Chester County Leadership – Rob Kathol

By

Rob Kathol

Rob Kathol, Founder & Managing Partner of Navigate, a management consulting firm based in Wayne, speaks with VISTA Today about growing up in Omaha, caddying for Warren Buffet when he was a teenager, going to college in Boston, and ending up jobless in Sydney, Australia. He also shares how a disappointing experience with an Exton computer distributor led him to launch what eventually became Navigate, as well as his passion for the company’s nine core values.

Where did you grow up, Rob?

I was born and raised in Omaha, Neb., the oldest of three children. My father, was president of an investment bank, which he helped build and sell to Mutual of Omaha. My mother was quite influential in my life and unfortunately passed away when I was in my early 20s. My parents complimented one another, and I feel like I got a nice balance of both.

What do you remember about growing up in Omaha?

Omaha was a special place to grow up. Omaha had a strong sense of community, and was also very welcoming.

Did you play any sports when you were a kid?

I played a lot of soccer when I was a kid. I was a decent player and played on competitive teams. A lot of people in the United States don’t understand soccer. I can watch a 0–0 game and still enjoy seeing the strategy and athleticism.

Did you continue to play soccer in high school?

The high school I went to didn’t have a soccer team, so I took up golf instead. Golf was my connection with my father. He joined a local country club named Happy Hollow when I was 10 or so. I remember squeezing in nine holes with my dad before it got dark.

What was your first job?

I had a paper route in 4th grade. Back in those days, you not only had to deliver the paper but collect the money from each customer every week, as well as recruit new customers to my route. The experience was a foundation builder for running my own business.

When the newspaper switched from a morning to an afternoon paper, I got a job caddying at Omaha Country Club, which turned out to be one of my favorite jobs in life.

I caddied for a lot of influential, successful people, including Warren Buffett. Caddying taught me the value of relationships. Guys I caddied for, and subsequently stayed in touch with, became mentors down the road.

What kind of music did you listen to growing up?

I am a classic rock guy, including Led Zeppelin, The Who, Steely Dan, and Eric Clapton.

Where did you go to college, Rob?

I went to Boston College, which brought me out to the East Coast.

You could have gone anywhere. Why Boston College?

I chose B.C. because I’d spent a lot of time on the West Coast, and was interested in moving east. B.C. is a good, medium-sized school in a suburban community near a great city that I wanted to explore.

My dad gave me the great advice that “if you’re gonna drink a lot of beer, just don’t drink it all on campus!” As a result, I got to know Boston like the back of my hand, and did some not-for-profit work with at-risk kids in Roxbury and weekly visits with a couple of elderly gentlemen while in college that totally shaped my life and gave me a well-rounded education.

After graduation, who gave you your big break, Rob?

I didn’t get a big break! In fact, out of college, I fell on some pretty tough times. Because I was good at Math and Finance, I always thought I would pursue a career in banking or investments.

In college, however, I got to know a company called Applied Communications, a company headquartered in Omaha and whose software powered ATM machines around the world, which was massively successful. They offered me a position, and I moved to Sydney, Australia.  When I got to Sidney, my company was sold, my job no longer existed, and I was back to Square One.

Even though I didn’t want to be in banking, I went back to Omaha and took a job at Norwest Bank. Eventually, I moved back east, to Exton actually, and took a job with a computer distributor. Within six weeks, I knew the guy running the company was a fraud and that that job wasn’t going to work out either.

Three jobs in quick succession; none of them worked out. What did you do?

In 1992, another guy who worked at the computer distributor and I leveraged the distributor’s relationships with AT&T, and began supplying the company with computers. We did $17 million in business that first year, and eventually migrated the company to an IT consulting company, which became the roots of Navigate.

As you look into 2017, what are your big challenges and opportunities?

We’ve been blessed to have an incredible team, and have earned our fair share of accolades and experienced remarkable growth. We have roughly 65 people and the critical mass we need to become the dominant Mid-Atlantic management consulting company.

We compete against the Accentures and Deloittes, but no real regional go-to management consulting firm has emerged.  We have the foundation to become that consulting firm over the next five years.

What’s standing in your way?

I don’t worry that much about our competitors. Rather, our job is to put our best foot forward and let the chips fall where they may. I’m confident we are in a position to win every project we pursue. Of course, the economy must perform, and leaders in Washington have to promote confidence and opportunities in the market.

In addition, we must stay focused, and continually expand our culture, as well as remain focused and committed to our core values.

Isn’t your job as the leader of the company to make sure the culture and value remain core?

You’re damn right it is! The day we don’t live our nine core values of integrity, commitment, impact, candor, levity, flexibility, humility, resilience, and empathy, I will fire myself. People must feel these core values as soon as they walk in our door.

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

The seminal moment in my life came in 7th grade when I decided to attend boarding school. It wasn’t an easy decision. I lost most of my friends in the process. My last friend and I were watching a soccer game together, when all of the sudden, he gets up and joins a group of guys on the other end of the bleachers.

When I yelled over to him, asking him why he moved, another kid shouted back, ‘Can’t you tell he doesn’t want to be your friend anymore?’ Pretty tough moment for a 13-year-old.

I watched the rest of the game by myself, walked home, and told my mother what had happened. I told her I know I shouldn’t care what others think, but I do and I’m really struggling.

She reminded me I was my own person capable of making my own decisions, and that I should care about what the good people who really cared about me thought; that I shouldn’t care what the people, who weren’t good people or who didn’t care about me, thought about me.

Hearing my mom tell me that was a moment of clarity for me. I got what she was saying right away. Her advice is exactly how I live my life and is the essence of our company.

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