Chester County Leadership: Robert McNeil

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Editor’s Note: This Chester County Leadership profile of Robert McNeil was originally published on April 16th, 2016.

As he prepares to step off Chester County Food Bank’s board, pioneering Chester County philanthropist Bob McNeil spoke with VISTA Today about growing up in Plymouth Meeting, supervising a lime quarry crew as a teen, graduating from Wharton and finding his niche as an entrepreneur, investor and business magnate, juggling fifteen different boards, launching the Food Bank with Larry Welsch and Ruthie Kranz-Carl, and the early morning phone call to Welsch that strategically altered the organization’s focus and trajectory. McNeil also took the opportunity to reflect on his health and the joy of helping others.

Where did you grow up, Bob?

Bob McNeil (circa 1953)
Bob McNeil (circa 1953)

I was born in 1950, the youngest of four children all roughly two years apart and raised in Plymouth Meeting. My father, along with my uncle, were the founders of Tylenol, and my mother served as his “executive assistant” on business trips. She remembered people’s names and would pass them on to him. They made a very good team!

By the time I came along, I honestly think my parents were tired of raising children and pretty much told me to make sure what I did was safe and smart!

What do remember about Plymouth Meeting?

Back in those days, there was no Plymouth Meeting Mall, and the entire area was open country. We didn’t have a lot of neighbors since much of the surrounding area was farmed. My aunt and uncle had five boys who lived next door, which pretty much assured us of playmates. By combining our two families, we could do almost any sports activity.

Did your family live on a farm?

Yes, but it wasn’t an animal farm, more of an agricultural farm. The wildlife around the farm was plentiful. I would go out pheasant hunting with my Belgium Sheppard, who had no idea what he was doing. Being a bird dog isn’t the usual role of a Belgium Sheppard, but he ended up being a good one. My dog would flush the pheasant from the underbrush, and I would try to shoot it.

Bob McNeil (circa 1967)
Bob McNeil (circa 1967)

Where did you go to school, Bob?

Because my parents traveled as much as they did, I went to boarding school in Connecticut. My parents hoped I would enjoy boarding school. I’m too much of a homebody, however; I like my bed, I like the area, I love the Philadelphia suburbs, so for high school I returned home and went to Germantown Academy.

What sports did you play in high school?

I wrestled and played lacrosse. I had played a bit of lacrosse in boarding school, so it was in my blood.

What jobs did you have in high school?

I worked three summers at Corson’s Quarry, a lime manufacturing quarry in Plymouth Meeting. After two years, I ended up being a junior supervisor. The area I managed was unionized, and I made enough money in six weeks to take the rest of the summer off. That wasn’t what my parents wanted me to learn on the job to be sure, but it worked for me!

What lessons did you take from working in the quarry that you took into your professional career?

Certainly the respect I had for my crew and they had for me. It didn’t matter what their job, age or background was, everyone carried their own weight and respected the others responsibilities. Even though I was 20 years younger than anyone on the crew and since it was their livelihood, I made sure I was on time every day and did the best I could. They were supporting their families, and I didn’t want to let them down.

Was that leadership role a natural for you at such a young age?

I was comfortable with the responsibility. The owner of the quarry threw me into the role, and I learned to meet his expectations. My crew accepted me as their supervisor, in part because they knew I was only there for six weeks.

Where did you go to college, Bob?

I went to the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee.

Why there?

I had been to boarding school outside of Hartford in Connecticut, and I really wanted to experience the South. I enjoy the southern culture and way of life, but not their pace.

Bob McNeil5
Bob McNeil (circa 1975)

Did the University of the South end up being a good fit for you, Bob?

Although I wasn’t a great student, I enjoyed all aspects of college life. I loved the school and experience. The University of the South didn’t have a business curriculum at the time, so I majored in history.

The University of the South was very conservative. The student body had a chance to vote on and decided to continue to wear sports jackets and ties to class. When the people in Tennessee said, “good to see you,” or “y’all come back now, ya hear,” they meant it! As a northerner, that took me back a bit.

What did you do after graduating in 1974?

I knew I wasn’t ready for the real world so I enrolled in the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. Wharton had an entrepreneurial center which fascinated me. I really wanted to work for a small business where I would have some management, sales and marketing duties and have my hand in every aspect of the company.

What did you do after Wharton?

I started an electronics company and ran that for two-and-a-half years. I learned it wasn’t easy to start a company and ended up selling the electronics company to General Motors’ aftermarket group for a loss. I can hardly say the experience was a success, but it was certainly a great education.

After that, I knew I had to have a job, and since I enjoyed outdoor activities, I picked up a job selling for a sporting goods rep manufacturer group. When my father passed away, I purchased a small manufacturing company he owned.

Over the years, I acquired eight other manufacturing companies. It was a time when I could look at a small company, see its value and know that down the road larger companies would find the smaller companies appealing for acquisition. I ended up selling one of those companies to Brunswick, another to Ingersoll-Rand.

Its sounds like you found your niche?

I loved that experience and got involved in all the operating aspects of all nine companies I would walk in the front door, and the people running the companies would joke about the “suit” arriving. My grandfather told me if I ever owned a company to remember, it was employees that make the company, not the guy running it. He could walk around his company and tell you every employee’s name. I tried to follow his advice with every company I owned and got to know every employee.

How did you end up in Chester County?

Following graduate school, I lived in Blue Bell near Plymouth Meeting. As that area developed, I lost the privacy I so cherished. My office was in Chester County, and I liked Chester County’s open space. It was what Plymouth Meeting was 60 years ago. We bought a 150 acre farm south of Coatesville in 1981 which is under conservancy, meaning it will never be developed.

Larry Welsch talked about the role you played in Chester County Food Bank’s launch. What do you recall of that experience?

Larry said I called him at 4:30 AM, which isn’t totally true. It was more like 4:40am! We had just completed a strategic planning meeting and knew the direction we wanted the Food Bank to head. Following that session, I had an uneasy feeling we weren’t on the right track. We had totally left nutrition out of the mix. I knew that was wrong, and we had to change our plan. Larry jumped on the bandwagon and we made it happen.

Aside from the Food Bank, you have been involved in several nonprofits across Chester County. How do you decide what nonprofits to work with?

I only do one nonprofit at a time. In the last twelve to fifteen years I’ve worked with the Boy Scouts, Community Volunteers in Medicine, Bridge of Hope, Handi-Crafters and now the Chester County Food Bank. I focus on one organization at a time and give 100 percent of my free time and energy to that organization.

What is your mission when you serve on a nonprofit board?

First, I want to feel I can work with the board members. Two, I have to have a passion for the organization’s mission and goals. Three, I want to be on their Executive Board so I can make the biggest impact.

Once I’m on the board, my objective is to make the nonprofit run more like a business than a nonprofit. When I come onto a board, I am renowned for not holding back. I don’t want to overpower fellow board members and staff, but I want them to think about what is best for the long run. My forte has been fundraising. I’ve run either a capital or an endowment campaign for each of the nonprofits I’ve worked with.

I understand you are stepping off the Chester County Food Bank’s board?

Yes, as of the end of May. I’ve been involved at the Food Bank since its founding in 2009. Originally, it was the threesome of Larry Welsch, Ruthie Kranz-Carl and I running the Food Bank. We called ourselves the three musketeers. We knew at first that things had to get done immediately, and we couldn’t run every decision by the board. A start-up non-profit takes a lot of work and fast reaction time.

As you look back when did you know the food bank was something special?

We knew the Food Bank would be successful from the beginning. Our Board was made up of strong individuals. Larry Welsch was the perfect Executive Director. Donors were quick to support us. Volunteers came out of the woodwork! Corporations including Endo, QVC, Wegmans, Vanguard all wanted their people doing community service, so they chipped in. Hunger was front page news at the time; it was a perfect time.

At first, we worked out of a two-car garage on Main Street in Parkesburg. By 2010, we were in a 9,600 sq. ft. building in Downingtown. Then before we knew it, Larry and I were standing before the board recommending we move into our current 36,000 sq. ft. headquarters on Pennsylvania Avenue in Eagleview. We are now serving 90 non-profits with 2,600,000 pounds of food, one third of which is fresh produce.

The first food drive we had, we surprised a lot of people by asking for low fat, low sodium foods. To increase the volume of fresh foods, we launched a raised bed garden initiative with 25 raised gardens across the county. The next thing you know, we’re in 52 schools across the county and have 650 raised bed gardens. People loved the idea of feeding hungry people fresh food. It’s a simple concept that no one had thought about.

Of course, we’ve learned an awful lot! When we started raised beds we were planting kale in those raised beds. People didn’t know what the hell kale was! We had people calling us about the red thing coming up out of their raised garden bed. We told them it was a beet! We learned to turn down our progress and tone down our aggressiveness.

Bob McNeil at last year's Brandywine Health Foundation's Annual Garden Party.
Bob McNeil at last year’s Brandywine Health Foundation’s Annual Garden Party.

What’s on your agenda for your last two months at the Food Bank?

We’re finishing up a strategic plan. I recently described the Food Bank as a 6’ 10” ten-year-old. The Food Bank has grown so quickly; it made sense to stop and analyze what we were doing, and asking ourselves if we are we doing it correctly and exploring what we had to do to ensure sustainability for years to come. We’ve interviewed people at the cupboards and feeding sites, governments, volunteers and donors we serve. It’s been a thorough process that’s taken quite a while.

Next week, when the plan is presented, we’ll go into the session with our minds churning with ideas of where we want to go.

You’re on a roll. Why Leave the Food Bank board now, Bob?

I feel that I have made my total contribution. Our management is dedicated and fantastic as are our employees. We have a strong Board that can easily fill my shoes.

How is your health?

My biggest challenge right now is my health. Besides heart disease, I have cancer. However, I don’t want to step away from the nonprofit world in any way. I want to find and step into another organization and do what I can to help them.

What drives you to want to be involved with nonprofits?

Over the years, I have been very successful in the business world. I made good money, and I honestly thought it is my time to give back.

What nonprofit is your current focus?

My bride and I have a foundation that focuses our giving to many Chester County non-profits, but to be perfectly honest with you, no one nonprofit is jumping out at me.

Finally, Bob, what is the best piece of advice you ever received?

My sister told me one time, ‘it’s important to give money, but it is more rewarding and more fulfilling, for you and the organization, to give your time and energy.’ I have the attitude if I can’t help the organization in three or four years, it’s time for me to move on.

Non-profits don’t pay you but you sure get your rewards. I love the feedback we get. I get it from the donors, the volunteers, the non-profit’s own staff I work with and even people who receive food from the Food Bank. I was at the Strawberry Festival standing next to our food truck passing out information. A woman came up and thanked me, telling me, ‘I get my meals from a pantry, and you make it possible.’ That sort of feedback makes my day! I try to pass these on to management because they are the ones that make it possible.

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