three years, I think one of the responsibilities of the CEO...and if I was in a different position, I think it would have been different.
But I think one of the responsibilities is at some point be definitive about your timeline. You know, lots of jobs you can say, "I think I'll go a couple more years," and then in that maybe it's six more months or another year and that can be fine, but for the CEO, because it triggers so much other change, I felt the responsibility to be specific. And so it was about two-and-a-half years ago that I said, "You know, I'd like to go another few years, like transition the title. I'd like to stay on board in kind of an executive chair position for about a year, year-and-a-half after that. We kind of have a history here of doing that and it's worked well. I actually started really three years ago by...I'll just back this up a little bit. We have had a board of directors, you know, for 74 years at Sellen like most companies do and it's always been internal management, you know, the CEO and the president and, you know, really the top management and that's called a management board.
We'd been talking for a long time about, "Hey, should we open this up to outside independent directors? And what are the pros and cons of that?" And so as I was starting to think about, you know, my transition, I felt like if we're gonna be really thoughtful about a succession plan, how could we really effectively do that if it's just us talking about it? Because 9 out of 10 people in the room have a vested interest in how it comes out, right, so you get individual agendas and all that. So three years ago or four years ago, kinda started the process of seeking out the right kind of people to join our board and we ended up bringing on three outside directors three years ago this month. And one of my primary motivators, I mean, there are a lot of other great reasons, but one of the primary motivators is I knew we were gonna get to get into this succession planning discussions and to have some, you know, independent thinkers and people with you know, experience at other companies and best practices for corporate governance and all that kinda thing made a lot of sense to me.
And we did a really good job of recruiting some outstanding folks, three, we've added one since. So that group came on board in June three years ago. And then it was a little bit later in the summer, I think it was at our September meeting that I said, "No, I wanna identify a timeline, you know, it's three years out," and I said, "Like maybe another year to stay on board, you know, in a different role. And immediately, the board with a subcommittee chaired by one of the outside directors instituted a bit of a process. It wasn't overdone, but it wasn't tapping somebody on the shoulder, which is what we've always done, right? And so, let everybody know that we're gonna go through this process and if anybody's interested in the job to, you know, let this committee know and went through discussions about should we recruit from outside? We decided not to. We had internal candidates and the culture of our company, that would really be a risky business, you know, to bring in somebody completely outside the company.
So anyway, that group identified the next CEO and was in a very transparent way solicited feedback from leaders throughout the company and I think people felt pretty good about how that went. Ended up with the right candidate, and from that point forward...so that was in March a year ago that we announced who the new CEO would be, but it would be a couple of years. We just went to work on, well, how are we gonna surround him with his skill sets and his, you know, strengths and weaknesses? How are we gonna surround him? And so, you know, in the course of the next six months or so, really spend a lot of time on that and last September announced a lot of change in terms of how we manage our engineers, project management team, our field operations. Really, across the company, we made a lot of moves, but we were holding off on naming a new COO and in passing the baton on the CEO position.
But what happened was from last September to your last few months, and I guess I go back to what I said about, you know, what's the right thing for Sellen long term, it really became obvious to me that, you know, what are we waiting for? Why wait another three or four months to fill the COO position and why wait another year, which is what we had communicated to do the CEO pass? Because this new team had been really gelling and collaborating and lots of energy and passion and healthy debate and, you know, really qualified people. It's like really, what is best for Sellen would be to solidify the rest of the team, put the new CEO in the position as the leader, and for me to overlap over a longer period of time, but to be stepping away and kind of modified role and more guiding and coaching and mentoring than kind of being responsible for the day to day.
So we just announced that two weeks ago and at our shareholder meeting and our annual meeting last night, actually had a real baton that I had inscribed for the new CEO and pass that on and it feels great. It feels great. So we created a little bit of a more structure around the succession plan at the top level and at the next levels below and tried to be more transparent, communicated out to the company more than we ever would have, gave this new team a chance to kinda gel and then decided to accelerate it for all the right reasons. So I feel great about it. People have asked me, "Hey, you know, how's it going, giving given that up and all?" and it's like, "No, this is the right thing to do." And I'm excited about how I can impact the company for the next year-and-a-half and then I'm also excited about what another chapter looks like and what kinda things, you know, I might be able to do still, you know, relatively young and healthy and active and so I don't know what that is. My plan in the next chapter is to not have a plan initially, see what happens, so that's exciting. I'm excited about that.
Eric: How are you gonna navigate giving help and getting out of the new CEO's way?
Bob: That's a good one. In fact, I have a meeting with him weekly and there's one coming up here later this morning. We have a good relationship and we've been working together for 25 or more years and so we're sitting down together every week talking about what's moving certain responsibilities from me to him and what are kind of the issues of the day and do we have any feedback for each other. And you know, I'm committed to being very mindful about backing away from some meetings and if I am in a meeting, talking less and, you know, just being there changes the dynamic in a meeting. Just the fact that I'm there, even if I'm not talking and people will look to me and I've noticed that and this will take a while, that people are still sort of looking to me on the final decision and I'm like, you know, you gotta push it. So I think it's gonna be an art and it's not gonna be perfect.
The important thing is I've got a good relationship with the new CEO and we're pretty honest with each other and I've given him complete permission to tell me, "Well, just sort of back off," and you know, my motivation is make this work and I want him to be the best CEO the company has ever had, so whatever I need to do to do that. But I do think there's a role for me that, you know, I've got some perspective and history and a little bit of gray hair that I think will be valuable and, you know, we've done that our last three CEO transitions where the former CEO stayed on board for a while and so I have that behavior modeled for me and I think I can do it.
Matt: And you're a fan of that model?
Bob: I am, yeah. Yeah.
Matt: Why do you...?
Bob: Well, in a lot of organizations, that would not work, no doubt about it. But in this, you know, it's based on 25 years of working together and working with all the rest of the team for all these years and so we all know each other well. I think if it was a brand new CEO that was hired by the board that came in from somewhere else, I'd have been gone a week ago. They don't wanna hear from me. But we wanna keep the culture, we wanna keep this company strong and pass it onto the next generations and so we all share that as a goal and that's really...you can feel that.
Matt: So you would say that's probably one of the biggest advantages of doing an internal hire of a CEO versus an external.
Bob: Yeah. Oh, I think if we had announced an external CEO, you could have pushed people over with a feather around here that just says it's so...it would be such a foreign concept. And you know, and I think this is true with any organization, but especially with ours, it's really hard to hire somebody at a senior level, I mean, much less CEO, at the senior level and integrate them into our company just culture-wise, and the way we do business, and how we show up, and how we behave, and how we treat people. And you know, been in the business for 30 years and you're trying to come into something that, you know, you've been in a different world, it's really hard to adapt. And we've probably found that one out of eight senior-level hires really pans out for us and I can't imagine a CEO coming in from outside. So we were fortunate we had a good, very qualified person in-house. That's gonna work well for us.
Eric: If you do succession planning for an extended period of time, do you ever fear losing those qualified people because it takes too long and they know that they have the potential to get to that level?
Bob: Yeah. Yeah. Well, when I said earlier, I'm not sure if this is the nature of your question, but you know, you're always doing succession planning, but it's not about just the top guys. I mean, that's what I think most people think about is, you know, how do we replace the president, the CEO and, you know, the COO or whatever? But I think what people feel here, and we don't call it succession planning on a day-to-day basis, but as you know, you gotta identify the folks who are in their 20s and 30s and 40s and early...and you know, what's their potential to really be strong leaders over time? And so you wanna be identifying them and nurturing them and giving them opportunities to, you know, expand beyond their job description and training and, you know, participating in leadership retreats and those kinds of things. But what I definitely would advise any CEO, and I have, is once you announce a date, man, they try to move you out fast. I say that only half joking, but people get really excited that, oh, it's happening, right?
Eric: No sense in waiting around, you know, when you know there's a change.
Bob: Right, right. And that's kinda part of what motivated, you know, accelerating the timeline. I mean, you know, we announced who the new CEO is gonna be and then thought, well, we're not gonna make the change for like two-and-a-half years and it's like, "What the hell were we thinking?" You know, that's just doesn't make sense. But, you know, we've always been pretty slow and methodical on these transitions, but that was just too much. And so once we had a pretty strong team in place and what that's done...we elevated a bunch of people in the positions of project directors and some other things, but that created a vacuum behind them and behind them. And so, I'm seeing lots of peoples get opportunities as this has transpired over the last year-plus that...it's an exciting time to be here because there's a lot of opportunity on the horizon and some great projects and customers. The way we need to do business going forward is different. And with technology and other things, there's just a lot of different places people can thrive and find a niche. So we think we've got a pretty good deal going.
Eric: Yeah, great.
Bob: If there's a legacy that I hope is left after I leave is that, you know, I helped impact the culture of safety at Sellen, and frankly in the industry, things that used to happen 10 and 15 and 20 years ago just are not acceptable anymore. I don't know what it was from the day I started here, you know, being out on job sites, I was hyper-aware of safety and I could tell a lot of the workers weren't, and the shortcuts that would be taken and the means and methods that safety was not the first thing in mind, it was production. And that was always coming from, you know, the drivers and the screamers and that kinda thing. It's like, you know, don't slow down because you think you're gonna be safe. My thought has always been if you can plan an activity, a work area, you know, whatever it is, plan to do it in a way that is safe and is gonna minimize and mitigate all the risks, then you're gonna do it cost-effectively and faster and better and cheaper.
But if you don't start with that in mind and the plans change and things go sideways and...Probably one of the biggest impacts in my career, we've had 2 fatalities in the 37 years I've been here. One occurred while I was CEO, and man, that was like the hardest day of my life probably. It was a subcontractor employee, he had somehow found his way into a high voltage line and was electrocuted and I got to the job about an hour-and-a-half later and they hadn't moved him and they hadn't covered him up. He was in a ditch and I remember saying to our risk manager, "I have to go look." Like, "Well, why?" I said, "I have to go look." And I wasn't quite sure why, but I wanted to see what happens when we don't do the right thing and it was a grizzly site and it's like burned into my brain and it will never leave, and talk about it when I go out and talk about safety, and imagine if you didn't come home tonight and how many people that would impact. And imagine if your child was on a job and, you know, how would you look at the job and the task differently?
And so that's just always been in the front of mind and it's been a huge challenge sort of change in the culture of an industry. But I think we've really impacted that and I think if you talk to subcontractors in our community, they'll tell you that our jobs are the safest and the cleanest and the most well organized and the expectations are higher on our projects. But the whole industry has moved. We had a gentleman, an ironworker, just a month ago, fall from the 18th floor of a high-rise steel structure and was caught in netting that we had six floors down below. And so, you know, we put this netting up all the way around to the extent that it's possible around these steel structures really to catch, you know, a tool or a nut or a bolt or whatever and this one caught a person.
And you know, I was telling our teams, three, four years ago, these nettings weren't even part of the industry, or five years ago. But for that, you know, commitment, this guy who was badly hurt as it was, and it's gonna be a tough road, but alive. To me, if we can't send everybody home safely, and having made that commitment, then we're not doing our job. And if we can, if that is our focus, then we're gonna be productive and we're gonna be, you know, on time and on budget and all that stuff. So I think that how we've changed our culture, how I think the culture of the industry has changed, you know, every CEO I talk to, they're passionate about it and I love that. That's where it has to be.
Matt: Yeah, that's great. That's awesome. Any questions for you?
Eric: All right, any questions for us?
Matt: Okay, sounds good. Well, thanks again. Really appreciate it.
Eric: That was really, really good. I really enjoyed a lot of those. I thought you did like had some great stories, really good. Thank you very much.
Bob: I enjoyed it.