Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Lessons From Bob

This morning I received word that my former boss, mentor, and friend Bob Dunlap has died. He was the founder and former CEO of RETEC, one of the best environmental consulting firms in the business during his tenure. Under his leadership, RETEC enjoyed unparalleled success. Plus it was a truly special place to work. I spent 10 great years there. (The firm has since been absorbed by AECOM.)

No one played a more influential role in my career than Bob. I am forever indebted to him. He taught me much about leadership and business. I thought one of the best ways to honor him in this space is to share some of the lessons I learned from him:

Be true to your values. There was nothing more important to Bob than the firm's core values. RETEC had an impressive resume. The firm was a pioneer in bioremediation and risk-based cleanup. It was a global leader in the management of legacy manufactured gas plant sites. It posted financial numbers that the best-known environmental firms could only dream about. But ask Bob what distinguished RETEC from all the rest, he was quick to say, "Our values." Not just the values posted on the wall. But the values that were lived out in the way we conducted our business. That was at the heart of what it meant to be a RETECer.

Community comes first. Bob continually reminded us that we were a community and that everything we did must be in the interest of "one company." That was one of our stated values. The firm was organized as a single profit center, cooperation among offices was required and rewarded. We had more than our share of mavericks and big egos. But somehow Bob was able to mold us into a tight-knit community. We genuinely cared about each other, no doubt influenced by how Bob showed his concern for us.

Embrace differences. Bob was keen in discerning differences in people and leveraging those for the benefit of the organization. He fashioned an entrepreneurial culture, where risk taking and creativity were encouraged. No doubt this helped RETEC become a center of innovation. Bob described himself as a "contrarian," a trait many of us shared with him. He joked that he would attend industry conferences to learn what our competitors were doing, then he would do the opposite because it always seemed the better strategy. Bob realized the value of a different perspective and sought that out in others.

Beware of complacency. Given RETEC's sustained success, Bob recognized the potential for our becoming comfortable with the status quo. While he routinely praised us for our collective accomplishments, he would always point out areas of concern. At one point, he began warning of declining quality across the firm, although there was scant evidence to back his claim. Many dismissed the problem as overstated. But within a year, major quality and service problems arose, costing us a top five client. Bob was one of those rare leaders who gave more than lip service to the pursuit of excellence. He wouldn't settle for anything less.

Passion is power. Bob's passion was contagious; it infected much of the company. His talks to staff were often akin to listening to a tent revival preacher. He engaged people not only intellectually (he was certainly a deep thinker), but also emotionally. He touched our hearts, not just our minds. Of course, it was easy to make the connection between Bob's passion and the importance of the values he espoused.

Never stop learning. I've never met another executive in this business who was as well read as Bob was. The man was a storehouse of wisdom he had gleaned from books and articles on leadership, business strategy, global trends, technology, philosophy. But he didn't just store up information; his thinking evolved with it. He was constantly refining his approach and strategy, and sharing that with the rest of us so that our thinking evolved as well. That continuous learning became part of the RETEC culture, a trait I've rarely seen elsewhere to the same degree.

There is much more I could share from my association with Bob. And there are many others who were similarly impacted by him and could add to the above list. Bob is gone, but the lessons we learned from him will live on.


  1. Dear Mel,
    I am very happy, and indeed very touched, to know that my Father had such a lasting influence upon your life. I know that he too would be deeply moved by your remembrance. As the days and weeks pass without his presence I find that the best way to honor his memory is just the way that you suggest: to remember the importance of true principles; of family, friends, and colleagues; and of an ongoing commitment to education and excellence. As you have so rightly said, he would have accepted no less!
    Richard S. Dunlap

    Richard Stockton Dunlap
    The Cities Programme
    Department of Sociology
    London School of Economics

    Richard Stockton Dunlap
    Architectural Design Studio
    16 rue Visconti #6, 75006 Paris

  2. Thanks, Richard. I really appreciate the feedback. My best regards to you and your family.


  3. Dear Mel,

    I was moved by your wonderful reflections on the gifts that Bob so generously shared. Having the chance to work with him at ReTec U was a mind-expanding and empowering experience for me. The words of his talks on leadership still ring in my head.

    I agree that the power of his words was bound with the passion in his heart. He often said that the key to good leadership was in the ability to move hearts. He communicated that he cared about each and everyone, even if it was in a "contrarian" style at times. We got the message!

    Thank you for your thoughts.


    Ilona O'Connor
    The Ennead Group