Publisher’s note: This Chester County Leadership profile of Roger Huggins was originally published in August 2016.
Roger Huggins, Chair of the Gawthrop Greenwood’s Business and Real Estate Group and former Chair of both Chester County Economic Development Council’s and United Way Of Chester County’s Boards, speaks with VISTA Today about growing up in Aiken, South Carolina, graduating from the University of Delaware and Villanova Law School, finding his way to Chester County after practicing law in Philadelphia for ten years and how a lunch with Gary Smith launched his 25-year Chester County legal and community service career.
Where did you grow up Roger?
I was born in Augusta, Georgia in 1953, the younger of two children. My parents were from western Pennsylvania, which is where they met. My father was a civil engineer for DuPont. He worked for DuPont before the start of World War II, enlisted in the Marines when the war broke out, and returned to DuPont at the end of the war.
Before my parents had kids, DuPont sent my father around the country to a number of construction projects. My sister was born when they were living in Chattanooga, Tennessee and I was born after the company transferred him to the Savannah River Plant in South Carolina. When I was a year old, my parents moved about 15 miles from Augusta to Aiken, South Carolina where we lived until I was 14 or so.
What do you remember about growing up in Aiken?
Aiken was a wonderful place to be a kid. As a small southern town, it had a great climate, and we kids lived outdoors. My friends and I would take off in the morning on our bikes, usually with a baseball glove in hand, often finding enough kids along the way for a pick-up game. We ate lunch at whoever’s house we were near and didn’t show up back home again until 4:30 or so to get cleaned up for supper.
My father loved the outdoors. When I was seven or eight years old, he and a friend bought a 130-acre farm about 40 miles from Aiken. He had horses and cattle and stocked the ponds for fishing. It was a great place to go on weekends and for longer stretches during the summer. I still love being outdoors, preferably on or near the water.
Did you ever get to the vacation spots along the Carolina shore?
Yes, we would go to Savannah and Charleston occasionally. I remember going to Hilton Head when there was just one golf course. But because we had the farm and my parents weren’t beach people, we didn’t go that much.
My father’s parents were in Pennsylvania and by that time, my mother’s parents had places in Arizona and Colorado, so we traveled quite a bit. My father would not fly and there weren’t many interstate highways so some of the trips could be challenging.
About 10 years ago my family took a vacation to Charleston and Savanna and I had the opportunity to take them to visit Aiken. A lot had changed – my old elementary school is now the public library – but in many ways it had the same comfortable feel. It was a lot of fun being able to share that with my family.
When did your family move to Delaware?
When I was around 14, DuPont transferred my father to their nylon plant in Seaford, Delaware. Because of the plant, Seaford at the time was known as the nylon capital of the world.
DuPont was expanding the nylon plant, and my father was needed to help work on the project. Several other fathers were also transferred so a number of my friends from Aiken wound up together again in Seaford. It wasn’t an easy move, but being close to the beach helped considerably.
Did you work in high school, Roger?
In my junior and senior years, I worked at a men’s clothing store in Seaford. In the summer, I worked at Cooper’s Rental in North Ocean City, Maryland. The business rented baby cribs, TV sets, beach umbrellas, etc. to people who were spending their vacations at the beach. I worked for Cooper’s seven summers, all through college and during two summers of law school. Even though I had a summer clerkship the final summer of law school, I worked for Cooper’s on the weekends!
What lessons did you learn from those two jobs?
Working in the men’s clothing store was my first brush with serving the general public. I learned how everyone has different needs, and that it was my job to understand them and serve them accordingly. My job required that I wear a tie, and it made me appreciate the importance of making a good impression.
My attire didn’t matter so much when I worked at Cooper’s. It was owned by a CPA, who had an MBA from Wharton. The owner had initially worked at a Big Eight Accounting firm in Philadelphia. He decided he didn’t like that life, so he purchased a little rental company in Ocean City.
When I worked for him, we would load up vans, make the deliveries, collect the payments and by the end of the run, we would have hundreds of dollars in our pockets. I was surprised that he trusted us with all this cash! Because he trusted us, we had such loyalty toward him. Not one employee ever stole from him. If they did, they would have had to deal with us.
That experience made a big impression on me and taught me the value and importance of trust in family and business relationships.
What sports did you play in high school?
All the usual stuff: football, baseball (I was a much better baseball player!) and golf.
You began playing golf in high school?
My parents were avid golfers and belonged to a golf club in Aiken. They started me playing golf when I was five or six years old and took me to the Master’s Tournament in Augusta every year. The first couple of years I went kicking and screaming, but eventually, I learned to appreciate the significance of the tournament. I wish I had their tickets now! I don’t get to play as much as I would like to, but I still carry a mid single-digit handicap.
What kind of music did you listen to when you were a teenager?
I loved British rock & roll music and even played in a garage band in high school. I played guitar and keyboards but left the vocals to the other guys in the band who all had better voices than I did. We were okay, but certainly not as good as we thought we were.
Where did you go to college?
I came very close to the Naval Academy, but like a lot of people, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. Our guidance counselor was a big advocate of the University of Delaware, so that’s where I went.
Was UD a good choice for you?
It turned out to be a very good choice for me. I got a great education. It was far enough away from home, about 100 miles, that I didn’t feel like I was in my back yard, and the in-state tuition at the time was just $250 per semester, so my parents were pretty happy.
What did you major in?
I majored in economics, minored in math and toyed with following my father into engineering.
Two very challenging majors?
I enjoyed numbers, math and the quantitative subjects. I was never that good in the social sciences but I loved history. I took a lot of history just because I enjoyed and liked it. Still do.
How did you decide to go to law school?
I was thinking about pursuing graduate degrees in economics, engineering or law and took all three tests. I did best on the LSATs and gravitated toward law. I took a year off and built houses for a small construction company and began law school at Villanova in September of 1976.
You graduated from Law school three years later, what brought you to Chester County?
I took the Delaware bar exam after graduation because I fully intended to go back to Delaware after graduation. With the encouragement of my wife, whom I had met in my third year of law school, I applied for a judicial clerkship in Philadelphia. I was successful. During the clerkship, I took and passed the Pennsylvania Bar exam.
The judge I was working for recommended I look at getting a job doing litigation work with Raynes McCarty in Philadelphia where I spent the next five years. As it turned out, I found myself gravitating toward the commercial matters that came into the firm and decided to go in that direction. Arthur Raynes and John McCarty were incredible professional and personal mentors for me as a young lawyer, and I am grateful to have had that experience.
After five years with Raynes, McCarty I joined a new commercial transactional boutique law firm on Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia. I was brand new to commercial law, so I tried to learn all that I could as fast as I could. During my time there, I found a lot of the matters I was working on involved projects in Chester County.
After eight years or so, the partners split, and I came out to Chester County and started to look around a bit. I noticed Gawthrop Greenwood had an opening for a real estate attorney and contacted the firm. The more research I did on their practice and culture, the more I like what I learned. They were the quintessential Chester County law firm with 100-year-old roots. I liked the fact that Gawthrop supported being involved in the community, being active in the Bar Association and being a well-rounded professional. The firm’s culture is still like that today.
Was it tough for a young lawyer to break into Chester County in the early 90’s?
When I first came out here, I didn’t know many people. So at lunch time and on weekends I would drive up and down the streets getting the lay of the land and making notes about what companies were where and a list of people to call.
One day, I stopped into the old Chester County Economic Development Council offices on Route 100 in Exton. While there, I picked up literature about the Council and came across the Council’s president’s name, Gary Smith. When I got back to the office, I picked up the phone and called Gary and asked him to lunch. Gary, being Gary, agreed. Over lunch he gave me all sorts of good information and suggestions of whom to call. I came away from lunch thinking, “I have to get involved with this organization.” A half-dozen years later, I found myself on the Board and eventually Chair of the Council.
What skills and insights do you bring to the Council Roger?
I can’t sing the Development Council’s praises enough. The Council’s collaborative and transparent environment suits me. Everyone is rowing in the same direction. There is a great balance between economic development and the preservation of the County’s natural resources. I found that they have their finger on the pulse of what makes this County unique and a smart vision for the future. Because I enjoy it as much as I do, I give them as much time as I possibly can. They’re always joking that I should have an office there!
What challenges and opportunities are in front of you this year Roger?
The legal profession has become a mature marketplace, and demand for legal services is flattening out. The flip side is that Gawthrop attorneys have forged strong relationships over the years, and genuine connections build loyalty. There are also new opportunities that arise from the changing environment. We have learned to be more creative in how we grow revenue and increase efficiencies by leveraging technologies and our people.
We have to be early to spot new trends and anticipate where the profession is heading. Our attorneys work together within a management committee model that keeps us all involved with charting the firm’s future. Walter Eells, who has been with the firm since 1989, currently Chairs our Management Committee, and brings a wealth of experience to lead our strategic growth. In the fall of 2013, we opened a Delaware office which is consistent with our growth plan.
In the community, I am a long-time Board member of the United Way of Chester County. Although we are an affluent community, there is still considerable need, much more than many people realize. Claudia Hellebush and her staff run a terrific organization that is invaluable to the community and I plan to stay involved as long as they will have me.
I remain heavily invested with the Chester County Economic Development Council and VISTA 2025. I was fortunate to be Board Chair when VISTA 2025 was getting off the ground. Bill Bogle, the new Board Chair, has been kind enough to encourage me to stay active with VISTA 2025. I’m on one of the Goal Teams and am deeply involved as we implement the strategies outlined in VISTA 2025. I’m very excited about where VISTA 2025 is heading and the impact it’s going to have on every facet of the County.
Finally, Roger, what is the best piece of advice you ever received?
From the time I was a kid, my parents ingrained in me that everything comes with an associated cost. Anything you get that doesn’t have a cost will never be appreciated. Growing up, if we wanted something, we had to contribute to getting it. You have to invest in and be willing to bet on yourself. It didn’t matter what form the investment took, but it had to be something. My parents made me borrow some of the money necessary to go to law school and it really made me value the education. I did the same with my son and daughter when they went on to professional school.
My parents were very involved in community activities and my father served on the Board of our local hospital. They seemed to always be doing something for somebody. Someone told me this a long time ago: if you do something for somebody and they don’t show you any gratitude, it’s not important and is only a reflection on them. But, if you don’t do something for somebody when you have the chance, that’s a reflection on you.
That saying has led me to do whatever I can for people and not worry whether anything ever comes back to me. The good is in the giving.