Rob Strobel '95 came to Earlham after serving in the U.S. Army during the Gulf War. He worked in management for the Kessler's Sporting Goods chain and with the consulting firm Deloitte and Touche before joining Lithko in 2003. Lithko Contracting is one of largest commercial concrete contractors in the United States, with business units in nine cities, and about $150 million in contracts each year. This is an expanded version of an interview that appears in the Winter 2012 issue of Earlhamite magazine.
First, how did you happen to come to Earlham?
Out of high school, I joined the Army. At the time, I figured I would serve the minimum of two years, and take the $17,000 G.I. Bill money they promising and go to college, buy a car, and put a down payment down on a house. That was my perspective at the time on $17,000. So after I got out, I went to Morehead State University (Ky.) and walked on to play football. But then I got a call from my mother, in tears, telling me she has received a certified letter informing me I was going to Desert Storm.
After my tour in the war, my girlfriend at the time got a job with an insurance agency in Richmond, so I decided to go with her and go to school. That's how I found out about Earlham.
How did Earlham affect the way you approach leading your business?
When I entered Earlham, our class had the theme, "unity through diversity." Coming from the military, I thought that was crazy, but I learned that diversity is where real unity comes from. You can't have real unity if you don't understand where other people are coming from. But if you talk with people and appreciate the data points that they have gathered through life, then you can walk the journey together. It's good for business when individuals come together for a common purpose.
So how do you balance what you learned at Earlham with what you learned in the military?
Earlham is great about celebrating diversity and coming to consensus, and as I've said, those things are very important. The military approach emphasizes metrics, milestones and achieving tactical excellence. I try to put the two together. The Earlham approach helps bring people together without asking people to lose their individuality, and the military approach creates an environment where people have the ability to execute with excellence.
Tell us about your approach to leadership.
At Lithko, we use a localized management style where projects are managed locally and all our employees typically work within a 90-mile radius of their homes. We call these business units "BURGS" (Business Units Running Great). This makes for a more engaged work force. We want our employees to develop relationships with others in their communities, to raise their families in the communities where they work and to be home every night. One of the pros of this approach is that we can develop leadership at a lower level, because decisions aren't just coming down from on high. Lithko takes a collaborative approach to leadership and its very rare that our leadership team doesn't reach consensus. When we can walk out of a leadership meeting shoulder to shoulder, with everyone buying into a decision, then we can move forward with speed.